Customer-centric Growth by Lincoln Murphy

The 5 Secrets of World-class Customer Success Managers

Having worked with hundreds of companies of different sizes, funding stages, and Customer Success maturity, around the world, I’ve boiled down what I believe are the five “secrets” of World-class CSMs.

This is specifically about CSMs that are thriving, even if their environment is less-than-perfect. 

It’s always best to have strong Customer Success leadership, buy-in from Executives, great processes, purpose-built CSM software, etc. But World-class CSMs can be found in environments that don’t have any of those things. And the best part; These “secrets” can be learned and applied.

It turns out, they’re not secrets after all.

Defining a World-class CSM

Even if everyone agreed on what Customer Success is – they do not – and used the same methodologies for Customer Success Management – they also do not – and all CSMs did the same thing and were measured the same way – again, no – benchmarking in this field would be a challenge.

As it stands, it’s a nightmare.

But if I were cornered and required to blurt out a definition of a “World-class CSM” that works in any given situation, I would say it is a CSM that has exceeded 102% of their aggressively evolving goals, at least three consecutive quarters, whatever those goals might be; Expansion. Churn. Retention. Advocacy.

I will not include C-Sat in there… that is too easily gamed and far too subjective.

Do not get too caught up in how you define a World-class CSM – though I’ve opened that can of worms myself by invoking such a notion – and focus more on the “secrets” herein.

Regardless of “World-class” status, what’s listed below will absolutely help you.

1. World class CSMs are Confident

World-class CSMs are confident; but not in the way you might think.

When we talk about confidence, we tend to think of what is categorized as Subjective Confidence. This is the confidence tied to attitude, mood, or ego. Subjective Confidence is fleeting for most and not based in reality for others. We all, unfortunately, know the latter and have all experienced the former.

Subjective Confidence is not something World-class CSMs rely on. Of course, it’s great to feel confident emotionally, but the best CSMs realize they can’t rely on that type of confidence being there consistently.

Rather, CSMs performing at the highest levels turn to a different type of confidence: Objective Confidence.

Objective Confidence comes from being prepared, following processes, and being present with their customers. In fact, these three things make up my CSM Self-Confidence Framework that I share with my clients and students in my training programs.

Using the CSM Self-Confidence Framework to raise Objective Confidence to a level that offsets a lack of Subjective Confidence – or just “not feeling it” today – allows the CSM to be truly Present in customer meetings, and – critically – to get past Imposter Syndrome and avoid People Pleasing.

2. World-class CSMs are Assertive

There are essentially three types of behavior a CSM can possess: Passive, Aggressive, and Assertive. Unfortunately, too many CSMs fall into the Passive category, where they let the customer dictate meetings, their communication rarely drives the customer to take action, and overall, they’re at the mercy of their conditions. 

Passive leads to People Pleasing, which is when you commit to something in the moment that hurts you as the CSM (generally agreeing to things that take more time, leading you to not be prepared for meetings, and then getting lost, and agreeing to more things, and… the cycle continues), hurts your team (you commit to things on their behalf that they can’t deliver), and hurts your customer (if you or your team fail to deliver, the customer fails, too).

On the other hand, Aggressive behavior – think of this as telling others what to do but without empathy – is also bad. Luckily, I have only run into this a few times. But when I did encounter it, it was bad and required a lot of damage control. Don’t be aggressive. Have empathy. Be nice.

The most successful CSMs are Assertive, not Aggressive (or Passive).

But Aggressive and Assertive behavior are often confused, so let’s clarify. The biggest difference between them is that assertiveness includes respect for yourself and the other party, while aggressive communication quickly disrespects and often insults the other party, and depending upon your level of psychopathy, will leave you feeling bad, too.

World-class CSMs are Assertive. They tell customers exactly what they need to do to achieve their Goals – and will intervene when the customer goes off course – but always take into consideration what’s going on in their customer’s world when giving those directives. 

While they may push customers in ways that make them unhappy in the moment – progress is not always pleasant – it’s ultimately a positive experience with no lingering negative feelings; Especially since the customer has now achieved their goal, thanks to the CSMs Assertiveness.

3. World-class CSMs are Growth-Oriented

On the surface, this seems less like a “secret” and more like a directive from management. You focus on what metrics you’re given. If churn is high and that’s the focus, then wouldn’t the CSM who’s ending the quarter with less churn than the previous quarter be performing well?

But World-class CSMs – either intuitively or because they were trained early on to – understand that as customers reach their goals they evolve, and their relationship with the customer should evolve and grow, too. Customers that are successful will want to increase their investment with them. World-class CSMs realize that simply retaining customers at the same level (or with only a simple price increase) is a potential red flag vs. something to celebrate.

And even if churn is too high and the focus for the team is to simply keep the customers longer, World-class CSMs know that’s only part of it. And they work to ensure that those customers who don’t need to be brought back from the brink of churn should be expanding. They recognize that success exists on a spectrum, but it’s all predicated on the customer achieving their Desired Outcome.

Ultimately, World-class CSMs have Net Revenue Retention (NRR; also called Net Retention Rate or Net Dollar Retention – NDR) as their Key Performance Indicator (KPI). Their revenue under management is increasing through improved retention, yes, but also through rapid and exponential expansion in account value.

Even though they’re growth-oriented, World-class CSMs would never be considered “salesly.” Rather, they achieve this massive growth in account value by truly understanding the customer’s Ascension Path and aligning “expansion opportunities” with the customer’s Success Milestones through Orchestration.

4. World-class CSMs are Efficient

World-Class CSMs don’t fall into the trap of letting 1:1 synchronous meetings be the customer’s primary value metric in their relationship. Rather, they’re able to more effectively leverage technology (broadcast video, async 1:1 video, self-service deflection, etc.) and Joint Accountability to position themselves as increasingly more valuable to the customers, while getting the customers to do more of the work themselves. 

Even when the customer’s Appropriate Experience (AX) is built around high-frequency 1:1 synchronous meetings, World-class CSMs find ways to make those meetings as efficient and effective as possible.

Because of this focus on efficiency, World-class CSMs are able to take on a larger number of accounts with little impact to their workload while still delivering the customer’s AX.

5. World-class CSMs are Consistent

In the daily life of World-class CSMs, hustle and scramble don’t exist. In the daily life of under-performing and, frankly, miserable, CSMs… hustle and scramble are the only things that exist. And poor management often sees that hustle and scramble as a badge of honor rather than an indication of their poor management.

World-class CSMs strive for consistency across the entire quarter rather than ramping at the end. They plan their week and their days to ensure they’re in control and can hit the numbers they need to hit to reach their goals.

World-class CSMs strive not only for consistency, but consistent excellence. Not perfection. Perfection doesn’t exist. But they prepare, plan, and execute consistently to ensure their customers achieve their goals within their AX, while the CSM hits the numbers they’ve laid out for themselves or have been given by management. Excellence. Consistently.

World-class CSMs aren’t Born; They’re Made

It’s easy to attribute the success some CSMs have simply to their personality. Their drive. Their… whatever. And while it’s true that some people have characteristics that create more favorable conditions from which to launch a successful career, CSMs with those same characteristics also fail to achieve, because while those characteristics might be an advantage at first, it’s not enough to sustain and grow your career.

The 5 Secrets of World-class CSMs aren’t in-built characteristics that you’re either born with or you’re out of luck. Rather, they’re behaviors and skills that you can learn. They’re frameworks that you can apply. Anyone can do it. Any CSM can be World-class.

And while World-class Customer Success leaders cultivate these behaviors and skills, CSMs can take charge of their own careers and thrive – even in less-than-hospitable environments – by focusing on these five areas. 

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