To celebrate our 50th newsletter, we asked Customer Success leaders from different industries, backgrounds, and current company sizes to answer the question, “What's one thing every Customer Success leader should know?”
Using their advice—from “reframing your perspective around preventing churn to forecasting retention” to “over-communicating about what you do”—will accelerate your career.
#1 Sarah Doughty, CS Champion & Founder at Crescendo-Labs and CS Architect at Winning by Design
CS Leaders should fully understand and enable their teams to understand that the impact they can drive for their organization is greater than any other department. CS is not just service and support—it’s the department that has the ability to influence compound growth for their organization by delivering and articulating continuous impact for customers.
#2 Rick Adams, Author, Trainer, Consultant and Business Owner of PracticalCSM.com
Every CS leader should clearly understand WHAT actions their CS function is responsible for doing, HOW their CS function can perform those actions to the highest standards of quality and productivity, and WHY their CS function does those things (i.e. what value the CS function delivers to its customers and hence to the company that pays for its existence.)
#3 Nils Vinje, Founder, CEO, and Coach at 30 Day Leadership and Consultant at Glide Consulting
CS is the new kid on the block and most people, even inside your company, will not know what you do. Therefore, over-communication about what you and your organization do along with the value you provide should always be at the top of your priority list.
#4 & 5 Irit Eizips, CCO and CEO at CSM Practice
- Leaders should have a clear sense about the efficacy of their CS practice. They should know which processes work and which ones don’t. They should have a clear long term vision that is designed to address not just the current situation, but also the changes in the go-to-market strategy. Finally, they should also know how each CSM is performing over time, in comparison to goals, as well as other team members.
- To achieve this, CS leaders should have a clear set of behavioral, functional, and financial KPIs. Appropriately defined and tracked, metrics and related dashboards can provide leaders a strong foundation of data-driven knowledge from which they can make timely decisions and manage their team effectively.
#6 Swati Garg, Founder and Managing Director of Melo Associates
We know CS is not a major in school (just yet) and is learned on the job. So the best qualities to look for when building a CS team is someone’s desire to learn, ability to be coached, and possession of a genuine interest in the company's product or service. Hiring for these qualities will bring strong professionals that will continue to grow with the company's growth.
#7 Chad Estes, VP of Customer Success at SaaSOptics
Onboarding feedback surveys are critical for both an honest temperature check at a critical point in the customer lifecycle AND improving your processes. Take every response to heart and for those with constructive feedback, ask yourself "Have I already made process adjustments in my department or another department that would have addressed their concern? Or should I make adjustments as a result of this feedback?"
#8 Elise Marengo, Head of Customer Success at Userpilot
Know how to actively listen. Walking into a conversation thinking you already know the questions they will have and the answers you will give them prevents you from fully hearing the person you are speaking to. Start dialogues without preconceptions, and listen as they speak—they might reveal concerns and questions you hadn't considered. This will truly allow your customers to feel heard.
#9, 10, & 11 Michael Hernandez, Head of Customer Success at Virti
- In CS leadership, retention is just as important internally as it is externally. Be prepared to map out an internal CS journey. You are your team's CSM.
- Customer usage doesn't equal success, but successful customers equal usage.
- A customer may not always be right, but their perception is always relevant.
#12 Josh Schachter, CEO at UpdateAI
Research shows that the #1 factor of perceived meeting effectiveness is if an agenda was used and completed. Encourage your CSMs to leverage agendas for their client meetings.
#13 Stuti Bhargava, VP of Customer Success at Immersive Labs
Be paranoid! Complacency is the worst enemy of a CS leader. Always be building, evaluating, experimenting and creating! Don't be afraid to make mistakes - just make sure you learn from them. My favorite line to my team: Don't lose alone—there will always be churn and contraction, just make sure we're aware and we've tried everything we can to make a difference.
#14 Dan Farley, VP of Customer Success at Seenit
It doesn't matter if you’ve been in CS for 10 years, or 10 minutes—don't ever fall into the trap of thinking you know it all. Businesses are different, customer outcomes are different, and the industry is frequently changing. There’s no “one size fits all” for Customer Success.
#15 Angela Guedes, Head of Customer Engagement at Typeform
Always have bias towards action. Too many times we wait until it's perfect, until everyone gives their feedback and is on-board, until we have the fancy dashboards to track results. We're wasting precious time to go live, get results, and iterate.
#16 Kyle Poyar, Operating Partner at OpenView
Churn isn't just a CS problem; it's a company-wide problem. Look at churn holistically including whether you're selling to the right customer, properly setting expectations upfront, getting customers to see value quickly, and measuring product indicators that predict customer health.
#17 Lauren Kennedy, Director of Customer Success at Productiv
Bring up burnout proactively and transparently. By nature of the CSM job your team members will end each day knowing there's more they could do, should do, want to do, and this can easily lead to burnout. Discussing burnout proactively will let your CSMs know these feelings are allowed in your organization and don't pose a risk for their career growth. These conversations can become a coaching moment, if a CSM can build confidence with prioritization and boundaries in their current role they’re set up for success in more senior positions, and an opportunity to build trust by sharing your own experiences.
#18 Dana Alvarenga, Director of Customer Experience at SlapFive
Be creative and try new things. The joy of being in CS is it’s still a newer role and field and there are no clearly defined rules on what is right or wrong. Building a new process or creating a new way to interact with your customers will go a long way in your relationship with your clients and how your internal teams perceive you. Do what no one has done before and do it better!
#19 Jeff Heckler, Global Head of Customer Success at Pipedrive
Scale your CSM's account portfolios with built-in flexibility. As you scale your teams to align with growth and product-market fit, use the variables of industry segments, products/technologies, number of accounts/portfolio, ARPA, and NRR segments to add agility and flexibility to match your teams’ abilities and your customers' needs. You can't predict the future, but you can implement a dynamic strategy to serve it!
#20 Kimberly Simms, CCO at Planful
The combination of your team, the village surrounding your team, and your customers make up the 3 legs of the stool for CS. If one of those legs is broken or not quite right, spend the time to diagnose and fix it in order to achieve the right balance. When all 3 legs of the stool are working together in harmony towards the same goals, the results are truly powerful!
#21 Jill Favro Sawatzky, VP of Customer Success & Renewals at Commvault
Customer Success is a long game—it takes time to build a good program. Implement it in small, incremental steps. Start out with small wins (basic customer engagement, references) and add from there.
#22 Kellie Lucas, Co-Founder of Success Chain
CS is about putting the customer first. Everyone in your business, not just CS should understand and epitomize this philosophy. Concentrate on working in partnership with your customers to find ways to achieve their results together, rather than focusing on your bottom line. Your growth will inherently follow through proactive renewals, upsells, referrals and advocacy. Their success=your success.
#23 Ronald Schnackenberg, Head of Customer Success at Agari
Many in CS believe that the customer comes first, but something every CS leader should know is success starts with your team. You'll never maximize customer satisfaction if your team isn't happy, motivated, and bought in to give customers the best experience possible.
#24 Bernd Zimmermann, Director of Customer Success - Modern Work HQ at Microsoft
CS leaders should be exceptional in listening to their customers and understanding their challenges. Based on that insight and experience from other engagements, a CS leader can help the customer to gain value out of their investment much faster.
#25 Tyler Wonderlic, VP of Customer Success at Balto
We need to make sure our teams centralize around the customer's goals. Build playbooks and strategies to put this at the center of your approach. You can't discuss positive results enough: repetition signals importance.
#26 Brian Hartley, Senior Director, Customer Success at RFP360
Imposter syndrome is a real thing. Trust your intuition and experience. Support your CS vision with data and an incredible team.
#27 Michael Su, Head of Global Customer Success at Altitude Networks
Customers don't buy or expand unless they have to. No one is trying to spend money.
#28 John Henwood, Senior Director of Customer Success at productboard
Every CS leader should have an understanding of the key business outcomes their customers came to the product to address and the one thing that, if changed or improved, would most impact customers meeting these outcomes.
#29 David Apple, Head of Customer Success at Notion
Net Revenue Retention (NRR) is not a metric you want to own. If you are the sole "owner" of NRR, you will find it hard to get other teams to prioritize work. Instead, you want to be the "champion" of NRR, and coordinate efforts to improve it in collaboration with other cross-functional leaders.
#30 Mike Lee, Director of Customer Success at Spreedly
Although there are many pressures from the business to do various tasks associated with customers, the key to success is to go back to the foundational discipline of CS. One of the biggest contributing factors to success for our customers is a robust and informative onboarding program. If you get onboarding right, it will inform you of how to engage better and individually with each customer. Onboarding is the crux of the foundation in CS, get it right and you are destined for success.
#31 Ayman Husain, Director of Customer Success - Intelligent Cloud and Digital Transformation at Microsoft
Focus on the outcome of your customer's customer! Your success is dependent on how your customer succeeds. Their success is your success.
#32 Dave Jackson, Chief Customer Officer at DeepCrawl
You have to know what links together the features in your product and the challenges faced by key people in your accounts. You then need to know how you use that understanding to generate revenue for your company.
#33 Greg Daines, CEO at Client Velocity
The cardinal sin of Customer Success is not churn. It’s unexpected churn! The key to high retention is to stop trying to prevent churn and start learning to predict it.
#34 & 35 Brett Andersen, VP of Client Success at Degreed
- CS leaders are uniquely positioned to be the "voice" of the customer to the rest of the company with multiple channels of communication and data points to inform and guide the company in making customer-centric decisions. No matter how big your customer portfolio or team becomes, always stay closely connected with your customers to really understand their outcomes (what they do or do not achieve) and their experiences (how they achieve or don't achieve those outcomes). Listen to them from multiple angles—not just in conversation (1-1, executive business reviews, Customer Advisory Board, executive forums, user groups) but also in observing common user behaviors and analyzing survey data, support tickets, enhancement requests, etc. Then leverage that data to produce a "Voice of the Customer" report that you can publish to the rest of your company for incredibly relevant insight to every function.
- When we, as CS leaders, extract the full capabilities unique to each team member, we maximize the value they bring to customers, to the company, to the team, and to themselves. This is the natural sequence: people outcomes lead to customer outcomes, which lead to company outcomes. CS leaders must essentially be CSMs for their teams—give coaching and guidance, tools and training, recommendations, relevant insights; manage concerns or risks; build relationships of credibility and trust; and continuously advocate for their success.
#36 Ben Cannon, Director of Customer Success at Pronto
Every day is an opportunity to stretch and grow. No two experiences, bugs, contracts, or interactions with an employee/co-worker are the same. Stay flexible and open to new ideas. You can walk in with the most airtight playbook in the world, but if you can't budge from time to time, it is very hard to progress personally, or as a team.
#37 Melissa Brown, Director of Customer Success at COHLEY
CS needs to be a company-wide priority. As a CS leader, the tighter feedback loops you create with Marketing, Sales, Product, and beyond, the more successful your customers and your team will be.
#38 Christopher Brown, Director of Customer Success at Fulcrum
Once you become a CS Leader, you are no longer directly responsible for customer outcomes. You are now responsible to take care of the individuals who are responsible for customer outcomes. Treat your people with kindness, empathy, respect, and accountability...and they will do the same for your customers.
#39 Jan Young, CS Consultant at Joyful Customer Centric Consulting
A startup CS leader should know the P's & T's of Customer Success: Prioritize, Program, Tools & Team. First, a leader needs to assess what she has and which area of the Program (Onboarding, Engagement, Renewals, Advocacy) she needs to focus on to build or improve as the foundation for the customer journey and the other program elements. She needs to understand what Tools she has available to her (tech platforms, metrics, VoC, change management, community, automation, etc.) and when to employ them. Finally, for each stage of the company, she needs to understand what sort of Team is needed to get the job done and how to effectively recruit and build the Team and culture to implement the programs and meet the needs of their customers.
#40 Anita Toth, Churn Consultant
Your greatest asset is your ability to listen. As a CS leader, all your answers will come from listening—to your team, to your customers, to your management and most of all—to yourself. Listening will give you the answers you're seeking and guide you in all you do. You just need to add a little stillness to hear those answers loud and clear.
#41 Leo Inguaggiato, Head of Customer Success at Vestorly
One thing every great CS leader should have in mind is learning how to listen to the customer's needs rather than project their own.
#42 Haiko Krumm, VP of Customer Success at Omnia Retail
Leadership is all about leading by example. Are you truly interested in your team and your customers, their ambitions and challenges? Then you, your team, and your customers will be assured a long-term win-win and sustainable growth.
#43 Daniel Rose, Head of Customer Success at Datasembly
Your customers, your CS team, and your leadership are all humans. At the core of all healthy relationships is building trust through strong relationships. Your plan might differ with whom you are communicating, but without trust success is impossible.
#44 Queen Joseph, Customer Success Consultant and Coach at Queen J Consulting
When choosing a new role, it is important to interview the leaders at the company to determine if CS is a company-wide mindset. You can only lead best when you are supported 100%.
#45 & 46 Melissa McMillan, Director of Customer Success at Acquire
- I think of CS in the B2B SaaS space as being an accountability partner. The customer tells us what they want, but if we’re not seeing data/adoption/behavior change, we have to re-evaluate—is that really what the customer wants? Often the goal expressed during the sales process is not a top priority for our point(s) of contact, so we cannot rely exclusively on what the customer tells us their goals are.
- Train your reports to identify what metrics and successes will lead to promotions and bonuses for our points of contact and drive them through an accountability plan to hit those metrics. An Accountability Plan is a desired outcome map with tentative dates attached and the CSM as the guide, for the purpose of holding the customer accountable and getting them to adopt the practices and behaviors that are going to drive goal attainment.
#47 Kat Fisher, Director of Customer Success at Weave
As a leader, it is so important that I take good care of my people, and help train leaders whose focus is on treating direct reports well. When you take great care of your people, they take great care of your customers.
#48 Bryan Plaster, CEO and Co-Founder of Complete CSM
If you're new to an existing CS team, you'll want to focus on listening to your team and learning from your customers. If you do a great job, you'll see an inflection point where you start to learn from your team and listen to your customers. Of course, this takes a tremendous amount of time, and if you can use technology to scale the understanding of these conversations, you will succeed as there are only so many hours in a day.
#49 Jean Nairon, VP of CS Operations at PTC
Every CS leader should know the journey their customers go through to gain adoption of their products and they should understand what types of value-based outcomes their clients can achieve with their products or services. Once they understand this, they will be in a better position to help drive retention and expansions.
#50 Chris Hicken, CEO and Co-Founder of Nuffsaid
CS leaders need to know how to be more strategic at the exec level. In order for CS leaders to become more prominent at the executive level, they need to influence strategy across departments by providing each department head with the customer data they need. Product needs organized and prioritized data about customer feature requests, Marketing needs to know which customers are good advocates and what recurring questions there are, Sales needs to know which titles, industries, and company size are most successful with the product. When CS leaders proactively use that information to drive strategy, they become an equal member of the executive team.
This week's top posts
If You’re Presenting to Your Manager or Leadership Team, I Have a Presentation Format for You to Follow.
Splunk’s Chief Design Officer, Jehad Affoneh, with a clear template for pitching an idea. Many of the steps Jehad lists come from an understanding that executives are busy and listening for specific details to make a decision. Start with the conclusion. Share what you’re currently doing about a problem, share what competitors are doing, explain the solution. (And so on; this list is worth bookmarking.)
How to Hire Bad A$$ CSMs
Keri Keeling, Head of Customer Success Innovation & Intelligence at VMware, shares the interview questions she asks to hire rockstar CSMs. Here’s a favorite from her list: “Can you share a story about a time when a customer chewed you out?” Keri explains that the answer to this question indicates if a CSM can handle “adversity in a professional and productive manner (without allowing it to impact them personally).”
The Customer Success Opportunity Pipeline
“If you’ve been following [me] for a while, you know that I fall solidly in the camp that believes CSMs should sell…However, when I do see CS teams selling it often looks random and disorganized.” In this piece Kristen Hayer makes the case for treating Customer Success like Sales, with a predictable pipeline of opportunities.
Lessons From Running CS Ops at Zoom, Gainsight, Stack Overflow, & More
On April 22, we’re hosting a live panel discussion on all things CS Ops. Sign up, submit your questions early, and share the link with your colleagues.
Success Happy Hour is a weekly newsletter for Customer Success leaders. Each week we feature one digestible piece of advice or a framework from a top Success leader, along with the best resources from that week. Subscribe here.