May 20, 2022

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Q&A recap | The CSM journey: How to carve your Customer Success career path

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Are you a CSM thinking about your next career move, or wondering what promotion looks like and how to land it? With the right forward-thinking and career mapping, you can quickly identify the skills and steps to advance from individual contributor to manager.

In our webinar, The CSM journey: How to carve your Customer Success career path, Peter Armaly, vice president of Customer Success at ESG, explores the specialized paths to growth in CS, the skills you’ll need, and how to take charge of your career.

The webinar’s Q&A session uncovered a ton of tips and insights, including how to increase domain expertise, gauge employee engagement, and strengthen leadership skills beyond certifications.

Peter Armaly answers your Customer Success career path questions

Q: What is domain knowledge, and how you can become a domain expert?

A: The easiest way to think about it is you have a set of customers, and those customers are probably in a certain industry. Let me go back to my days at Oracle. One of the applications that our teams supported was the ERP application. If one of the CSMs had the banking sector as their typical customer, it would not be a tough stretch for that CSM to refine their knowledge and skills to have general conversations about finance and banking applications. What are the trends that are happening in the banking industry around, not just big clients, but also the smaller startups that are trying to erode the big bank’s customer base? There are forces at work within your customer’s environment that CSMs should be aware of because it makes you more meaningful as a business partner to customers when you speak their language. They don’t expect you to be an expert because they’re the experts. I’ve actually had customers say to me, “I don’t expect Oracle to be the experts here, but what I expect you to do is be an expert at your applications. You can help us understand how we can leverage them better. It’d be great if you understood what our problems were, and not just with your applications, but with our business.” That’s what I mean by domain understanding, having a greater appreciation for your customer’s business.

To become a domain expert, it’s step by step. You start by having an interest. You must have an interest in it; that’s what I meant by business curiosity, too. If you don’t have the interest, you’re probably not going to make the effort. And if you’re not going to make the effort, you’re not going to become a domain expert and you’re not going to grow. But if you want to be, then start reading, start talking, start learning. There are tons of seminars or webinars you can attend that are very 101. You don’t have to be too sophisticated about it. There are tons of journals that you can read that help. You just need general awareness. Every single day I read the news. It’s not just business pages but world events, local events, whatever happened. It’s not like I read all the articles but I’m aware of what’s happening. Sometimes, I’ll home in on a particular topic because I want to learn it better. It’s helped a lot to allow me to come to a conference, like TSIA’s conference, with senior executives and have decent conversations about some of these businesses that they’re in, whether it’s machinery, how digital is changing the landscape of the way they monitor these end machines and all that.

Q: How do you define an engaged employee?

A: As a leader, you can tell who you’re engaged people are. It’s usually the ones who raise their hands, who are contributing in meetings. They’re also the ones who are doing their job well. Engagement isn’t just about being vocal in meetings, although that’s an indicator. It’s also the ones who are doing the job with their customers. They’re running their success plans, making progress, communicating, coordinating efforts, all the stuff you expect of great CSM, they’re doing that, that’s engagement. If they weren’t engaged, they wouldn’t be doing that stuff.

However, you can do all that stuff and be unhappy. But unhappiness doesn’t necessarily mean disengagement because I’ve been unhappy in jobs, but I’ve always been engaged. The tricky part of management is trying to figure out where all the individuals on your team are in their heads with the role and what you can do to make their life. It’s not like it’s all your responsibility, but in a sense, you want to make them feel more gratification in their job and some of that is understanding who they are. Some people just like doing the job and hitting all the milestones and knocking off everything, but in meetings, they just wait. That doesn’t mean disengagement.

Q: In addition to volunteering for projects and participating in third-party certifications or courses, how else can CSMs bolster their leadership skills?

A: You can demonstrate leadership as an individual contributor. You can do that through the way you present yourself within your own team meetings. You can volunteer informally to help leadership. At Oracle, we had this culture and initiative within Customer Success called Mavericks. It was voluntary, but it was so important to the VP of Customer Success because she was trying to instill a certain culture within the organization. I was part of that with her. It was informal, but we’d get together every week and there would be spinoff initiatives that came from that around driving culture like lunch and learns. People loved the experience of being part of that. Generally speaking, they were stepping up as leaders even though they were all individual contributors. They were demonstrating some of the skills and attributes necessary for modern leaders who want to do more to drive a better culture within a company and within a group.

Get certification. Raise your hand for special projects. There are day-to-day things people can do to step up and be seen as more leader-like without being a formal leader. You can start showing that you’re a leader before you’re even named one.

Q: What key metrics or evaluators should be used in a CSM performance review?

A: For me, the No. one job is to drive your customers toward having successful outcomes. You want to make sure you do the job. The job of a CSM is to drive successful outcomes. So whatever processes exist for your role, that’s the No. one thing.

As a leader, you’re also looking at some of the less tangible. They’re still tangible but they’re probably less so, and that’s around shadowing others or providing shadowing. You’re basically coaching others. That’s a great thing to be good at as a CSM because it gets noticed and it’s helpful for the manager to have people they can depend on. You’re amplifying help throughout your team, and the manager can’t do it all alone. It depends on the level, but as a leader, I would expect that of my senior people.

As a more senior CSM, you’d also be measured on your ability to make connections outside Customer Success. To develop relationships with other teams that you need in order to fulfill the service that customers need.

Q: How many years of experience does a team lead or manager of CSMs need?

A: The answer depends on the size of the company and its maturity. What I mean by maturity is how young the company is in terms of the number of years. For a small company, I could see a team lead of a CS organization after two years. Two years is a good amount of time to spend if you have a small number of customers. But usually, that means you’re doing a lot with them, and you’ve probably learned a lot in two years, including developing processes that will help the organization grow and start scaling, which is critical.

I would want training to take place before I make someone a manager. Team leads are one thing, but to be a manager, there are a lot of other things to think about. It’s not just about knowing the job; it’s about knowing how to inspire and lead people. Even if it’s just an entry-level manager role, you need to be aware that a big part of the job is getting good at that.

After a small company, I’d say five years. At a large company, you’re not going to be a manager unless you’ve been in the role for 10 years. But it depends. They hire people at large companies who may have learned management experience somewhere else.

Q: How can CS leaders support their team’s development during hyper-growth?

A: As a leader, I would work really hard to shed a lot of light on or expose them all to those industry forces: what’s happening, and where are all the changes happening? I would be pumping them full of information. I would make sure my meetings weren’t just strictly about the job: who’s doing what, and how you did last week. It would be about what’s coming down the pike, not just for our company, but what are the forces at play within our typical customer environment that we should be improving? That’s how I would enable my team in a rapidly changing environment. I would be participating as someone who can help them be more aware.

New to Customer Success?

As a fast-growing CS platform and partner, we rounded up the best pieces of career advice from our CS team members who know firsthand what it takes to hit the ground running in this role. Get our CSM’s top job tips and resource recommendations, in our blog, “5 pieces of career advice for starting in Customer Success.”

PSA: We’re hiring! Come #FightChurn with us and take your career to the next level.

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