The Best CSMs Are Thoroughbreds Not Pack Horses

by Nov 13, 2018Foundations

At the dawn of the customer success age SaaS companies had a problem: churn. CSMs were born in companies like Salesforce specifically to help understand and address this critical issue as it became clear that churn was a serious risk to their business. I first met David Dempsey, or Dr Doom, who in some ways is the father of what we know today as customer success, shortly after I joined Salesforce to lead their UK CSM team. At the time I had no idea he was the person who kicked off the CSM function at Salesforce. If I had I may have fallen to my knees and paid homage.

Customer Success has come a very long way since those early days when all that mattered was reacting to and fixing what was an existential problem for companies like Salesforce. Along the way the role has come to have one of the widest ranges of potential responsibilities of any in business. Walk into any company and you know with a high degree of accuracy what the role of the financial controller is going to be, or the new business sales people, or the project managers. But if they have a CSM function you’re usually going to have to ask a few questions before you settle on the variant of customer success they practice and to understand the degree to which they operate in sales, or implementation or support or training or even project management.

Does this matter? Isn’t it ok if the role of CSM is so varied and unpredictable? After all the field is still evolving so shouldn’t we expect some variation?

The core customer facing responsibilities of customer success management, the ones I would hope everyone would agree on, are two-fold:

  • Ensuring the customer realises the expected value (or more) from their investment in a company’s products or solutions
  • Making sure that there is a great working relationship between the customer and all of the customer facing departments of the solution provider

If both of these happen the customer is likely to be very satisfied and in possession of clear evidence that the solution they’ve licensed is providing value. In those circumstances the CSM function has delivered a customer who is very likely to renew and with whom great growth based conversations can take place around expansion at the account and advocacy in the wider marketplace.

A CSM who can deliver a customer who has truly realised value, who can point to clear evidence that this is so and who is highly satisfied is a skilled and effective individual. A CSM able to do this is likely to have excellent client relationship building skills in addition to solid knowledge of:

  • The domain the company operates in and its core process, tools and procedures
  • The product being sold and the best practices that support its effective use
  • Disciplines such as stakeholder management, change management and governance

In fact it’s quite rare that individuals have this mix of skills, both hard and soft, which is one reason it takes time to find and build great CSM teams. Having done so does it make sense to then expect them to delve into a set of additional areas (to become the organisation’s pack horses) each of which require additional skills and disciplines. This is the tough question that every customer success focussed company needs to ask itself: “We’ve managed to find and build this great team, capable of delivering satisfied customers into our renewal, up-sell and advocacy processes, does it make sense to have them do a), b) and c) in addition?”

It’s going to be tempting – people operating at this level, able to build superb customer relationships with an in-depth understanding of the product and how to get the best from it of course seem like they’d be great value in the sales cycle, perfect to implement a customer training programme or to help out with some tricky implementation work. And here’s the thing, they are and most of the time they are going to be adding value. So of course it’s tempting.

But, here’s the other thing.

Do you really want to take the members of your CSM team, your customer success thoroughbreds, out of their front line role for a moment longer than is necessary. Pretty much everywhere I’ve been CSM has been stretched tight across an ever expanding customer base. For a company to voluntarily make that dynamic even tougher, however tempting, is a strategic not a tactical call and one that needs careful consideration and where deemed truly vital (and that will happen) equally careful management.

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