Key Skills & Traits Every Customer Success Manager Should Have

key skills and traits

Realistically, there is no one-size-fits-all profile for Customer Success Managers. You have to take into consideration a number of factors including what products or services the company offers, how it’s being positioned in the marketplace, how it’s being sold, who your buyers are, the maturity level of your organization, what you've defined as the mission or purpose of your Customer Success team, etc.

A solution platform company, for example, should have a Customer Success Manager with a different toolbox of experience and skills than someone who is helping customers derive value with a more homogeneous solution, as with a CRM or an accounting package.

Despite the challenge of creating an ideal profile for a CSM, let's talk about the key skills or traits that are critical for that role.

Traits & Skills: The Foundation

There is a foundational set of traits and skills I look for when I'm considering a Customer Success Manager for a role. Regardless of whether they are “heroes” responsible for everything or just getting started in the job, these are the qualities they need. We included some questions to help you gauge your readiness and aptitude in these traits.

In no particular order of importance the foundational skills and traits are:

Cool Under Pressure

Good CSMs think on their feet and offer a calming presence. Staying cool under pressure and influencing others when things get hectic is an important skill. No matter how crazed or heated the situation becomes, it is the CSM’s job to maintain their poise.

Why is this skill important? It’s easy to shine when everything is going well, but it’s how you respond to stressful and negative events that sets you apart from the crowd. Losing your cool in front of customers, peers, or other stakeholders on a regular basis signals that you’re not in control of your emotions and it creates doubt that harms your credibility.

Techniques can be learned to improve how one handles stress but there are also some studies that suggest some people may be biologically wired to respond unthinkingly to perceived threats. While most believe that the ability to remain calm is a character trait, it really is a skill that anyone can learn with a little practice if they use the latest in neuroscience to guide their efforts.

Think about these questions to gauge your coolness under pressure:

  • How do you respond in high-stress situations?

  • What are your coping mechanisms?

Thoughtfulness

Being thoughtful involves gathering the relevant information, identifying alternatives, making a choice, and taking action. This is such an important skill that we’ve included lessons on Problem Solving and Decision Making in our Certified CSM training program in which we teach students an approach to being thoughtful in addressing problems by aligning oneself appropriately to the situation at hand.

Why is this skill important? Because thinking through the situation and offering up well thought out answers or options always trumps a quick response. Unless you are in a mission critical circumstance where seconds or minutes mean the difference between life or death, your customer (and your boss) will appreciate the thought you put into it.

This is very much a learned skill. There are a lot of great resources out there to aid in understanding what goes into making a well thought out decision. To get you started, I recommend that you do some reading on OODA loops and the use of the 5 Whys Process for root cause analysis.

Think about these questions to gauge your thoughtfulness:

  • What is your approach to complicated challenges and situations?

  • What steps do you take to overcome a tricky problem?

Persuasive

The ability to be persuasive is not only important when dealing with customers, but also with the internal teams a CSM collaborates with. It’s not about making a sales pitch, it’s about understanding the psychology involved in influencing others so that you understand what is required to get to "yes".

Nearly every human encounter includes an attempt to gain influence or persuade others to your way of thinking. Without the ability to persuade, it is very tough for CSMs to be successful when it comes to setting expectations or convincing a customer that the workaround that they have discovered is actually a better solution.

Some are better than others at persuasion and have an inherent mastery of it but this is definitely a skill that can be improved over time with the right reading and application by the persuader. A great place to start is by reading what many believe is the seminal work on the subject, Influence: The Psychology Of Persuasion by Dr. Robert Cialdini. It's a classic on the subject and a must read if you're interested in understanding why people say "yes".

Think about these questions to gauge if you’re persuasive:

  • How do you work through disagreements at work and elsewhere?

  • How do you convince others to see things your way?

Closing The Customer

I am not talking about “closing" sales. Being able to close with the customer means that you have the ability to end the conversation or come to closure on a situation and confirm the customer has achieved their goal, or their issue has been addressed.

If you aren't able to "close" the customer and move on to the next subject, you won't make progress. This isn't about quickly moving on regardless of the situation, it’s about gaining concurrence on whatever it is you’re addressing or dealing with, closing that out, and then moving on to the next topic. 

Is this an inherent or learned skill? A little of both. You've either got the ability to push or you don't. If you don't, you can draw on the skills of a peer on your team or your boss to help you follow through.

Think about this to measure your closing skills: 

  • Give an example of when you have pushed through to finish a project or close a sale. Specifically think of examples where you needed to manage expectations or reach consensus.

Tenacity & Passion

A great work ethic and a willingness to do what needs to be done in order to make the customer successful is critical to anyone in a customer facing role.

Knowing that putting in the extra effort will come back ten-fold to you and your company should be motivation enough. At a minimum, keep in mind that your customer is most likely on a yearly contract. Your company will struggle unless you are persistent and passionate about helping your customer base derive the promised value from your service or solution. 

Is this an inherent or learned skill? I think that there is a certain amount of tenacity and passion that exists naturally in all people. The key is to figure out the tools and techniques for harnessing those natural skills.

Think about these questions to determine your tenacity and passion:

  • What do you do when things get tough? 

  • Where do you find the energy to push through a challenging project?

Project & Time Management

Time Management is about the individual, where Project Management is a similar skill but involving others. We introduced the 6 Customer Success Time Management Hacks that I think are critical to the success of a CSM back in May. I'd recommend starting there if you're looking to maximize your use of time. For Project Management basics I recommend The Fast Forward MBA in Project Management by Eric Verzuh. 

On the individual side of the equation, being able to manage your time effectively is critical to setting and maintaining expectations, nurturing your career and keeping yourself sane. The same can be said for Project Management. Without the ability to effectively manage a project you are effectively out of control. Not pretty to say the least.

Is this an inherent or learned skill? Unlike some of the other traits and skills here, this is definitely something you can learn, and should learn. It’s also a great foundation for many of the other skills listed here.

Think about these questions to measure your project and time management skills:

  • What strategies do you use to stay organized? 

  • How do you manage your time?

Patience

Not only is patience important for dealing with customers but also when collaborating with internal team members. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t escalate when necessary, but make sure you know when and how to do it in the most appropriate manner. When depending on others, the best approach to take is either by setting or requesting target dates and then holding people to them.

Patience is a virtue and a necessity when dealing with customers and internal teams that don't have the same timelines or passion for success that you or your customers have. Losing your patience is a zero sum game.

Is this an inherent or learned skill? Patience is definitely something you can learn and hone over time. The first step is always to acknowledge what makes you impatient. Interested in working on improving your patience? WikiHow has a great 5-part article that is an excellent place to start. 

Think about these questions about your patience: 

  • What tests your patience?

  • How do you deal with that?

Active Listening & Empathy

When working with customers it’s important to not only hear what they have to say, but express that you understand and share their feelings about a need, pain point or situation. That empathy can’t appear to be contrived, it needs to be genuine.

The ability to fully concentrate and listen to your customer is crucial for being successful. Being able to look and listen for subtle clues about their current mood, patience level, and personality, will make a tremendous difference in keeping interactions positive. It's not only important to pay attention to individual customer interactions, but how those compare with what’s being said by other customers in order to feed your product and engineering teams with direct and indirect feedback as well as uncover potential trends.

Is this an inherent or learned skill? Active listening techniques have been around for years and can be trained and honed. The capacity for empathy is a natural trait, and it is something most of us have inside of us. To get started, I recommend Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone by Mark Goulston.

Think about these questions regarding your active listening and empathy skills:

  • How do you go about gaining someone’s trust? 

  • Are you a good listener?

Product Knowledge & Domain Expertise 

The best way to establish a level of trust and credibility with your customers is to have deep knowledge of how your product or service works. Anyone in a customer-facing role should spend a good part of their on-boarding time understanding the product and its various nuances. 

Gaining that trusted adviser status is critical for everything from getting the product deployed effectively to ensuring your customer is deriving value.

Is this an inherent or learned skill? Fortunately, this is all learned, and anyone with the right skillset can become an expert on the product if they’re willing to put the time and effort in.

Think about these questions in regards to your product knowledge and domain expertise:

  • How you would go about learning about a new product?

  • What tools would you use to acquire expertise?

Curiosity

A willingness to learn plays an important role in numerous aspects of customer-facing roles. During on-boarding and implementation, it's all about learning what it is your customer is trying to accomplish. During education, it's all about learning what your customer knows and doesn't know. It's especially useful when you are in a support role as you often represent a lifeline for the customer.

Those who don’t seek to improve what they do will get left behind by those that do. You should love to learn and continuously expand your breadth and depth of knowledge, whether that be within the product, the verticals your customer base are focused in, or by striving to better understand individual customer business models and motivations.

Is this an inherent or learned skill? A willingness to learn is a learned skill. That might sound counter-intuitive, but it is more about being self disciplined. A great way to think about it is to have a drive to never stop learning. I shared an article about Constant Learners that's a great read about the benefits of this approach.

Think about these questions:

  • What are you interested in outside of work? 

  • What questions do you have that need answers?

Communication Skills

Communication style and habits are very important. Those that are the most effective are able to translate complex functional or technical situations into easily understood concepts.

With all of the technical advances in communication combined with busy schedules and multi-tasking across multiple customers, we risk missing the context of what's being communicated along with the content. Effective communication involves the right combination of speaking as well as listening. How you deliver your message plays a big role in how it is received. 

Is this an inherent or learned skill? There are a variety of books and training courses available to improve your communication skills. A number of the courses in the SuccessCOACHING Certified Customer Success Manager course address how to make your communications with customers, co-workers and leaders more effective.

Think about these questions about your communication skills:

  • What’s your communication style? 

  • How  might you reach out to a colleague about a tricky problem or respond to a frustrated customer?

Having Difficult Conversations

Most reasonable customers account for a margin of error. Someone who is good at having difficult conversations can effectively express empathy but doesn’t let the tension of the conversation affect their demeanor or behavior. The key is to focus on the efficiency of a response and having the fortitude to not tell people what you think they want to hear.

Why is this skill important? Probably one of the least liked but most important skills someone should possess in a customer-facing role, you've got to be able and willing to deliver bad news. The longer you wait and put it off, the worse the situation will get.

Is this an inherent or learned skill? This is a skill that is dependent on the other traits we’ve listed. If someone lacks tenacity, empathy and thoughtfulness, they will have problems mastering this skill. There are some great books out there on having difficult conversations. One that I recommend is Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. Its full of solid advice and provides great examples of how to use the approaches it lays out.

Think about this question to gauge your skills about having a difficult conversation:

  • How do you deliver bad news?

Develop the Right Skills & Traits for Customer Success

Customer Success can be a tricky job, and you need to wear a lot of hats, but the good news is that a lot of the skills and traits that you need can be learned and nurtured, and finding the right person and building them into the ideal CSM is entirely possible. Whether you’re a CSM yourself or a supervisor trying to get your team up to speed, this list should help get you on track.

If you want to know more about the qualities you’ll need to excel in Customer Success, check out our related article on the Customer Success Core Competency model.

Andrew Marks

24 years experience in Operations, Customer Success, Services and Account Management.