Aug 24, 2023

Read Time 4 min

5 tips for first-time managers in customer success


The job is never done in customer success.

Emails pile up, meetings are stacked back-to-back and there’s always someone who needs something from the customers—and it’s up to customer success to make the request.

That alone is enough to stress even the most productive individual contributors. Add to it the leadership responsibilities of a first-time manager, and work suddenly can feel overwhelming.

Ryan Johansen experienced this firsthand years ago as a first-time manager. He found himself working 12-hour days, and in the end, feeling like he didn’t accomplish much.

“I felt like such a failure,” he said. “I was having trouble relating with people.”

Even worse, he started having panic attacks. He knew something had to give—and set out to research and find answers. That journey led him to acquire new leadership skills and eventually start a consulting business that offers training and educational resources to new managers.

In our webinar, “The leadership leap: from first-time manager to confident leader,” Ryan shares what he’s learned about finding the courage to lead, and how you can too. .

Five tips to become an effective manager in customer success

1. Recognize that everyone feels like a fraud sometimes

New leaders in customer success are often promoted because they are high performers. “You suddenly think that you should have all the answers, but that’s not how it works,” said Ryan. Many begin to doubt their capabilities and start to experience imposter syndrome. The first step is to realize you are not alone. CS professionals can be more prone to imposter syndrome due to the field’s relative newness—many people have limited direct experience—and evolving maturity with the introduction of new specialized roles and best practices.

Companies often promote employees into leadership positions but haven’t provided training, support or the systems and processes new leaders need. The reality is that being a manager is like any new role: you have to learn how to do it well and that will take some adjustment time.

2. Be candid about your challenges

After one particularly rough day at work as a new manager, Ryan faced the difficult decision of whether to speak up about it or put his head down and keep working. Having weighed the cost of staying silent, Ryan made the choice to confide in his CEO. He candidly explained the challenges he was feeling. His CEO was supportive and that helped him make a plan.

Going to the CEO may or may not be the right move for everyone. However, Ryan’s point is simple: don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s a trait of an effective leader and a sign of strength, not a weakness. It’s also one of the best ways to improve, learn, and build deeper relationships.

3. Take a step back to evaluate those harder moments

We can all lose ourselves in the moment and let our emotions get the best of us. Sometimes you are already anxious from putting out the proverbial fires, and then one more thing hits, and suddenly it pushes you over the edge.

In these moments of stress and discomfort, it’s helpful to have a technique to catch yourself. Ryan recommends box breathing, which is a simple breathing exercise for maintaining control.

Here’s how it’s performed:

  • Inhale slowly for four seconds;
  • Hold your breath for four seconds;
  • Exhale slowly for four seconds; and
  • Wait four seconds before inhaling slowly again.

The point of the exercise is to take a step back. “You don’t have to solve every conflict right then and there,” he said.

4. Ask questions to understand

Learning how to motivate people is a big challenge for first-time leaders because people have different backgrounds, world views and belief systems. It can be shocking for new managers to realize that not everyone thinks the same way as they do.

“I learned the hard way that not everyone is going to be wired the same way you are, and not everyone’s going to be motivated in the same ways,” said Ryan.

One solution is to ask lots of questions. Ryan suggests using the Socratic Method, which in a sense is a bit like acting as a facilitator. “All it means is you’re asking people questions to understand their point of view. What works well about this is it helps you get to the root of problems.”

The line of questions also helps your team to think through possible solutions. That alone will help relieve a lot of stress for new leaders.

5. Develop a system for establishing priorities

There’s an adage that says, “When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.” Prioritization is crucial for newly minted managers; everything can’t be done at once.

Ryan is an advocate of the Eisenhower Matrix, which was championed by Dwight Eisenhower, who led allied forces in Europe during World War II and later was elected as the 34th President of the United States. He used this technique to prioritize tasks and make effective decisions. The Eisenhower Matrix - a tool for new managers and leaders in customer successThe matrix helps organize tasks according to urgency and importance. There are only four possible outcomes:

  • Do the task immediately;
  • Do the task later;
  • Delegate the task; or
  • Eliminate the task.

As a first-time manager, you may find that you’re reluctant to put tasks in the “delegate” bucket. It’s often easier, initially, to complete a task yourself rather than coach a team member through it. However, it’s an important skill to get more work done in the long run—and grow the skills of your team.

Additionally, as you go through this exercise, you’ll discover that some tasks don’t add value. A big part of a strategy is deciding what tasks you won’t do. Being a leader requires you to learn how to use your finite time and resources for maximum benefit.

It also challenges you to manage up. Use this matrix as a tool to get what you need for your own leaders. For example, when an executive has yet another good idea they want your team to tackle, you can ask them to help you prioritize. Show them your matrix and ask them to recommend which tasks should be de-prioritized so your team can address their new idea.

Confidence is contagious

Leadership and confidence can be learned. Just like any other skill, they take deliberate practice to get better. One way you can grow your confidence as a leader is to build confidence in others.

Learn strategies to improve your team’s performance and peace of mind in our webinar, “Overwhelmed to over quota: How to be a more effective CSM.” Ryan shares frameworks on how to get the right things done to get results as a CS professional.


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