A New Model For Evaluating Customer Success Manager Skills Progression

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One of the most overlooked crucial elements to delivering Customer Success is the people and their skills. In a fast-growing and dynamic environment like Customer Success, training and skill development are often afterthoughts, relegated to the "someday" category of things to do.

While this is an understandable response given the effort required to address training and the endless stream of seemingly more pressing concerns, it's also a guaranteed recipe for reducing your efficiency and effectiveness. The best Customer Success strategy and processes can only get you so far if the people responsible for executing them don't have the proper skills.

In this article, we'll explore how you can avoid making assumptions about how skilled you or your team is by using the CSM Capability Maturity Model as a framework for gauging the level of skill that present based on typified behaviors. 

Customer Success Manager Skills, Capabilities, and Impacts

Some of the most challenging issues faced by Customer Success Managers and teams today are either wholly, or partially, attributable to inaccurate assumptions made about the capabilities and behaviors of the individuals involved in the process. 

Unfortunately, in the absence of an organized, easy to apply assessment method, it is an all too understandable failing, especially when you consider the vast array of skills a high-functioning CSM must possess and be able to apply. 

Without a clear means for establishing a baseline for the level of knowledge, skills, and capabilities this challenge will persist, leaving CSMs and Customer Success Leaders with no other choice but to rely on assumptions. But, what if there was a way to roughly gauge a CSMs or a team of CSMs, abilities based on observed behavior?


A Way Forward

To aid with assessing where a CSM is in their professional development, we created the CSM Capability Maturity Model as an adjunct to our Customer Success Competency Model. 

The Customer Success Manager Capability Maturity Model

While our Customer Success Competency Model defines the critical Customer Success Manager skills and the disciplines that each of those skills is associated with in detail, our CSM Capability Maturity Model focuses on providing a framework for understanding, at a general level, the progression of those skills through a six-level model designed to enable you to pinpoint where a given CSM is at in their professional development journey based on observable behaviors.


Exploring the CSM Capability Maturity Model and Customer Success Manager Skills Progression

The model covers every phase of a Customer Success Managers skill growth: Starting from the point that a potential CSM is "aspiring" to begin their career, through to the final level of their development where they begin to innovate and expand upon the practices that have guided their development up to that point.

In the following sections, we'll explore each of the levels, the characteristics of a Customer Success Manager that is operating at that level, and will highlight the general areas that CSMs should focus on as they seek to evolve their capabilities and reach the next level in the model.


Level 0 - The "Aspiring" CSM

What set of attributes defines the Aspiring CSM? They've read about the potential of the Customer Success Manager role and have decided that it is a career they want to pursue. As the name indicates, they are aspiring to become a CSM and join the growing Customer Success industry.

The Aspiring CSM is focused on discovering how to break into this new role by getting hired for their first position. They are typically looking to re-enter the workforce, transition from another career, or are looking for a point at which they can enter the workforce for the first time. The Aspiring CSM is interested in selecting a job that is in-demand and has the potential for upward mobility.

The Aspiring CSM is seeking knowledge and working to develop the basic skills that they will need to be proficient as a junior CSM. They're focused on developing their understanding of what Customer Success is, and what goes into delivering it. They're looking to build enough expertise to enable them to break into the industry by landing their first job.

What does an Aspiring CSM need to do to improve their level of proficiency? For an Aspiring CSM, the focus needs to be on building an understanding of the fundamental principles and practices Customer Success relies on, the elements that go into it and the practices that are used to deliver it.

If they focus on learning those fundamentals and take advantage of available Customer Success Manager Skills training, they should be able to differentiate themselves enough to achieve their objective of being hired as a CSM. Once they understand the foundational elements, the main thing they require to progress further is the practical experience that they will gather as a newly-minted CSM.

Keys to Progression

  1. Comprehension of key concepts and definition of Customer Success

  2. Acquisition of key Customer Success Manager skills through training

  3. Gaining practical experience in mature Customer Success environments (i.e. land their first job as a CSM)


Level 1 - Learning

The Learning CSM is very early in their career, typically in their first role as a CSM, they have an understanding of the broader concept of Customer Success and what must be done to deliver it at a high level but limited practical experience and exposure to the realities of the practice.

Learning CSMs should focus their energy on learning the "ropes." Their main goal should be acquiring and integrating all the functional skills they will need so that they can work with their customers effectively. 

During the learning stage, a CSM should be working to understand and execute the established processes. They should seek to refine their knowledge of the product/offering, build their experience with delivering the target outcomes for customers and focus on identifying and acquiring the skills that they do not already possess. Attention should be given to understanding the common scenarios and issues that arise and how to work through/resolve them. They should endeavor to be exposed to as many different customer types and applications of the product/offering as possible so that they can round out their experience fully.

To enhance their capabilities and enable themselves to progress to the next level of maturity, they need to focus on developing their ability to execute the established processes with little to no outside assistance. 

Keys to Progression

  1. Refining knowledge of the company’s product offering and various customer types and applications

  2. Understanding common challenges that arise and knowing how to resolve them

  3. Focus on developing the ability to execute established processes with little assistance


Level 2 - Functional

The Functional CSM fully understands the core processes that govern customer interactions. They can execute the operations according to the established best practices; however, they still struggle with the subtler points resulting in inconsistent results. They can operate in the manner that they have been taught, but their lack of a broad experience-base leads them to encounter issues and scenarios that they are not equipped to handle. 

Functional CSMs are typically highly reactive and are prone to slipping into "firefighting" mode due to a lack of knowledge about how to manage themselves, their customers and their interactions effectively. They are focused on moving customers forward based on what they understand to be the next best step. Their by-the-book approach often causes them to experience issues in complex situations requiring them to seek assistance from more senior CSMs. They're functional. They get things done, but they experience challenges when events occur that are not part of the plan.

For a Functional CSM to improve their capabilities, they need to not only understand all of the different actions required to make a customer successful; they also need to know why each action is taken. They need to know what they're doing, why they are doing it, and when it should be done, as well as how they can apply different tactics to resolve challenges should the unexpected happen. They need to work on identifying the key challenges that they have with engaging with their customers and focus on identifying the opportunities that they have to improve.

Keys to Progression

  1. Thoroughly understanding why each action is taken to help the customer be successful

  2. Knowing how and when to apply different tactics to resolve unexpected challenges

  3. Identifying opportunities to improve on key challenges they have engaging with customers


Level 3 - Tactical

Tactical CSMs know the ins and outs of the Customer Success processes that govern day-to-day operations and engagement with their customers. They have garnered enough experience to understand the appropriate tactics to leverage in most standard scenarios and can handle the unexpected. They have been in the role for one to three years and have developed their Customer Success Manager skills to a high-level, enabling them to deliver consistent results.

The Tactical CSM’s biggest challenge is understanding the bigger picture. They’re still largely looking at their customer interactions from a transactional viewpoint. They're very good at the interaction level and can effectively manage the customer, getting the outcome that they expect. However, their approach is still highly tactical and often reactive. They can deliver the expected result for a given scenario but are not capable of looking at how that outcome might affect the achievement of their broader objective. 

To progress to the next level of their development, Tactical CSMs need to work to develop a “big picture” perspective. They need to think like a chess player and always be considering their next three actions and what challenges or friction they might face (and how to avoid it proactively). The key to developing the more strategic view is to begin to look at their customer engagement strategy at the year level. Understanding what they need to do now to set themselves up for successful interactions as far out as six to nine months. CSMs that are working to progress to the strategic level are beginning to understand that they have to look at their engagement model, segments and activities more closely as they begin to understand that each interaction is time, a precious commodity. They begin to seek the most effective and efficient ways to remain engaged with their accounts as they started to understand that being busy doesn’t equate to making progress towards goals. 

The Tactical CSM that is working to develop themselves also begins to appreciate the fact that no how good they believe their skills are, there is always room for improvement. They seek ways to understand what key skills they lack or need to develop further and begin to seek opportunities to improve the skills as a Customer Success Manager through advanced training.

Keys to Progression

  1. Developing a “bigger picture” perspective and more strategic view

  2. Considering the future to be proactive about possible issues that may arise and be set up for successful interactions

  3. Understanding current skills gaps and seeking advanced Customer Success Manager skills training to address them


Level 4 - Strategic

The Strategic CSM uses measurements, metrics, and controls, to effectively manage their overall portfolio of customers. They are well versed in the Customer Success team’s operating principles, tools, and procedures and utilize those fully to improve the visibility, management, and quality of their customer interactions. 

Strategic CSMs have an appreciation for the impact of their actions on the bigger picture. They are always thinking at least three steps ahead and understand that today’s action (or inaction) can influence a renewal decision 9 months in the future. 

They are proactive in their approach and have developed an early warning system to highlight potential issues and so that they become aware of them early enough that they can mitigate or resolve them before they become full-blown problems. They've laid out their roadmap for success for at least 12 months with each customer, and they know the actions that they need to take and what to do when an unexpected issue disrupts the ideal path. 

For a Strategic CSM to progress, they must be able to apply strategic thinking and actions to their entire portfolio of accounts and have a segmented strategy for engagement based on defined levels of value. They deeply understand and manage their capacity and utilize this level of awareness to plan their actions so that they ensure that they are always making the best use of their availability by focusing on prioritizing the completion of the actions that will enable them to achieve their objectives. Their focus has progressed beyond simply achieving a renewal and onto what actions the can take to increase the customers lifetime value. They have shifted their thinking around, and practices for evaluating, churn risk and are now focusing on how they can reduce the cost to retain their accounts.  

Keys to Progression

  1. Establishing a pattern of strategic thinking around delivering success to customers

  2. Segmenting the different types of engagements and customers in their portfolio to better understand how to they can increase efficiency and effectiveness

  3. Ability to create a roadmap for each account that defines the plan for long-term success


Level 5 - Innovative

The Innovative CSM utilizes a disciplined approach to Customer Success Management. Their enhanced situational awareness enables them to understand what the next best action is for all common customer scenarios and is dedicated to carrying out those actions at the right time, in the right way, every time. 

They have a clear vision of what Success looks like for each of their accounts and relentlessly pursue excellence in all facets of the Customer Success delivery and management process. This focus translates to a data-driven approach to achieving their goals. 

The Innovative CSM seeks to understand what the best measures of Success are for their workflow and rigorously measures their performance against these self-imposed benchmarks and goals. 

Their experience in the role has instilled a strong focus on continuously improving all elements of the Customer Success process. They utilize a disciplined, continuous improvement process to capture, measure and optimize their performance and the quality of their interactions with their customers.

They are self-aware and understand their strengths and weaknesses. They seek outside opportunities to address their weaknesses, increase their knowledge of best practices and gain exposure to innovative new approaches to Customer Success Management that could increase their efficiency and effectiveness.

Keys to Progression

  1. Continuously measuring and optimizing quality and performance

  2. Seeking outside knowledge and training to aid them with implementing innovative new approaches to that lead to increases in efficiency and effectiveness

  3. Constantly looking for opportunities for operational improvement 


Putting It Into Action

Now that we've defined the different levels of a Customer Success Managers capability maturity, can you begin to see where you are at in the scale? Are you a Level One? Two? Four? 

With that knowledge of where you, or your team, is at do you now have the ability to begin to plan for improvement?

Getting started is as simple as:

  1. Identification: List three things that you need to do to progress to the next level

  2. Planning: Build your improvement plan by listing the actions necessary to accomplish each of your objectives, setting realistic timeframes and success criteria

  3. Execution: Focus your efforts on your objectives and work your plan


Let us know how you utilized the CSM Capability Maturity model to progress and develop your Customer Success Management skills.  

About the Author

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Todd Eby

Todd Eby is the Co-Founder of SuccessHACKER. He's an acknowledged expert on the building and scaling of Customer Success programs and teams. He utilizes his 20+ years of experience to promote one simple truth; successful customers = successful business. His innovative approach to Customer Success has made him one of the most recognized thought leaders and influencers in the industry.