From the Experts: What Makes a Great Customer Success Leader

Customer success is a tough job. It requires a variety of skill sets, a lot of passion, and dedication to get the job done right. For those who have managed to successfully navigate through the customer success industry, we wanted to know — what’s their secret? What does it take to truly become a top-notch leader?  

Today, you’ll meet Taylor Campbell (Customer Success Manager at Oktopost), Pat Kelly (Sr. Director, Customer Success Operations at Brainshark), Sara McGlothlin (Sr. Client Success Manager at Gather), Matthew Sellers (Director of Customer Success at CallRail), and Emily Traxler (VP of Customer Success at SingleOps). We asked them to share their advice, tips and best practices in customer success. So whether you’re new to customer success or a veteran in the field, you’ll gather insight into what steps you can take to become the ultimate leader. Let’s get started!

Q1: What do you think distinguishes a great customer success leader from a good one?

Matthew Sellers: A great leader understands the needs of their team and is in tune with their customer base. They meet customers out in the field, jump on an escalation, assist in pre-sales, etc. Doing this will help empower your team through more strategic decisions. In leadership, it’s easy to come up with processes and goals that meet your own needs while creating a poor experience for your customer(s).

Emily Traxler: A great customer success leader fosters an environment of learning, enforces consistent expectations for their team, and executes. It’s important to foster an environment for learning with hard skills like product learning, but also soft skills like communication, organization, and problem-solving. Enforcing consistent expectations means defining quantifiable goals for the team and each team member that correlate to your KPI’s. And while ideas are great, you need to execute. If your ideas are clear, you’ll have the necessary backing from other leadership, your goals will correlate with company initiatives, and you can execute easily.

Pat Kelly: The greatest customer success leaders have an unapologetic commitment to act in the best interest of the customer. No one has unlimited resources, time and energy, but the best leaders do not let constraints compromise their focus on customer experience.  This applies everywhere that customer success has a voice – sales, marketing, product, support and especially with the CS team themselves.

Q2: What traits (soft skills) are important for a great customer success leader?

Matthew Sellers: Critical thinking. One of your jobs as a leader is to remove roadblocks from your team. Being able to come up with solutions or workarounds on the fly will help alleviate stress from your CSMs and allow them to build more trust with their customers.

Sara McGlothlin: I would say empathy, top-notch communication skills, and relationship building. Showing empathy means being able to understand the client, even if you’re not on the front lines anymore. In the world of CS, prioritization, projects, and product(s) are ever-changing, so you have to be a fantastic communicator with clearly defined expectations. While it’s important to be direct, it’s also important to get to know your reps as people. They got into this role most likely because they love building relationships, so they want their manager/leader to make the same effort. Outside of your department, you’ll find yourself working a ton with other departments. Building those cross-functional relationships will help non-CS folks have a clearer understanding of the client and help you all work towards a common goal faster.

Taylor Campbell: Flexibility is huge in customer success. Every day you encounter a new set of questions, issues, and projects. Rolling with whatever comes your way is key. The ability to troubleshoot and come up with solutions to customer issues is also a critical part of the role. And lastly, interpersonal communication skills. This includes listening, speaking and writing. Effective communication is key in getting your point across. Communication skills are also crucial to identifying pain points and discussing customer feedback.

Pat Kelly: Strength, patience and determination as it relates to being committed to excellent customer experience. Mission, objectives, expectations, recognitions, corrections and progress all need to be clearly communicated to align the team moving forward.

Q3: What hard skills are necessary to be successful in customer success?

Taylor Campbell: It’s critical you have extensive product knowledge, and make sure you know the ins and outs of the platform so your customers can use it effectively. Outside of being an expert on your product, customer success managers are also a resource for relevant industry trends so it is important to stay up to speed in order to provide valuable insight.

Pat Kelly: It’s important to hold yourself and others accountable in a safe and respectful manner — making sure you’re not compromising on the value of delivering exceptional customer experience. There should also be a commitment to the education and development of the team and its members, so you can help improve the performance of the team.  And lastly, you should be mindful of operations, and the role data plays in understanding customers and identifying opportunities for growth. It’s incredibly powerful to take data and tell a story — we figure out what to keep, what we will change, and why.

Q4: What advice do you have for those who are just starting out and want to be successful in customer success?

Sara McGlothlin: Find someone in the industry at another company. You can learn so much about the role itself and what their day to day looks like. Honestly, I’d even do this before accepting a role, so you can make sure this is what you want to do. A lot of times people think of customer success only as relationship building. And while that’s a key part of the job, you have to be comfortable having uncomfortable conversations. Having someone else who can empathize – even if they aren’t more senior – can be really nice.

Matthew Sellers:  If you are technically curious and an effective communicator, it’s likely that you will do well in customer success (even if you’re brand new to it)!

Emily Traxler: Be agile! There is still so much to learn about customer success best practices, and if you are open to new ideas and trying new methods, you will be successful. Understand the core values of customer success, and make connections between those and your own company’s core values.

Pat Kelly: Make sure you have a passion for customers and delivering great service. If you don’t, then the hard days will be roadblocks instead of speed bumps. Then hire a bunch of like-minded passionate people that are smarter than you. Understand the operational aspects of customer success – the systems, data, reporting and administration. In addition, always be assessing and developing the skills of yourself, your leaders, the team and team members.

Q5: What are some things you should NOT do as a customer success leader?

Sara McGlothlin: This is such a cross-functional department. We’re often very dependent on other departments, and being pulled in different directions for projects from other teams. As a customer success leader, it’s important to be able to push back on other teams when your goals aren’t 100% aligned. Prioritization is key in customer success because it’s easy for this role to become more reactive than proactive. Your team will appreciate you looking out for them. At the same time, be careful not to say anything negative about other departments. Friction is natural, but your team will follow your lead, so make sure to set the standard of respect and appreciation.

Taylor Campbell: Make sure you aren’t setting unrealistic expectations for the customer. This is important in terms of milestone deadlines and with results from the platform as well. A customer success manager should provide the customer with relevant and helpful information that aligns with their goals. In addition, always convey that the results are only as good as the effort put in. Siding with the customer isn’t always the right answer. It can sound counterintuitive, but the customer is not always right. You do want to be their champion and convey customer feedback internally, but it’s important to not lose sight of the product vision. Every idea a customer suggests can not be implemented on the platform. That is why it is customer success’ job to make sure the customer is getting the most out of the tool, and also challenging them to try things differently. Oh, and don’t be afraid to say you don’t know the answer to something. You don’t have to know everything — you’re still growing too! Use other’s knowledge to your advantage when you need help.

Pat Kelly: You shouldn’t be in customer success if you don’t have passion for the work. It’s important that you don’t blame others, you’re providing a substantial amount of resources and tools, and really taking the time to understand the customer.

Liked this blog? Check out our upcoming webinar, From the Experts: Climbing the Ranks in Customer Success on May 16th at 2pm ET. We’ll be talking to customer success leaders Elizabeth Italiano (Founder & Managing Director at WnTD Partners), Manisha Marberry (Director of Customer Success at Sprinklr), and Sherrod Patching (Chief Customer Officer at Leadspace) on what skills/traits are needed to be successful in customer success, and how you can optimize your own career progression today.

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