This article is part of our Perspectives in Customer Success series where top Success leaders share how they’re building, coaching, and scaling world-class teams.
The skills top CSMs wield—the ability to think strategically, map customer outcomes to product solutions, share relevant best practices, and leave customers with a positive feeling about the company—are all learned skills.
But too often, CSMs are left to learn those skills on their own through years of experience working with customers, and not necessarily years of coaching and development experience from their managers, or from working in environments with the right tools and processes to accelerate their career growth.
If Directors of Customer Success are in a situation where they need to hire more junior CSMs and level them up, or are otherwise looking for ways to develop their team, they should begin by looking at the foundation they’ve set for the team. And that foundation is something I call the role profile.
A role profile is essentially a rubric for understanding what the CSM role is, what it’s responsible for, and what it looks like for someone in that role to be performing well or not. It establishes expectations around goals and standards and is used as a way to evaluate how we’re doing against those expectations.
It’s an exercise that, when done well, will help build a culture of clear expectations and high performance.
Here’s how to create a role profile for CSMs in your company, and then (in Part 2) how to put the rubric to work.
Part 1: Create a rubric for success
It’s clear that Customer Success is having an identity crisis. One company thinks of Customer Success as a support function, the next considers them a catchall bucket, “the team that does everything post-sale”. But when the responsibilities of CSMs aren’t clearly defined, and when they’re busy juggling all post-sale activities, they’re less likely to be consistently focusing on the right tasks with the right customers.
Further, research shows that role clarity impacts performance. In situations where employees understand their responsibilities and how their role fits into the broader organization's strategy, they’re more likely to remain engaged and motivated.
Directors and VPs can clarify the role and create a rubric for CSMs by answering the following five questions.
1. Why does the CSM role exist?
This isn’t a philosophical question about why CSMs exist in general. It’s a question about why CSMs exist here, at your company.
The answer to this question can be positioned as a Purpose Statement. It’s like your company’s mission statement but for the CSM team; it should be simple, easy to remember, and focused on the customer. It should be tied to the company’s mission, too.
Here’s an example—the purpose statement of CSMs at Degreed:
“Degreed CSMs exist to cultivate in our Customers a curiosity, capability and commitment to building expertise in their people.”
The words in bold—to build expertise in their people—are a core part of the company’s manifesto and mission.
It takes time and plenty of iterations to articulate what your team is all about, partly because every word included in the statement matters. But it's worth it because the answer to this question sets up the foundation for everything else.
2. What are CSMs responsible for?
After understanding the purpose of the CSM role, get clear on the responsibilities that CSMs have to fulfill to achieve that purpose. In short, this answers the question, “What am I going to be measured on?” by identifying the core responsibilities of the CSM role in your company.
There are two high-level groups of responsibilities you should consider - i.e., what CSMs are responsible for: customer outcomes and company outcomes.
- Customer outcomes are the business results of each customer that we’re driving toward. In order for customers to be successful, we must 1. help them realize indisputable value worth more than their investment, and 2. deliver exceptional experiences that leave the Customer with full confidence that the company sincerely values the relationship and is helping them realize value. So CSMs have to be responsible for those two outcomes for the customer. (Note: CSMs are not the only employees responsible for delivering Value and Experience.)
- Company outcomes are the natural consequences or expected results of effectively accomplishing the customer outcomes. So in other words, retaining or growing revenue. These are the lagging indicators of success and are generally fulfilled when customer outcomes are clearly realized
The way to create clarity and focus around how they should spend their time to create the above outcomes is to list the outcome drivers the team should focus on.
Your team’s outcome drivers will depend on your company’s product and growth stage. Here are a few common outcome drivers CSMs are responsible for that you can pick and choose from:
3. How do CSMs do their job well?
What does “wildly successful” look like in the CSM role? Beyond communicating what CSMs are responsible for, the Head of Success should also communicate the behaviors expected of CSMs.
This is a place to highlight the behaviors you want to see in the team, and clarify the skill sets you expect them to grow or have in each role. In short, you’re deciding on the mindsets and the skill sets required to do each job really well.
- The “mindsets” piece can speak to how you expect CSMs to interact with their customers, how they interact with their team members—these are typically closely aligned with your team or company values. At Degreed, some of the mindsets we share are Authentic Altruism (thinking of the well-being and needs of others over your own interests), Relentless Ambition (constantly pursuing excellence in ourselves and the work we do), and Extreme Ownership (embracing accountability for all our decisions and outcomes and not casting blame on customers or others).
- The “skill sets” piece includes the technical and soft skills required to be successful in the role. At Degreed, some of the skill sets we require CSMs to have or to build are: Strategic Insight (ability to listen and map the product value to the customer’s needs, as a “trusted partner”), Disciplined Execution (they’re able to focus and follow through on what matters most for our customers), and Intentional Agility (things don’t always go as planned; CSMs need to allow space in their calendar for unexpected topics, escalations, etc. and remain calm, collected, and unflustered).
We use a version of this as a guide for hiring and development and reinforce them through recognition and rewards and managing performance.
4. What do CSMs need to do their job well?
When we enable CSMs to give their best and focus on the Customers, they deliver indisputable value and exceptional experiences to Customers.
To do that, I regularly assess how we’re doing across this operating framework: there are four operational dimensions that CSMs need to prosper.
- Organizational alignment around the company’s ‘why’ and the expectations of their role. Do they understand where we are going as a business, what our business priorities are, and how they specifically can contribute in a meaningful way to those critical priorities? This dimension is about focus and clarity.
- Operational Infrastructure is about providing CSMs with the tools, data, processes, documentation, etc. they need to do their job well. The objective is in building what they need and then getting out of the way so they can do what they do best with customers. Too often, leaders invest so much into these activities that it distracts CSMs from their core responsibilities. Keep it simple and focus on making improvements of high impact. This dimension is about efficiency and scalability.
- Team enablement is about equipping CSMs with the right messaging and content, training, and tools and templates to do their job at the right level of quality and consistency.
- Relational Engagement is all about leaders building authentic relationships with CSMs and a culture of what we call “total teamwork”. We are social beings and teams are more than just groups of people; teams are groups of people with a shared purpose and interconnected roles that are designed to collectively achieve that purpose. Total teamwork is co-creation, collaboration, co-operation, and co-achieving. This dimension is about loyalty and longevity.
If these organizational dimensions sound familiar, it’s because they’re inspired by Gallup’s 12-question framework for measuring employee engagement. If you haven’t already, go read 12: The Elements of Great Managing. It’s worth it.
There are different ways to gather this data, like surveys, in 1:1s, in skip-level 1:1s, and through anonymous feedback forums. The mechanism for getting this information is negotiable and it may change as the company evolves, but the cadence at which you review the data shouldn’t. Don’t skip these reviews.
5. How do CSMs know they're doing their job well?
The final question comes down to metrics. You’ve clarified the responsibilities and expectations of CSMs—now, how do they know if they’re doing a good job?
In short, the metrics you choose should be aligned with the Outcome Drivers you established in step #2 (above). If you expect CSMs to drive adoption, engagement, and advocacy, then establish leading and lagging indicators to tell the team whether expectations are being met. The biggest challenge I’ve experienced in this critical step is collecting accurate and reliable data easily. If you don’t have the systems in place to build dashboards and reports to monitor these success metrics regularly, relentlessly pursue it inside your organization. It is essential in building a culture of accountability and excellence.
Part 2: Create systems that drive performance
Once you’ve answered the 5-question rubric above, you have a foundation that will direct how to structure everything else for CSMs. Hiring, training, culture, compensation and incentives—all of this stems from the definition of the role.
Part 1 was the framework, part 2 is you acting on it. Here’s how you can use the rubric to create systems that grow CSM talent.
Foster a learning culture
To build a team that’s eager to learn and grow, we have to intentionally promote those behaviors when they happen. When a CSM provides guidance on best practices with a customer, when they effectively manage their time in order of important customers and allowing for unexpected topics to arise, or when they consistently demonstrate a clear understanding of a customer’s goals and adjust their plan accordingly— these behaviors need to be propped up and celebrated in public and in private.
The behaviors you recognize and promote are those that you defined in #3. Once you’ve mapped the mindsets and skill sets required to do the CSM job extremely well, you can incorporate those into career ladders, performance cycles, awards, informal public recognition, and more.
Note: Who you hire is a major part of the culture you build—in hiring Directors and Managers of CS, for example, you’ll want to hire people who have the skills to build a learning culture and grow their teams. Look at question #4 above, “what do CSMs need to succeed?” (see the four operational dimensions that CSMs need from their leaders: organizational alignment, operational infrastructure, etc.). The skills you hire for should be related to those four operational dimensions.
Practice coaching and development
To coach CSMs, refer to the mindsets and skill sets you defined in question #3. At Degreed, we’ve created a role profile (answering the 5 question rubric) for each role and title within Customer Success. Then we map each person’s skills and mindsets according to that rubric so we can identify gaps. The “gaps” are either coaching opportunities or they’ll point you towards the skills you need to hire for. We then use our own Degreed technology to build learning and skill development plans to close those gaps.
Adjust your compensation model
A compensation model for CSMs should incentivize the team to drive key business and client outcomes related to their role. Look at the outcome drivers identified in question #2—they may include adoption, customer engagement, or customer advocacy—and set up a system that reinforces those outcome drivers, which in turn will deliver on customer outcomes and company outcomes.
In our CSM compensation model, we look at variables like revenue retention, client advocacy, and client experience (and within the latter two, we have designated outcome drivers that we measure). To incentivize expansion-related activities, we also do performance incentive fund programs based on revenue growth.