By Shaun VanWeelden
Success Engineers come in all shapes, sizes, and skill levels, as do the requirements for your specific organization. Despite these sometimes large differences, the Success Engineering role has been quickly gaining traction within SaaS companies looking to bridge the gap between Customer Success and Engineering
In this article, I’ll be covering the Who, What, When, Where, and Why of hiring Success Engineers.
As Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle suggests, always start with “Why”. As you start to scale your CS organization, it’s common for the CSMs to start spending a lot of their valuable time simply trying to make customers successful from a technical perspective instead of focusing on the strategic value-adding conversations they really like to have.
This often takes the form of CSMs tracking down engineers or the product team to get their customer reported bug looked into, their question about an edge-case answered, or to have help on a call setting up 1 of your 10 integrations. This back- and-forth can quickly create unhelpful tension between CS and other departments as everyone’s trying to do their job.
At Engagio, we’ve found Success Engineers to be a crucial bridge between CX and Engineering that allows everyone to focus on what they do best. Below, I’ll go into detail about what a Success Engineer does and how to hire someone like this if these pain points resonate with you.
Simply put, I consider a “Success Engineer” to be an engineer dedicated to supporting the Customer Success team. I prefer this definition because it could, and arguably should, encompass many different responsibilities.
Having a Success Engineer focus on becoming the go-to product expert, being the bridge between the CS team and the Engineering team, and building out tooling and infrastructure to scale CS efforts allows Customer Success Managers and others to focus more on providing strategic value and ensuring renewals happen. There are many similar “flavors” of technical people helping customers, such as:
Technical Support Engineer – Managing the support queue escalations
Technical Account Manager – Ensuring technical success from a strategic POV
Solutions Engineer or Architect – Helping customers build out solutions on top of your product or platform.
Implementation Specialist – Helping Customers get up and running initially, onboarding
Technical Services – Delivering the technical side of professional services
While these are all relevant specializations, I believe the “Success Engineer” role serves as a nice hybrid of all of these roles that can scale well until the CS team is around 30-50 people, at which point, breaking out into the above specializations likely would make sense.
Success Engineers at the highest level are people who want to use both the technical and social “soft” sides of their brain every day. They have a technical background, but get immense satisfaction from helping others and seeing others succeed.
Wait, you mean those people actually exist?! Yes, they do. While the stereotypes that technical people don’t have the soft skills needed to interface directly with customers are all around us, I’ve learned there’s a real subset of people who excel at doing both and truly enjoy it.
I’ve found the background of Success Engineers varies immensely. Often times, people have tried out both technical roles and non-technical roles at different parts of their life, and now seek a role that leverages both skillsets. There is definitely not a cookie-cutter approach to the background strong candidates have.
While there isn’t a “one size fits all” approach, I and other Success Engineering leaders, frequently find coding bootcamp graduates and those who studied sciences like physics, chemistry, or things like human computer interaction to more frequently have this hybrid engineering + people mindset. When I evaluate Success Engineering candidates, I look for the following qualities:
They quickly become “Power Users” of every product they touch. They enjoy digging into the details of how things work and are resourceful about finding out how to push products to do more. They are naturally “product- savvy” and have good intuition about how SaaS apps work. Being a true product expert of our application is the base on which everything else is built.
They are technically capable enough to meaningfully debug product issues.
For us, this means they are comfortable writing SQL queries across our database and reviewing our application codebase to figure out the expected behavior. Being able to code enough to unblock oneself is highly valued.
They get true joy out of helping others find success. For most people in Customer Success, this is a common trait and I think for Success Engineers, it absolutely needs to be there as well. I value empathy, kindness, and positivity very, very highly as well.
Their communication skills and “presence” are also very strong. They can communicate over email and on a live call with authority and empathy. It’s important that they are confident in themselves and their knowledge because often times the customer is not sure what is going on themselves. They will need to become a very literal trusted advisor to the CSMs and the customers who are running into issues and having tough questions.
Now that we have a better understanding of what a Success Engineer does, let’s discuss when you might need to hire a Success Engineer and when you probably don’t.
A Success Engineer could be a good fit for you right now if:
CSMs need to go directly to the Engineering team for help on technical questions or issues
Your product has very technical “in the weeds” integrations that require lots of debugging or deep technical domain expertise that’s hard to find in CSMs
Your CSMs need to focus more on the relationship building and renewals as opposed to debugging, answering or triaging technical questions
A Success Engineer may not be a good fit right now if:
Your application is less technical in nature. For example, most B2C apps and companies would not need a Success Engineer
You have more than 50 people on the CX team already (this role is likely too much of a hybrid and you should specialize)
To be successful in a CSM role at your company requires the technical skills and deep product understanding already. You already have a team of engineering-minded folks working as CSMs
Where does a “Success Engineer” ultimately report to and who should be hiring this person? It’s a really common question and I think you can make very fair arguments for the CS team, Engineering team, and a Support team if you have one. To decide for myself, I thought about the value a Success Engineer adds to each team and whose goals a Success Engineer’s goals match most closely with.
I consider a Success Engineer’s primary charter to be “Remove any technical roadblocks that get in the way of the Customer Success team delivering value, wherever those roadblocks may lie and regardless of the form they take.” While half of my time may be spent sitting with our engineering team debugging product questions or digging through our codebase to clarify how an edge-case works, all of that work is done in the interest of helping the Customer Success focus on what they do best. While time is split between teams and the responsibilities can overlap other departments, if you agree with the charter above, I believe the Customer Success team is the clear choice to own the hiring and enablement of Success Engineers.
It’s worth noting that as a Success Engineering team at Engagio, we fully participate in many of the engineering meetings such as the daily standups, sprint planning sessions, engineering updates, and more. At Engagio, we are considered full members of both teams and I have regular 1:1s with both our VP of Engineering and VP of Customer Experience, but ultimately, we are CX first.
If you’re exploring what a Success Engineering role could look like or how to hire, hopefully this helps a lot! I love talking about strategies, metrics, and more so if that’s something you’re into as well, please get in touch. My email is shaun.t.vanweelden [at] gmail.com
Need more help figuring out how to hire rock star CSMs? The Success League is a customer success consulting firm that offers a complete CS Leadership program which includes such classes as Hiring Top Performers and Planning a Team Structure. For more information on this program and our other classes and workshops, please visit TheSuccessLeague.io
Shaun VanWeelden - Shaun VanWeelden is the Senior Manager of Success Engineering at Engagio, a B2B SaaS Startup in the Marketing Technology space. He has been working as a Success Engineer and hiring Success Engineers over the last two plus years. He has spoken at Customer Success conferences around the nation about Success Engineering and loves to connect with other savvy and aspiring CS leaders.