Feb 16, 2023

Read Time 7 min

Balancing stress as a CSM: Six lessons I wish I’d learned sooner


As a CSM, you think about customers—their wants, needs, feelings, and concerns—all day long. But constantly serving others can take a toll if you don’t take time to check in with yourself and recharge.

I speak from personal experience, having spent nearly a decade in CSM and account management roles before leading a team of CSMs. I’ve felt the isolating weight of unmanaged stress and seen the damage it can do to others.

Through years of trial and error, and the sage counsel of veteran leaders, I’ve developed healthy ways to cope with stress. Recently, I sat down with Aspireship founder and CEO Corey Kossack to share what I’ve learned about achieving balance for mental health as a CSM. We explored how to deal with a range of common anxiety-inducing situations, from overthinking “what if” churn scenarios to taking product feedback personally.

Here are six lessons I wish I’d learned sooner in my career. I hope they help you cut some undue stress from your workday and give you the confidence to stay calm under pressure.

1. Don’t stoop to side conversations.

We’ve all experienced organizations in which people disagree, where problems begin to fester, and individuals start to air their grievances in private conversations.

I’m guilty of this myself. In my early days in Customer Success, I remember a conflict where my team received notice from marketing that we were now responsible for writing one-pagers because we, as CSMs, were the product experts. For a nimble CS team that was already maxed out engaging, saving, and taking care of customers, adding the hat of “content creator” stretched us too far. The task reassignment was met with—whispered—resistance.

Side conversations spun up left and right. I found myself unloading my discontent on others with bitter appeals of “Can you believe this?” It created a negative feedback loop. The longer it went on, the more resentment brewed.

Many people struggle with being honest about how they feel at work. Employees hesitate to tell managers about their dissatisfaction, or stress, for fear of being judged or coming across as difficult or incompetent.

Know this: bottling up your feelings is not a sign of strength. Being open is particularly important for customer-facing roles, like CSMs, that require a large degree of emotional labor. You need the emotional intelligence to know how to process and convey your feelings to others.

Being truthful with my leader about my discontent was a turning point in my story. As it turned out, my admission earned their trust and support. When it came time for me to have those tough conversations about responsibility delegation with other teams, my manager offered to be included in those emails to signify that what I was doing was important and that I deserved to be heard.

2. Get clear on expectations.

Do you ever get anxious about whether you’re meeting expectations? It happens to all of us, especially when there’s more work than people.

Since stress can affect our personal performance, I recommend reconfirming expected behavior and responsibilities with your leaders. This will help you reestablish confidence and clear up any misconceptions, so your brain doesn’t run wild with the unknown.

Here’s a simple exercise to start.

Write an email to your direct manager outlining:

  • What you’re struggling with. For example, let’s say you miss a deadline.
  • What you’re doing to address those issues and concerns. To keep with the example, you proactively block time on your calendar and turn off instant messaging to prevent distractions.
  • Your recent wins.

Wrap up by asking your manager if this aligns with their expectations.

This summary does two things for you.

First, it shows that you’re committed to the role and that you’re passionate about improving. By defining the steps you’re taking to resolve the situation, you position yourself as a proactive force on the team without giving the impression that you’re trying to dictate the outcome. You also buy yourself some leeway when future problems arise because your leaders know you’ll try to fix them.

Second, it reiterates your successes. Celebrating your wins can be hard to do, especially early on in your career, but it’s essential to reinforcing a growth mindset. It’s easy to point out everything that is going wrong, so make it a practice to talk about the good stuff too.

3. Know when to step away from a heated situation.

When an angry customer confronts you with a problem during a meeting, is your immediate reaction to throw your agenda out the window and help right away?

Sitting with discomfort is hard. In the face of tension, I often see CSMs go straight into fix-it mode without taking the time to really register what’s being said to them.

The best thing to do in these situations is to step back and restate the issue to the customer: here’s what you said, here’s what I’m thinking, and here’s what I’d like to do next. If you need more time to analyze the matter before you can give a meaningful response, don’t be afraid to say just that. In the end, a customer will appreciate your integrity in tracking down the correct resolution—even if it means they don’t get an instant answer—versus placating them with a half-right response.

That said, it’s also helpful to recognize when you’re fighting a losing battle. Sometimes, if a customer enters a conversation charged, it doesn’t matter how thoughtful your response is; they’ll find fault due to their heightened emotional state. In those instances, de-escalate the argument by distancing yourself from the situation. Take a break and reconvene once everyone’s had time to process things on their own.

4. Root out the need behind the request.

In my earlier roles as a CSM, whenever I’d get an email from a customer with a request, I’d jump on it right away—no questions asked.

I’d spin my wheels trying to meet their requirements rather than stepping back to consider: Why are they asking for this? Who is it for? And what are they actually trying to do?

Answering these questions helps get to the root of the need behind the request. As a CSM, it gives you the opportunity to provide a more valuable answer, and in turn, makes you a better advocate and consultant.

Customers are often looking for short-term fixes. It’s your job to uncover any hidden or miscommunicated intentions and steer them toward long-term outcomes.

However, for this technique to be effective, you need to be thoughtful in your approach. Asking a customer to explain their request isn’t an invitation for you to turn it around and tell them why they don’t need what they’ve asked for. Instead, respond by validating their concerns and offer a different approach to solving the problem. The last thing you want is to make your customer feel inferior due to your desire to be right.

5. Recognize the power of admitting you don’t know.

Here’s a scenario I’ve seen play out countless times: A CSM joins a customer call. The customer asks a question the CSM doesn’t have an answer for. The CSM responds by frantically Slacking their colleagues for help. The CSM becomes frustrated when they don’t get a reply within a minute.

Initiating and feeding into this type of reactive behavior pressures you and your team to behave like live support. Once you track down an answer for a customer on the spot, guess what? You’ve set a precedent. No one should expect to have a solution in the moment.

To avoid setting off information fire drills and untenable response standards, talk to your manager about making it clear to your team that it’s OK to not have all the answers all the time.

Confidence is everything as a CSM. As soon as a customer realizes that you’re winging an answer to something they’ve asked, you lose credibility. Know when you’re out of your depth and be honest about it. It’s a much more constructive way to build a relationship. I guarantee your customer will understand.

And, as strange as it may sound, set aside time to practice candidly saying, “I don’t know, let me find out for you.” Intentionally voicing these words aloud will improve your confidence under pressure.

6. Separate yourself from the product and the message.

There’s a CSM mindset, especially in SaaS, where you see yourself as part of the product. This can cause CSMs to feel anxiety and guilt when customers get irritated or letdown by a product’s limitations.

In these moments, it’s important to remember that as a CSM, you provide a service to customers, but you are not the product. This small mental distinction makes all the difference in your outlook and how you approach your work.

I used to fall into this trap all the time. When a customer would ask, “Can you do XYZ?”—referring to our product’s functionality—I’d catch myself taking the blame for the tool’s inabilities, saying, “No, I can’t do that.”

Instead, reframe your response by acknowledging that it is the product that cannot perform the task. You can suggest alternatives and help in other ways. But again, you must detach yourself from the product.

The same advice applies when you receive a message with a less-than-positive tone.

Email is the most used form of customer communication for CSMs. One of its disadvantages is that we often misinterpret the emotion and intent behind messages. For example, let’s say your customer is short on time so they dash out a terse email. It lands in your inbox. Upon opening it, you misconstrue its shortness for anger. Next thing you know, you spiral into negative thoughts and convince yourself that the customer hates you, despite past experiences telling you otherwise.

If you find yourself on the verge of overanalyzing, the first thing to do is recognize that the message is not about you. There are exceptions, of course, but nine times out of ten, that seemingly stony email has nothing to do with you personally. Remember, most people’s intention is not to be mean. Try your best to not internalize the message.

Putting mental health first

One of the biggest lessons from my career in Customer Success is that maintaining your emotional well-being is key to protecting your passion.

As I know firsthand, the job of a CSM is extremely rewarding. You get to meet new and interesting people whose paths you otherwise would have never crossed. You have the unique opportunity to form tight-knit customer bonds, some of which, if you’re lucky enough, you’ll carry with you throughout your career. You get the unmatched satisfaction of making a direct impact on the professional lives of others.

But I’d be lying if I said it was always smiles and high-fives. We’ve all dealt with customer issues that make us question why we chose a profession where interaction was a key requirement.

Even still, I know I wouldn’t have traded this love-hate (at times) relationship for anything else. The fulfillment is worth the challenge. Just make sure that you have strategies to manage your stress, so that you can put your mental and emotional health first while you keep on growing.

If you’re interested in more stress management resources, we’ve got just the thing. Learn how to become a top performer without burning out in our webinar “From overwhelmed to over quota: How to be a more effective CSM” with Ryan Johansen. It’s one of our most popular webinars, and for good reason. Ryan shares practical frameworks for how to get the right things done to get results as a CSM.


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