When SaaS organizations hire for customer success, I often see the same mistake: They lump everyone together and hire based on vague “customer success skills.” They assume all customer success professionals are equal and then hire a bunch of identical people.
But people are different. We all have our own strengths. Instead of building a customer success team around interchangeable people, we should create teams of complementary strengths – just like an athletic team of any type would – and assign work based on those strengths.
The following are the most important skills that every customer success team needs. These are the core abilities needed. I strongly feel without these traits, your customer success team won’t be successful, no matter its purpose.
Your program may require additional strengths, but you definitely need these core qualities.
Image: Link Humans / Flickr
This is the most important strength your team needs. Customer success managers (CSMs) need to be able to communicate effectively with clients, of course, but also other teams within the organization.
Communicating is more than speaking. It’s also listening. If you’ve ever had a conversation with someone who seemed like they were just waiting for their turn to speak, you know what I mean.
A CSM who can listen to the other party in a conversation is able to learn. They are able to hear the story and pull out the actionable insights needed to improve the product, service or organization, or find ways to add more value to the customer’s experience.
Early customer service programs in SaaS organizations often start with an ex-salesperson moving into the role. I understand why that occurs, but many sales people lack the listening side of the communication strength. They’re great at transmitting information, but mediocre at collecting it. That isn’t to say they are all weak in this area, but it’s something to look out for if you’re moving salespeople into customer success roles.
Furthermore, CSMs need to be adept at handling challenging conversations. Some customers are going to be irate and the CSM needs to stay calm and solution-focused. Some customers will expect their service providers to have strong business acumen and industry knowledge, so the CSM needs to be prepared and quick on his/her feet.
There are countless pieces to coordinate to create a healthy customer experience. “Anyone who manages onboarding, implementation or professional services needs to understand how to keep the trains running on time,” says customer success executive Kristen Hayer.
In customer success, CSMs mostly work with projects. Anything that needs to be done repeatedly should be automated, turned into processes, or delegated to other employees. CSMs need to be able to manage multiple projects at once. They need to prioritize based on team and business goals so the most important work gets taken care of.
During hiring, take notice of anyone who comes from a marketing background. That work is also largely project-based.
As your company scales up, you’ll need people who want to help build something better. Customer success is not a discipline for people who want to put in their eight hours without making waves. While the best organizations value work/life balance, CSMs should have a drive to succeed that makes their work part of their life. They need to draw satisfaction from their work.
Customer success expert Dmitry Shkliarevsky says that “[CSMs] need to wake up every day planning on how [they] will make a difference.” Great companies (and great programs, whether it’s a one-off initiative or a new team) are built by people and cultures that want to be better than they were last week.
Too many CSMs are operating in a firefighting rhythm. They solve one emergency and move on to the next. They don’t proactively solve problems, so they deal with the same ones over and over.
A strong CSM should have strategic skills that allow him to solve tomorrow’s problem. They need to have a big picture view of the team’s purpose and how they are being measured. They’ll use this mindset to work on the tasks that provide the best business value, not just the first item in their inbox.
Strategy is also the ability to quickly and accurately analyze a situation. Why are customers behaving a certain way? Why is that metric so low, or so high? Why are customers not meeting the goals you set together? A strategic thinker should be willing to ask questions like these and able to uncover answers.
A strategic CSM should be able to understand and explain the entire customer experience at any time. They should know how the customer makes contact with the product, how they use it, and why they might abandon it. This high-level view gives them the vantage to predict how customers will behave so that obstacles can be cleared on the customer’s road to achieving value with the product.
When hiring, keep in mind that the ability to think strategically is what separates an employee from a manager. Don’t move someone into a management position just because they have seniority. That customer success team member who writes great documentation might not have the forward-thinking skills necessary to manage a book of accounts.
Each and every person on your customer success team should be built to serve. They should yearn to help customers with their problems and achieve value with the product. When a customer isn’t having the best experience, the CSM should genuinely care. Their concern should be real, not manufactured.
Empathy goes beyond fixing problems, however. Empathy makes us want to avoid causing pain. An empathetic CSM would prefer a customer never suffer in the first place, so he/she works proactively to create a pain-free experience.
Customer success strategist Burke Alder at Client Success is right that empathy is a key way to gather feedback from customers. “Empathy allows CSMs to actively understand how a customer is feeling towards their product and service,” he says. A CSM should be able to have honest conversations with customers. From that exchange, they should be able to uncover the customer’s real meaning. (As you can see, this strength goes hand-in-hand with communication.)
I’ve listed a group of skills every team needs, but there may be others that apply to your organization. For instance, if your product is complex, you might need skilled troubleshooters to help customers through onboarding. If you manage thousands of low-touch customers, you might need an analyst on the team to sort through data at scale.
The most important part of building a customer success team is hiring the people that fit your SaaS. I recommend that you have everyone on your team take Gallup’s StrengthsFinder so have a firm grasp of their strengths. Then use the test on new applicants to see if they meet your team’s needs.
You should also read this related post: How to Discover Someone’s Natural Strengths.
Give your CSMs the power to make actual changes that impact your customers. They need resources, autonomy and authority to create a positive experience for the customer. If you fail to empower them, their strengths won’t benefit the business at all.
Finally, keep in mind that no CSM starts making big impacts on day one. Your CSM’s role is entirely dependent on your company. Give new hires time to get comfortable so they can flex their muscles.