Article

What is a customer success manager and what do they do?

Learn the key responsibilities of the customer success manager role.

By Molly Murphy

Published September 10, 2020
Last updated May 12, 2022

It’s easy to think the hard work ends once you’ve landed a customer. In reality, the struggle to win your clients’ hearts is only just beginning.

After you make a sale, your business needs to keep showing the customer that your product is valuable. Whether you succeed or not comes down to the team you have promoting your products and growing the customer relationship. That’s where a customer success manager comes in.

Here are the key responsibilities of a customer success manager—and why your business is missing out if it doesn't have one.

What is a customer success manager?

A customer success managers (CSM) supports your customers as they transition from sales prospects to active users of your products.

They’re focused on customer loyalty and building close long-term client relationships, and often stay with the same customers as long as they continue to work with your business.

Customer service reps react as problems come up, but CSMs work to fix issues before they happen. They proactively look out for their customers’ business, suggesting new and innovative ways to keep them succeeding with your products.

“Have you ever gone out to eat and were overwhelmed by the menu? And what you really want is someone to help you decide? That’s how I view [Customer] Success,” explains Delores Cooper, Customer Success Associate at Zendesk. “[We] look at the picture in its entirety; what will provide immediate gratification as well as long term stability. Success members accompany the customer on their journey and stick around for the entire lifecycle.”

Customer success manager

Differences between customer success and customer service. [Source]

Customer success departments are a pretty new trend. Their popularity has skyrocketed as companies began seeing value in investing in customer relationships. A 2019 survey by ZS Consulting found that over 40% of high-tech companies now have CSMs.

What does a customer success manager do?

A customer success manager bridges the gap between sales and customer support, enhances product value and reduces churn, and keeps a "high-level view" of the support process.

Top 8 responsibilities of a customer success manager

  • Bridge the gap between sales and customer support
  • Ensure customers get fast time-to-value
  • Keep clients engaged and regularly using products
  • Build customer loyalty and reduce churn
  • Keep a "high-level view" of the entire support process
  • Advocate for customers
  • Foster a customer-centric team environment
  • Resolve customer issues

1. Bridge the gap between sales and customer support

After someone becomes a customer, customer success management picks up where sales leaves off. They help onboard customers and become your customer's mentors. CSM's main goal is to get them started as fast as possible and monitor their satisfaction as they grow.

2. Ensure customers get fast time-to-value

There are two key milestones in the customer lifecycle:

  1. When buyers sign up
  2. When they achieve their first success

Each customer will define this moment of success differently. Sometimes it’s financial, like exceeding their targeted monthly revenues thanks to your product. Sometimes it’s a smaller personal success, like realizing your product saves them time.

Either way, the space between these milestones is the most commonplace for churn. After the initial excitement wears off, buyers have to learn how to use the product. Without the right team in place to guide the process, customers are likely to get frustrated and lose interest.

3. Keep clients engaged and regularly using products

CSMs check in with their clients to make sure they’re consistently using the products. This intervention is surprisingly necessary; regular product usage often doesn't happen organically. An Invesp study found that half of all paying customers log in to their SaaS products once a month or less. It can be hard to keep clients engaged if they aren’t seeing the value in your products. Customer success managers work to keep those benefits top of mind.

what does a customer success manager do

Customer success managers keep your clients engaged and regularly using your products. [Source]

4. Build customer loyalty and reduce churn

Having a customer success manager overseeing the onboarding process helps with retention. But the relationship goes beyond onboarding.

Customer success managers are focused on earning customer loyalty. They work to understand a customer’s needs and build relationships with key stakeholders to ensure they earn trusted advisor status over time.

5. Keep a "high-level view" of the entire support process

Customer success managers are involved in multiple phases of the customer lifestyle, so they have a bird’s eye perspective. Service reps may know what customer problems are most common, but they only see the issue up close. CSMs see which problems affect multiple clients, and forecast what those trends mean for future churn.

Their high-level view enables CSMs to see potential problems and turn them into saved dollars—for their clients and your business.

6. Advocate for customers and the company

Success managers also have a view of future product upgrades and changes. They can advocate for their customers by connecting the clients’ wishes to the business’ larger strategy.

Say, for example, a CSM notices that many clients are asking for a similar product update. They can justify the strategic importance of this update to product managers. That way, the improvement is made, and users are kept happy.

Likewise, customer success managers can also advocate for the company by getting customers excited about upcoming product launches and updates. They're in a unique position to up-sell and cross-sell based on customers' needs.

7. Foster a customer-centric team environment

Customer-centricity is not the job of any one team to earn on behalf of the entire company. However, customer success managers can help other teams put the customer first by voicing customer concerns and tracking customer pain points. They collaborate with their peers in customer success, sales, support, product, and throughout the business to ensure customer needs are heard loud and clear.

8. Resolve customer issues

A customer success manager also performs issue identification, communication, and resolution for moderately complex customer issues. They offer product solutions to pain points, and find opportunities to expand your business.

Customer success manager job description

The role of the customer success or client success manager is to unify your sales and success team. Because they're part of many stages of the customer relationship, they have a high-level view of the customer lifecycle. They use this perspective to add value for your customers—and your company.

What makes a good customer success manager?

Customer success managers should have strong organization and presentation skills, but those things can be taught, explains Cooper. The real power of a great CSM comes from their soft skills.

“A propensity for relationship building, and doing it quickly, is [very] valuable,” says Cooper. “The customer needs to trust your product and industry knowledge, trust that you understand their use case, and trust that your recommendations really are in their best interest. It’s not enough to just have a knack for it; it’s important to really enjoy forming and maintaining relationships. You can’t pretend, otherwise, they’ll see right through it and you’ve done more harm than good.”

How to structure your customer support organization

Tools and frameworks to structure your support team, based on what leaders have learned during their tenure at Zendesk.

Empathy is also essential, Cooper adds. You have to be able to connect with your customer over both their successes and frustrations to develop a long-term bond.

“We’ve all been customers at some point or another, but being able to draw on those experiences, both positive and negative, and use them to create your own personal CSM methodology is a remarkable skill to have.”
Delores Cooper, Customer Success Associate at Zendesk

Essential customer success manager skills and qualifications

Here are a few key customer success manager skills and qualifications.

  • Customer relationship management
  • Brand promotion
  • Proactive problem resolution
  • Leadership skills
  • Empathy
  • Product knowledge
  • Collaboration skills
  • Communication skills
  • Time management
  • Customer intelligence

1. Customer relationship management

The IDC predicts that by 2022, 53% of all software revenue will come from subscriptions. As more businesses switch, the buying model is shifting from one-time purchasing to repeat/monthly sales.

That means customer relationship goals have to shift, too. The new goal is to keep customers continuously happy, not just happy enough to make a single purchase. This focus on relationship marketing differentiates customer success managers from other customer support professionals.

Customer success manager

Customer success managers are your relationship marketing experts. [Source].

Sales and service reps focus on customers’ short-term happiness; CSMs focus on adding value for years to come. Their commitment doesn’t end when a customer signs up—that’s when it begins.

Customer success managers own the relationship marketing process. They check in with customers regularly to develop an open line of communication, so concerns can be promptly heard and addressed.

2. Brand promotion

CSMs generate excitement for new or developing products by keeping clients updated on their progress. As new products come available, they facilitate demos and training. If customers decide to add new products to their plans, success managers help implement them.

CSMs can find upsell opportunities organically because they’ve taken the time to understand their client’s use-case and earn their trust. That personal relationship makes all the difference in finding and positioning expansion opportunities.

They're also able to provide the technical product support and training necessary to keep their customers happy. This is especially important during onboarding, when CSMs work closely with customers to make sure their adoption of the product goes smoothly.

3. Proactive problem resolution

Customer success managers look out for their customer’s business and work with them to find solutions to pain points. It’s their job to put out the flame before it’s a wildfire. They monitor their customers’ happiness closely so they’re able to offer solutions before issues occur.

CSMs check in with their clients monthly, if not weekly, and ask directed questions to gauge their satisfaction. They can compare these conversations with customer’s behavioral data—like how often clients are logging in to your company’s software—to assess their overall happiness.

If a customer success manager sees any red flags, they can act immediately to fix the problem before it becomes a complaint. The first step may be as simple as calling a client for a check-in, or offering to do a lunch-and-learn for the client’s staff about the product. This intervention feels natural to the client since customer success managers already have a regular, open line of communication with them.

4. Leadership skills

Customer success managers often take on leadership roles for the customer success team. They act as mentors to more junior teammates and might leader trainings or other customer success enablement initiatives.

5. Empathy

Empathy is a critical skill for any customer-facing role. Customer success managers often work with customers directly to help them resolve high stakes issues. They must be able to put themselves in their customers' shoes and manage expectations. Success managers can also provide empathy training for their teams.

6. Product knowledge

Customers expect success managers to know the business’s product, service offerings, and policies well. Success managers have to both troubleshoot issues and offer best practices for getting the most value out of a product or service offering.

7. Collaboration skills

Customer success managers should demonstrate a love for teamwork and the ability to work across different internal groups to improve the customers’ experience. One of their main roles is communicating customer pain points to different teams within the organization.

8. Time management

Customer success managers often have to lead several projects and customers at one time. They'll need strong project management and organizational skills and an ability to optimally prioritize to get the job done.

9. Communication skills

Effective customer success management requires strong communication, social, and eloquent writing skills. Professional consulting experience helps to demonstrate these skills, ideally in a customer-facing role. Success managers often conduct virtual and onsite meetings to drive product adoption and ensure retention, which requires strong presentation skills.

10. Customer intelligence

Customer success managers need to have the insight and an unrivaled ability to understand customer needs. They need to understand each customer's unquie needs to provide a personalized experience as well as larger customer trends to improve the overall experience.

Why choose customer success as a career?

Today’s customers expect more than products that meet their needs. They expect personalized support from professionals who care about customer goals.

This expectation makes customer success managers invaluable. With this role, your company has someone who has a deep understanding of clients’ needs. The CSM internalizes and shares feedback, so the organization knows how to deliver a product or service that their audience wants.

According to Glassdoor, the estimated total pay for a customer success manager is $90,965 per year in the United States area, with an average salary of $68,189 per year. Salary depends on geographic region.

Customer success specialist

The estimated total pay for a Customer Success Specialist is $65,855 per year in the United States area, with an average salary of $44,632 per year, according to Glassdoor.

Senior customer success manager

Glassdoor found that the estimated total pay for a senior customer success manager is $113,194 per year in the United States area, with an average salary of $86,471 per year.

Principal customer success manager

The estimated total pay for a Principal Customer Success Manager is $117,600 per year in the United States area, with an average salary of $101,312 per year, according to Glassdoor.

How can I become a customer success manager?

Customer success managers often begin in customer success associate or specialist roles. For starters, you'll need to show an interest in and ability to understand customer needs. Excellent communication and interpersonal skills help too, as well as experience in a customer-facing role.

What is the difference between a customer success manager and an account manager?

Customer success managers are both salespeople and support professionals. But the difference between a customer success manager and an account manager is that customer success managers aren’t focused on winning the next account or putting out individual fires. They're relationship managers that expand customer accounts, increase customer retention, solve customer issues, and drive customer satisfaction.

Do you need a degree to be a customer success manager?

A customer success manager usually has a bachelor's degree. But many companies don't require a degree to apply for a customer success role. Experience in customer-facing roles and a proven track record of understanding customers' needs are most important.

What is the difference between customer support and customer success?

Customer support focuses on driving customer satisfaction while customer success focuses on driving customer value from the product or service. Support agents also often resolve short-term problems. But customer success teams strive to anticipate clients’ needs and offer strategic guidance before clients ever even need to contact support.

Ready to hire a customer success manager?

Prepare for the interview by learning about the customer success questions you should ask every candidate.

How to structure your customer support organization

Tools and frameworks to structure your support team, based on what leaders have learned during their tenure at Zendesk.

How to structure your customer support organization

Tools and frameworks to structure your support team, based on what leaders have learned during their tenure at Zendesk.

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