Apr 9, 2021

Read Time 8 min

Q&A: Surviving Stress in Customer Success


Customer Success is fueled by customer interaction. Working with people and building relationships brings us joy, fulfillment, and satisfaction – but also stress and exhaustion when navigating difficult conversations, personalities, or past experiences.

The good news is that you aren’t powerless to the effects of stress. Finding ways to effectively cope with job stress benefits both your professional and personal life.

In honor of Stress Management Awareness Month, we invited Ryan Johansen, Customer Success Director at RapidMiner, to share his experience dealing with extreme burnout and show us how to survive and thrive under the pressures of being a Customer Success professional. 

During the webinar, we discuss how to:

  • Change your relationship with stress
  • Avoid burnout from your workload
  • Cope with stress from people within your job

Director of Customer Success, RapidMinerIf you missed the webinar, you can watch it on-demand.


Q&A Recap

Speaker: Ryan Johansen, Director of Customer Success, RapidMiner


Q: What are your recommended books on stress?


  • The Happiness Trap (that’s when I talked about cognitive defusion) is a really good one that takes a very different approach to how we look at stress.
  • The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal talks a lot about some of the positive aspects of stress and how labeling it as a negative thing, when it’s something that commonly occurs, can be problematic and lead to challenges.
  • Deep Work by Cal Newport. That book changed my life. For productivity, which I know I’ve mentioned a lot of that, but they can go hand in hand. If you’re not spending time stressed out, you can get work done. That’s another one that talks about the almost tyranny of email and things like that. Reducing how much time you’re on a screen can make a massive impact.
  • Getting Things Done by David Allen.


Q: How do you manage the new instant message (Slack, Teams, Skype, etc.) work culture that’s emerged from remote work?

A: I’m the most anti-Slack/Teams person ever. It’s a necessary evil. Give yourself that focused hour to actually get some things done. In the book, Cal Newport actually mentioned it too, but set expectations with the people you work with.

My manager was cool about it, but at first I sat him down and was like, “Listen, this is absolutely killing me. I’m not getting as much done. What I want to do is offer more value to the company, and I can’t do that if I’m responding to things that people ask me.”

If you’re setting expectations, I’d just say, “Typically, I have an off period between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m.” Then people understand so they don’t freak out when you don’t answer. Be really clear about that. Sometimes you might get pushback, and people call you a weirdo, but it’s worked for me.


Q: How can you support a friend or co-worker who’s exhibiting signs of extreme stress at work? 

A: That’s a very challenging subject where everyone is wired differently. In my past, I really kind of took it internal. Other people will be a bit more external.

What a lot of people shy away from is when you tell them they have to do this and really attack them. One thing that really helped me personally is hearing of other people who’ve overcome it. That gave me a little positivity.

If you can just say, “Hey, it seems like you’re having a hard time. I want you to know that I care about you, and I’m here for you. If there’s anything I can do.” Because when you get in a state like that, and someone’s really frazzled and burned out, it’s extremely hard for them to take that first step sometimes. Just being there for someone is a huge thing.


Q: How should Customer Success leaders gauge their team’s stress level?

A: It’s difficult because like I said, 4 out of 10 people actually talk about it. I tend to play the cards really close to the chest with my boss sometimes. I don’t know why; it’s just how some people are wired. 

A good technique is to ask, “How are you doing?” and they’ll say, “Fine.”

Then you say, “How are you doing?”

Maybe ask them three times, and usually by then, they’ll start to open up.

I try to be really honest with my story and how things have gone. So that plays, but if you show a little vulnerability that it’s totally normal and other people deal with it. If you just have that compassion, it might help, but I’m still trying to find the perfect answer as well.


Q: How can you avoid letting email overrun your entire day?

A: It’s really brutal. That’s something that I try to attack head on. I didn’t mention it in the presentation, but starting your day with email is the worst thing you can do. There’s a psychological reason why we go to email because there’s all these pretty alerts and colors and some of them make sounds. I believe it’s called the lottery brain. It’s built so that you keep scrolling, hoping you’re going to get something cool, and with work email, we rarely do.

That’s a tough pattern to hack, but I try to not check my email until a certain time in the day. I might shut it off for like an hour. If you take those mini breaks, that can be really effective.

But if you’re responding to everything, it’s going to be impossible to catch up. It’s a necessary evil. I try to shut off all my alerts too. I’ll let emails come up. Usually, they play a sound or there’s a color or something like that; try to make that as non-appetizing as possible. If you don’t have that there, it’s not going to make your brain quickly look at it, and then dive into that application.

It’s the same thing with my iPhone. I keep that on grayscale so it’s not as good to look at. I don’t have any notifications on my phone icon.


Q: How can you tell your boss you’re overwhelmed without having it affect their opinion of you?

A: I open up about my experience. I went into my boss’s office in almost a full breakdown and told him. I had the same exact fear. He was extremely cool about it. We have a very good relationship still.

More often than not, your leaders should want you to succeed. If anyone gives you a hard time about that, it speaks to the culture of your organization; think that through a little bit.

You’re going to have to be honest, or else It’s going to get worse. It can be really difficult. Maybe be a little bit more subtle about it at first. If that’s not getting through, you have to be honest with where you’re at. When I manage, I don’t know exactly where people are at. The feedback I give my team is that I’m not going to catch every cue, so just hit me over the head with a frying pan with whatever you need from me and I can help you. People aren’t mind readers, so maybe they don’t know. But I would just try and have an honest conversation.


Q: What should you do if your company culture causes part of your stress?

A: Culture is a hard thing to buck up against when you’re just one person. I would see what allies you can make in your company. Obviously, we’re working from home, so it’s a little bit difficult. I’ve been in situations like that before. My honest opinion is that there are a lot of great companies out there that would be happy to have you. Don’t stay in a situation where you’re not treated well. Life’s too short.


Q: How can you notice when you’re starting to fall into a negative or toxic mindset?

A: A very important disclaimer for what I’m talking about: I still get stressed out all the time; it’s just not as bad, and I can handle a lot more now.

A simple exercise is to get a piece of paper and put it in your desk and write down what time it is – mood journaling is something that I haven’t done but I’ve heard it’s pretty effective – and try to keep a baseline of how you’re doing day to day.

You make data points [and notice that] when you have a certain meeting that you start to get more stressed. If you feel yourself sliding into a negative state, it’s always really easy to get into but very tough to get out of.

One technique I’ve heard is if you’re feeling really negative, try to visualize a really positive thing that you went through. It sounds super hokey, but it can be very effective.

Also, do things that you like. If you’re having a tough day, develop a couple of things. I love working out and stuff like that. Watch a comedy. Find those things that might get you out of it. It’s good that you’re aware of it, because then you can attack it.


Q: My team is incredibly stressed and overworked, especially with recent layoffs. No matter how much I ask them to take care of themselves and rest, it still seems like they push themselves too hard. How can I help them?

A: I went through something similar last year where we stopped all hiring. Things were really tight for a couple of months. As a leader, what I tried to do is take whatever I can off my team’s plate and eat that stress myself, which has its own negative effects.

Especially with Customer Success, show the value that we bring to organizations. The more you can start to make that business case. A lot of our revenue comes from existing customers, so that made it easier for me to get that stake for the team.

I’ve heard good things, like not doing any Zoom meetings on Friday, which isn’t realistic for everyone. 

The best way to help your team is to let them know that you’re there with them. I’ve been in difficult situations, but I had a boss one time who was like I’ve never asked you to do something I wouldn’t do myself. If I’m working with someone who’s right there beside me, I’m cool with it. Whereas if someone’s sitting up top putting the whip down, it’s not the same.


Q: As a new Customer Success Manager, how can I become more comfortable having difficult customer conversations?

A: Another book recommendation that’s really good is called Crucial Conversations. That’s where I got some of the material for dealing with conflict. That’s probably a good thing to read up. 

I don’t have some crazy strategy. What I do with any weakness or thing that I want to get better at, I go to Google or YouTube and check out anything I can try and get better at it. 

If you’re brand new to Customer Success or really any profession, it’s going to suck at first, and it’s not going to be comfortable, but you’ll be shocked where you come if you keep sticking to it and practicing.

Another good thing that you can do is role play really difficult calls. Sit down with your boss and have them be a jerk, which I’m sure there’ll be happy to do. It should be fairly easy to get yourself a little bit comfortable. It’s almost like immersion therapy where you’re thinking about a difficult thing, having it as a test run, and actually doing it.


To learn more about how you can learn to better cope with stress, watch the webinar on-demand. You can also visit Ryan’s website to learn more about his seven day stress reduction course.

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