Are you a firefighting Customer Success Manager? - Glide Consulting
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Are you a firefighting Customer Success Manager?

How much time do you spend every day making decisions? If you’re anything like the hundreds of Customer Success Managers we’ve surveyed, you probably spend the majority of your day firefighting.

When I was a new CSM, this is what a typical day of decisions looked like:

  1. What shirt am I going to wear today?
  2. Should I take time to make breakfast, or skip it again?
  3. What should I talk to my team about at our daily standup?
  4. Should I do customer calls or support tickets after standup?
  5. Which coffee shop should I work from this morning?
  6. Should I go home and cook lunch, or order takeout again?
  7. Which of these urgent, after-lunch issues are the most urgent?
  8. Should I drop everything and tackle the urgent stuff… or should I stick to the schedule I tried to make for myself?

A majority of the time, my answer to #8 was “drop everything to deal with urgent issues”. I’d wince as my calendar filled up with tasks and goals, knowing I’d end up canceling or deferring them until they were too big to ignore. After a few months of this, I had moments where I lost all hope of ever regaining control of my time.

After surveying 700+ CSMs, we’ve discovered this decision-making cycle to be overwhelmingly common. The willingness to “drop everything” and handle urgent issues defines the CSM role at a lot of companies. When we’re in this cycle of urgency, some of the only autonomy we’ll have during the week is deciding which fires to put out next. In our experience, decision fatigue is one of the root causes of firefighting, which makes the reactive cycle even more difficult to break.

How can we think ahead, when we’re too busy making decisions about how to handle what’s directly in front of us?

The good news is there are several ways to reduce decision fatigue. At GLIDE, we focus on helping CS people bring awareness to the behaviors that need more attention. Sometimes these behaviors come from deeply held beliefs and other times the behaviors are subtle and unconscious. First, we’ll focus on the subtle, unconscious mechanisms.

In the past four decades, psychologists like Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman have done a tremendous amount of research into how humans make decisions. Their findings can be summed up in one statement:

We’re hilariously bad at making decisions that lead to optimal outcomes.

According to the Tversky/Kahneman studies, there are some intrinsic properties of our minds that set us up to fail. Their research concludes we’re proficient at making decisions which lead to “good enough” outcomes. The premise behind this distinction is simple: “good enough” requires far less mental energy than “optimal” because we tend to opt for decision paths which conserve energy.

How does this apply to the daily life of a Customer Success professional?

To start, CS people tend to have the distinct character trait of “Built To Serve”, which means we’re inclined to prioritize the needs of others above our own. If you combine this trait with the deeper psychological traits Tversky and Kahneman uncovered, you have the recipe for a decision-making disaster.

Let’s become more aware of why we think about things the way we do. It all starts with one word: bias. Here are three cognitive biases that handicap CS professionals. Keep in mind these biases have been confirmed by replicable research over the past few decades, and can be applied to many other situations outside of Customer Success.

1. We’re wired to jump on bandwagons.

The first cognitive bias we’ll discuss is the “Bandwagon Effect”. The Bandwagon Effect, like many other cognitive biases, is a mechanism for subconsciously minimizing decision fatigue. Instead of using cognitive resources to clearly define the problem, devise a proposed solution, then execute the proposed solution, we can skip all that and just do what everybody else is doing. Essentially, the Bandwagon Effect makes us inclined to offload cognitive processing to the “groupmind”.

Back when I led CS at a hyper-growth startup, there was a moment when I realized we were all working longer and longer hours, but at lower and lower efficiencies. My CSMs were up until 10 PM working on support tickets. When I asked my team “why are you working so late?”, I got some fascinating responses:

  1. ”Well, I saw you were still in Slack too, and I thought I’d just keep pushing.”
  2. ”I saw one of my teammates burning the midnight oil last night, so I felt bad going home early today.”
  3. ”We’re a fast-growing startup, this is just how it goes, you know?”

What most fascinated me about these answers was the message behind the words.

We’d all been assuming we understood the motivations behind why our teammates decided to work late, and used that assumption to bolster our own decisions to work late. To simplify; we were only working late because other people were working late. Furthermore, it seemed there was something deeper at play – something which led us to believe sacrificing our health to answer support tickets was perfectly normal behavior.


The Bandwagon Effect is pervasive in startups, and it profoundly influences what Customer Success professionals choose to spend their time on. I call the ideology that emerges from the growth-focused culture of startups “the startup bandwagon”. People who ride the startup bandwagon love using words like “hustle” and “commit”. They also love writing phrases like “crush it” and “get shit done” in handsome fonts on motivational background images. Armed with this new awareness, I’d love for you to ask yourself the following question:

”What bandwagons am I riding, and to what extent do they influence how I choose to spend my time?”

When you bring awareness to how the Bandwagon Effect influences your sense of reality, you can be more deliberate about how you interact with customers, managers, and the latest crises.

2. We interpret outcomes in a way which confirms our pre-existing beliefs.

There are dozens of cognitive biases described by research in cognitive psychology, but there are few that make me slap my forehead as hard as the Confirmation Bias.

I mentioned earlier that as a new CSM, I believed the only answer to a crisis was to drop everything and deal with it. The company culture (groupmind) encouraged the hustle of tackling challenging issues on the spot, and my lack of experience led me to believe this was the optimal way to operate.

Unfortunately, dropping everything to solve an urgent problem for a customer or manager is kind of like borrowing money to pay off a debt. It might seem to work for a while, but there’s a point at which your accumulated productivity debt is so great that no quantity of work sprints can ever dig you out of it.

As a young CSM, I’d seek out opportunities to confirm my misguided hypotheses. I believed the only value I had to offer my company and my customers was the ability to react quickly to their problems. To my Confirmation Bias, there was an endless supply of opportunities to bolster this position, as crises popped up on the daily. Customers knew me as the quirky, bearded dude who’d go “above and beyond” for them. I’d do jobs way outside the scope of my CSM role in an attempt to crush their problems for them, and it really seemed to work for a while.

The feedback I’d get was incredible. After interrupting my workflow and spending two hours designing a custom, responsive email template for a customer, we’d get an email back saying something like ”Now I know that switching to your tool was a good decision.” It felt amazing!

We’d screenshot that kind of feedback and dump it into Slack for the product and growth teams to see. After patting ourselves on the back for 13 seconds, the unsettling reality that there were 10-15 more requests for custom work in the queue would set in. I’d order more coffee, open my email, and go back to reactive mode.

The Confirmation Bias makes us do some pretty absurd stuff, like ignore overwhelming amounts of evidence pointing to conclusions which conflict with the ones we already believe in. Again, this bias is just a clever shortcut our nervous systems found to conserve mental energy.

decision fatigue

In my case, I ignored the data indicating that customers for which I did custom work had a higher risk of churning in a lot of cases. Instead of analyzing the data and drawing objective conclusions, we chose to focus on the momentary, positive feedback from customers. Their feedback confirmed our suspicions ->”Good job, little firefighter robots! This is all I need from you to be your customer forever and ever.”

The reality was far from that, unfortunately. Despite my “above and beyond” attitude, a lot of the customers I did custom work for canceled anyway. My brain ignored that part, though, and I just kept chugging on that custom work pipeline.

The next one’s a doozy, because it illuminates a significant point of failure in CS teams.

3. Despite our endless empathy, it’s impossible to put ourselves in the shoes of our customers.

The word “onboarding” means a lot of different things, depending on who you talk to. At my last gig, we had a couple flavors of onboarding. One of them was extremely high-touch, and required one of my CSMs to perform custom implementations and data transfers full time. The high-touch model applied to a small percentage of our user base, and everybody else got an automated onboarding flow. Both of our onboarding workflows relied on the same assumption: “our customers are competent marketers”.

Despite our efforts, our user onboarding was hit and miss. Sometimes customers were thrilled and got up to speed immediately. Lots of times, the accounts sat stagnant for months until they churned. It was confounding at the time, but in retrospect, I think the Curse of Knowledge bias had a lot to do with this outcome.


The Curse of Knowledge bias kicks in any time there is a gap in knowledge between two parties. This “information asymmetry” causes more informed people (like the expert marketers who run a marketing automation company) to inaccurately predict the actions of people who are less informed (like beginner marketers who buy monthly subscriptions to marketing software).

A great Customer Success team can bridge this knowledge gap by 80%, but even the most amazing CSMs with spooky empathy skills will completely miss the point 20% of the time. The upside to the Curse of Knowledge bias is that it’s a powerful mechanism for conserving mental energy. When our default behavior is to subconsciously assume everybody else has our level of knowledge, we don’t have to do the work of trying to mentally abstract ourselves from the equation to understand exactly where other people are coming from.

This bias may help a CS team get a “good enough for now” onboarding flow up and running, but in the long-term, these onboarding flows can cause more problems than they solve.

Here’s the question I’d love for you to ask yourself here: What level of competence does my customer have in relation to my level of competence, and how does that affect our interactions?”

Hopefully, you’ll start to become aware of some of the assumptions you make about your customers, and you may even start to question where those assumptions came from. Even though your brain is just trying to do you a favor by helping you take the path of least resistance, the cumulative effects of taking these shortcuts can be summed up with one word: firefighting.

Wait…I thought the root cause of firefighting was decision fatigue?

You’re right, it is. When we’re suffering from decision fatigue, guess what we’re going to lean on to get the job done? We’ll always be inclined to put our trust in cognitive biases because they give us the illusory feeling that we’ve run a full lap around the track having barely taken a single step. They’re our nervous system attempting to conserve energy in the face of exhaustion. They’re also a comically inaccurate method for making proactive decisions optimized for long-term sustainability, which leads to more firefighting down the road.

Want more Customer Success Manager insights? Keep reading…


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