Customer Success Manager: A Career Road Map

In today's consumer-driven world, delivering outstanding customer experiences is essential for any business. It's no surprise that customer success roles are gaining momentum and top companies are channeling substantial resources into helping customers be more successful.

When they’re working well, customer success teams lead to improved retention rates and additional business growth, meaning building out a customer success team is often a great business strategy.

Whether you’re a recent graduate, considering a career change, or simply curious about the customer success manager (CSM) role, this guide has you covered. It contains all the essential information you need to know about being a successful CSM.

What is a customer success manager?

A customer success manager is responsible for maximizing a customer’s results with the product they represent. The ultimate goal of a CSM is to assist customers in achieving their desired outcomes, which in turn boosts the customer lifetime value (CLTV) for the business.

CSMs work hand in hand with customers throughout the entire customer journey, providing ongoing support, aligning product usage with the customer's specific business objectives, and acting as a bridge between the customer and the organization.

Typically, CSMs represent complex B2B Software as a Service (SaaS) products that require thorough onboarding and training to fully unlock their ROI potential. Companies like Salesforce and Oracle’s Siebel were pioneers in adopting the customer success function back in the early 2000s.

Since then, the role of CSM has become increasingly important as customer acquisition costs continue to rise while product switching costs for customers have decreased.

Put another way, it’s easier than ever for customers to leave your business, so companies are recognizing the importance of proactively helping customers be successful with their products and services.

Customer success manager job description

As a customer success manager, your primary mission is to ensure the satisfaction and success of your customers. You will serve as the main point of contact throughout the entire account lifespan, working closely with them to understand their business needs and define their vision of success.

In this role, your key responsibilities will revolve around promoting product adoption, building strong relationships, advocating for your customers within your organization, and developing strategies to retain and grow your customer base while combating churn.

To promote product adoption, you will perform the following tasks:

  • Guide new customers through the onboarding process to ensure a successful start.

  • Provide personalized communication and training materials for each customer to grow their usage and help adopt the product effectively.

Building impactful relationships with customers involves tasks such as:

  • Conducting regular check-ins and business reviews to assess customer satisfaction, gather feedback, and identify opportunities for continuous improvement.

  • Networking with key contacts within your customer base to establish strong working relationships.

In terms of customer success strategy, you will:

  • Track and analyze customer data, including health metrics and touchpoints, to identify potential churn signals and upsell opportunities.

  • Develop and execute initiatives to secure renewals, encourage upsells, and expand customer accounts.

Lastly, you will advocate for customers internally by:

  • Reviewing customer feedback and acting as the voice of the customers within your organization.

  • Collaborating with sales, product, marketing, support, and development teams to ensure customer needs are met.

While this may seem like a long list, everything here revolves around co-creating a plan that enables customers to achieve their goals and maximize the value they receive from your product.

To excel in this role, a successful candidate should possess strong communication and networking skills, a strategic and analytical mindset, impeccable customer service skills, and the ability to quickly adapt and learn about new products. Additional requirements may vary depending on the specific role and company, but these key competencies are present in most customer success manager job descriptions.

A customer success manager's responsibilities and challenges

Working closely with customers, CSMs juggle a lot of different tasks and impact various business areas and metrics. There are four key areas of customer success management that we will delve into, along with the key performance indicators (KPIs) for each.

Customer onboarding

The onboarding phase is critical for establishing strong customer relationships and setting the stage for future collaboration. During this stage, a CSM’s goal is to create a positive first impression and ensure a seamless transition from the sales process to implementation. They aim to understand the customer's definition of success, assist in configuring the product for the client’s specific needs, and provide training to help achieve their business goals.

Drawing from her experience, Kristen Gray Psychas, a senior customer success manager at Banzai and a renowned expert in the field, shares:

Effective customer success management should always begin with foundational onboarding. The market has shifted, and we are seeing fewer technical roles in software buying positions, leading to an increase in purchase regret. Onboarding should be more focused than ever on purchase validation, self-service ROI reporting, and customer alignment on TTV (time to value).

Kristen Gray Psychas
Kristen Gray Psychas

Director of Customer Success at Banzai

The duration of the onboarding process varies depending on the complexity of the product and the time it takes for customers to realize its value.

For instance, enterprise customer success managers typically engage in high-touch onboarding, which involves frequent check-ins and calls with customers. CSMs may also collaborate with product or customer marketing teams to develop a low-touch onboarding flow that promotes self-service resources.

KPIs for customer onboarding include:

  • Product and feature adoption rate (percentage of customers actively using a specific feature or product).

  • Time to value (time it takes for customers to realize the product value).

  • Number of support tickets opened by customers during the onboarding stage.

Relationship building and customer loyalty

While CSMs primarily support B2B products, their interactions are ultimately human to human. People, rather than businesses, make purchasing decisions, become frustrated when desired results aren't achieved, and may choose to switch to another tool if that happens.

CSMs prioritize human connections and invest resources into building strong relationships with key contacts within their clients’ organizations. With high levels of empathy and charisma, they foster an environment where customers feel comfortable sharing direct feedback and enjoy working hand in hand with the CSM throughout their customer journey.

Developing these relationships is crucial for customer loyalty. When customers have a positive connection with their CSM, they are less likely to churn, more likely to expand their existing contract, and more inclined to advocate for the product, generating positive word-of-mouth.

KPIs for measuring customer loyalty include:

  • Net Promoter Score (NPS), measuring customer loyalty by looking at the likelihood of them recommending a specific product.

  • Customer retention rate (the rate at which customers stay with a business in a given period of time).

  • Customer lifetime value (LTV), showing how much a business earns from an average customer.

Retaining and growing business

While building relationships is important, the primary objective of CSMs is to retain and grow business since customer success is closely tied to the overall success of the company. In an environment where customers have the flexibility to switch between cloud solutions and competition is fierce, effective customer success programs are crucial for business growth.

CSMs actively seek opportunities to make customers more successful while generating business results. This can involve suggesting an upgrade to a higher plan to unlock crucial features for customer success or securing renewals by increasing product adoption and identifying new use cases for account expansion.

KPIs for retaining and growing business include:

  • Average customer lifetime value.

  • Net recurring revenue (NRR) and gross recurring revenue (GRR), reflecting the revenue a business keeps over a time period and the revenue from existing customers over a time period.

  • Churn rate (the percentage of users who have stopped using an app).

Customer success operations

Some companies allocate dedicated resources for customer success operations to alleviate the burden of administrative tasks on CSMs. However, it is still common for CSMs to handle the operations role, especially at smaller companies and growing start-ups.

CSM operations include responsibilities such as:

  • Creating playbooks and setting up customer success tools to streamline and optimize the workflow for efficient management of customer relationships.

  • Administrating customer relationship management (CRM) systems to update account statuses, assign appropriate account owners, and ensure accurate subscription information.

  • Analyzing data from marketing tools and product usage in order to gain insights into customer behavior and engagement to proactively address customer needs.

  • Conducting customer churn analysis and forecasting to develop retention strategies and improve customer satisfaction, ultimately reducing churn rates.

As the CSM team grows, it becomes more beneficial to have a dedicated operations specialist who can free up the CSMs' time for customer-facing and strategic work. However, it is still important for CSMs to have a strong understanding of customer success operations.

Skills and qualifications for a successful career in customer success

Successfully fulfilling all of these responsibilities requires a broad skill set encompassing both hard and soft skills.

Here’s a list of skills that are commonly sought after in job descriptions for CSM positions:

  • Strong communication skills.

  • Empathy and customer service skills.

  • Prioritization and organization skills.

  • Stakeholder management skills and ability to collaborate cross-functionally.

  • Understanding of best practices in customer retention.

  • Proficiency in using technical software products.

  • Ability to thrive in a fast-paced environment and stay calm under pressure.

  • Specific industry expertise.

Other essential skills for the contemporary CSM are strong discovery question-asking and listening skills, the ability to apply curiosity to every customer conversation to dig deep into retention and expansion opportunities, and a researched awareness of the competitive market. Gartner research indicates that 60% of customers today explore competitors during the renewal process. A great CSM needs to be fearless in entering renewal conversations to discern and effectively manage risk.

Kristen Gray Psychas
Kristen Gray Psychas

Director of Customer Success at Banzai

There is no formal education requirement for a CSM role, and it varies depending on each business's specific needs. On the other hand, work experience is crucial as the majority of employers require relevant experience in customer success or related fields.

In our interview builder, you will find a list of core tasks performed by CSMs as well as the skills and experience that employers typically look for when hiring.

Salary benchmarks for customer success managers

When considering a career in customer success management, it's important to understand the compensation and financial aspects.

Salary range for customer success manager (CSM) role

  • According to Glassdoor, the average base salary range for CSMs is between $61,000 and $96,000. Senior CSMs earn an average base salary between $84,000 and $135,000.

  • Research conducted by Totango, which surveyed practicing CSMs, reported similar salary numbers, with annual salaries ranging from $50,000 to $200,000 across the board. The median salary for CSMs in 2022 was $89,500.

In addition to the base salary, CSMs often have opportunities for additional earnings through commissions. These commissions can come from upsells, cross-sells, expansions, and bonuses for meeting renewal quotas. If the company allows it, taking on more customers or responsibilities can also lead to increased earnings.

Salary range for customer success operations role

  • For professionals in the customer success operations role, Glassdoor suggests an average salary range of $82,000 to $132,000.

  • The Totango survey is aligned with this range, reporting a salary range of $54,000 to $225,000 for professionals in customer success operations in 2022.

It's important to note that salary ranges can vary based on factors such as experience, location, company size, and industry.

How to become a CSM

If you're interested in pursuing a career as a customer success manager, here are the steps you can take to increase your chances of success:

  1. Create a plan. Review your resume against the list of required customer success manager skills and qualifications, and create an action plan to fill in gaps in your knowledge through online courses or certifications.

  2. Highlight transferable skills. In your resume and interviews, emphasize transferable skills from your previous roles or experiences that align with customer success. These may include strong communication, problem-solving, relationship-building, and account management abilities. Relevant experience in roles such as sales, account management, or project management can also be valuable.

  3. Gain relevant work experience. There are several options to consider here:

    • Internships can provide valuable hands-on experience and insights into the role before you transition into a full-time position.

    • Look into junior and associate roles to learn the fundamentals and gain practical experience as you kick off your career.

    • Consider customer support or technical support roles. They can serve as a stepping stone toward a customer success career.

  4. Keep informed about industry news, trends, and opportunities. Engage with customer success communities and learning platforms such as CS Insider and Support Driven. Connecting with professionals in the field, expanding your knowledge, and building your network can enhance your chances of finding great career opportunities.

Tips for advancing in the field of customer success

If you've decided to pursue customer success as a career, you have many growth opportunities, either as an individual contributor or in a leadership role.

Alternatively, you can specialize in areas such as customer onboarding and implementation, customer success and revenue operations, customer or product marketing, or account management. All of these roles require skills that you can develop and master in your role as a CSM.

To excel in your CSM career, there are several areas to focus on:

  • First and foremost, immerse yourself in the industry and position yourself as an expert your customers can turn to.

  • Listen to industry-related podcasts, read news articles, and engage in specific communities. Here are a few resources worth your attention: Churn.FM podcast, Vitally Success Network, Gain.Grow.Retain community, Women in Customer Success community, and Women in Customer Success podcast.

  • Consider obtaining customer success certifications to boost your credibility and demonstrate your expertise. Gainsight and Customer Success Collective offer leading certifications for CSMs.

  • Take the initiative to improve existing processes within your organization and work to bridge the gaps in documentation and customer experience flow. A strategic approach is crucial for advancing your career, especially if you’re interested in the manager path.

  • If you aspire to climb the vertical ladder, developing data analysis skills is paramount. You have to be able to extract insights from customer data, identify trends, and make data-driven decisions. The CSMath course on Udemy can be a great starting point.

As you develop these key competencies, continuously work on your communication and negotiation skills. These skills are essential for success in the CSM role, enabling you to effectively manage customer expectations, resolve conflicts, and gain buy-in from decision-makers and internal stakeholders.

Kick off your CSM journey

If you're gearing up for the next chapter in your career, take the time to familiarize yourself with the tools that modern customer success teams use in their work. Having a good grasp of these tools can give you a competitive edge when interviewing for customer success roles.

You might also find this collection of 47 tips on how to talk to your customers helpful. It includes all of our best insights on how to communicate thoughtfully with customers, gathered over more than a decade of helping businesses improve their customer communications.

Customer success managers do their best work when they’re able to talk to their customers, understand their needs, and communicate clearly on how they can achieve their goals. We hope some of the information in this guide has given you what you need to start down the path of helping customers find success and future growth.

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