Variable Compensation for Customer Success Managers

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By Ashley Hall

From day one of my customer success career, variable compensation has been a component of my total comp package: benefits, paid time off, salary, and variable. These have become the building blocks of any modern SaaS compensation plan. That being said, years ago my first variable package was terrifying! “Can I do it? How will I ever be able to hit that number? What happens if I don’t hit that number?” These questions are just the tip of the nerves iceberg when becoming accustomed to having a variable component of your compensation.

If variable compensation is new to you, or if you’re feeling stressed by your goals, read on!

First things first, let's get acquainted with the language. Variable compensation is defined as a portion of compensation that is determined by employee performance. Variable compensation is in addition to your base salary, which is the standard pay that you receive regardless of performance. While variable compensation may not be across all success roles, it is becoming more and more common so that your manager can drive the behavior which best supports the company goals. You might also hear variable comp called commission or a bonus. These two kinds of plans have different structures, but both are considered variable compensation. Note: If you’re a CS manager looking for ideas on how to design a variable compensation plan, check out this article by Kristen Hayer.

Now that you know what variable compensation is, here are some tips to help you make the most of it:

Understand your plan. In order for you to be as strategic as possible, it is important you have full comprehension of your variable. Don’t hesitate to ask lots of questions and revisit your goals frequently during the month or quarter. If something isn’t crystal clear, be sure to communicate that to your manager. It doesn’t help anyone when you underperform because you don’t understand the goals ahead of you. Additionally, most variables are comprised of a number of goals, so that you are motivated to support the company goals at large. If there are a number of levers in your variable, know that your plan should never be so complex that you cannot understand it or explain it to others.

Pace yourself. It’s important that your variable should be set to achievable goals. Hitting 100% should not be out of the question yet still challenging. Be sure to work directly with your manager to strategize on exactly how you will hit the goal. In order to not be overwhelmed by your goals, it can help to break them down into small chunks. Think days, weeks, or months at a time. Over time you will gain a better understanding of seasonality and what you are capable of under pressure. Having a clear pacing plan will empower you to always know where you stand, and when you need to punch the gas or scale back and prep for next month or quarter.

Develop a compensation calculator. Your end results and payout should not be a mystery to you. If your manager doesn’t provide one for you, build out a compensation calculator in excel or sheets where you can input your performance and calculate the outcome of all your hard work. Tying your variable compensation achievements to tangible financial goals, like paying off a debt or saving for a vacation can also be very motivating.

Owning a revenue number that is tied to your compensation can be scary at first, but it’s an incredible way to drive your personal success and prove your value to your company quarter over quarter.

Need help with goal setting and compensation planning? The Success League is a customer success consulting firm that offers both training and coaching for customer success leaders. Visit our Leadership page for more information on our programs.

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Ashley Hall - Ashley loves to lead account management and success teams; from training newbies to building processes out of chaos to working directly with customers. She is passionate about helping customers achieve goals. With an eye on the future she is a powerhouse in building scaleable frameworks that support and drive growth. Ashley is one of the founding advisors to The Success League, and serves as a regular instructor for the company's CSM Training Program. She also serves as a customer success manager for ProsperWorks, and brings her work experiences to her articles and classes. Ashley holds a BA from the University of Colorado, Boulder and enjoys living in San Francisco while traveling all over the world.

The Importance of Internal Onboarding

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By Lauren Costella

A plethora doesn’t even begin to describe the number of articles, podcasts, meet up topics, blogs, presentations, and more that have focused on the importance of onboarding for customers. The sophistication on the topic, within just the past few years, is incredibly impressive: specialized onboarding for various customer segments, dedicated internal teams for onboarding, and specialized roles. I’m blown away by what folks are doing to create value and an amazing experience for customers. And rightly so! The value driven in that first engagement is invaluable and sets the tone for the entire relationship with your company. Customers are the lifeline of your company.

But is it only customers whose onboarding experience we need to consider?

Our own internal team members are also lifeline of our companies, and one thing I don’t read to the same degree in the CS space is the importance of internal training for our CS teams, especially as it relates to their specific roles. The best companies train their people! And they train them well for the job they’re hired to do. How well do you onboard your internal team members? Is it as tailored as your customer onboarding? Is each CSM, Support Rep, Implementation Manager, Project Manager, etc. onboarded in a way which allows her to know exactly what success looks like in the first day, week, month, and year?

Internal training is a complex topic, but for Customer Success, I think it’s one of the single most important focuses for a leader in this space. Without great team training, you can kiss an incredible customer experience, and the subsequent renewals and growth you’re expected to drive, goodbye. Your internal people are the secret sauce in driving customer value, and if you don’t set them up for success, how can you expect them to deliver for customers?

So where do we even begin to tackle this issue? Where do we start? Well allow me to offer three tips to consider as you think about your own internal onboarding.

1. Roles and Goals

Before you train, you have to know what success looks like for each role within your team, and it has to be quantifiable and measurable. For example, success for a Customer Support Representative (CSR) at Medrio is answering admin tickets within 3 weeks. You can expect to take about 300 tickets per month by the time you’re fully ramped (usually within the first 3 months), and you’re expected to maintain a 90% CSAT for tickets. This should be in your “scorecard” for the job. Don’t have a scorecard yet? Check out the last blog I wrote on hiring great people.

If you have this as your benchmark for success, you can start thinking through what it means to make sure that person is successful when he/or she starts. And training must be holistic. It can’t just be about our software used to answer tickets, log calls, or document projects. It MUST be about who our customers are, what they care about, and why our product matters and is valuable to them.

For Medrio, our Customer Success team needs to understand our core customers in clinical trials, they need to understand what industry terms are common and why, and then need to be able to apply that knowledge in order to help various types of trials in which customers are using our products.

Consider, too, a mix of hard and soft skills. If your job role describes the need to be a great listener, do you train your team on what that means? While you may think this is “intuitive” to all people in the space, I can absolutely vouch that it isn’t.

2. Repeatable and Scalable

Training delivery for your internal teams is absolutely critical. I’ve experienced a wide variety of training programs in my time in nonprofit, federal government, startups and established for profit companies. Everything from no training, to week long boot camps, to full on interactive online courses, all methods have their pros and cons for setting up. Identify what you can do today and start making moves. As you do this, my biggest piece of advice is to consider making your program repeatable and scalable. For example, if you run an in-person boot camp, and your team has plans of expanding globally, how will that boot camp be delivered? And at what cost? For example, do you plan to fly your international team members on site? Have you budgeted for that? Do you always have a trainer available? Think through your needs now and into the future.

Here at Medrio, my first initiative with the team was to get eLearning set up. We had already created an eLearning for our customers within the product, but we wanted to repurpose the product training internally as part of onboarding. We thought eLearning was a great delivery mechanism because we had remote employees and it was important for our remote team to have more training to access outside of the office. We ended up creating a quarter long priority for a small team to tackle, and let me tell you, they did fantastic! We have a full overview of our department, an overview of each team and each role that exists within those teams. There’s also a schedule and a plan for each role, which allows each person to monitor their progress with our week over week plan. The best part - this was created for new team members by current team members.

We also complement our training with resources outside of our team – for example, we use modules from lifesciences.com and our team uses the Success League online learning program. This saves us critical time from creating material that’s needed but more general in nature vs. specific Medrio training. And finally, the team also created a process to keep our training updated, which leads me to my next point.

3. Change and Iterate

One thing that’s REALLY, REALLY hard to do and easy to forget is remembering that anything you create will quickly become outdated. Does this mean you need to be redoing all of your training every day? Not necessarily, but what is absolutely critical is that you set up a business process to identify outdated material and have a process in place to keep it updated. We have set up a process where we relook at all of our training material every six months. If something is absolutely critical to change (i.e. we’ve changed a system or business process) we’ll make that education change right away, but we use our every six months timing as a growth project for teammates, who want to take on some extra responsibility. It’s a great way to allow for creativity, new ways of thinking, and complete ownership.

Our team’s onboarding isn’t perfect; however, we have most certainly iterated since Medrio University 1.0, and with the right business processes in place, we can keep improving over time. What we know for sure is, internal onboarding is just as critical as our external efforts. A poorly trained internal team can’t deliver excellence and value for external customers, and it’s a huge cost to the company if we lose great people to something that’s completely in our control to own and make better!

Need help with onboarding in your organization? The Success League is a customer success consulting firm that offers training and coaching for customer success leaders. Please see our Leadership page for more information on our programs.

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Lauren Costella - Lauren is a change agent, communicator, leader and passionate champion for Customer Success in business, since a great customer experience drives retention, growth and brand advocacy. Her expertise centers on building early signs for risk and growth, defining cross-department success plays, team enablement, operations and process, and selecting and implementing CS software. When she’s not working as the VP of Customer Success for Medrio, you can find her serving as an advisor and blogger for the Success League, an active board member for the Customer Success Network, and blogging generally about her CS experiences on the CS Playlist. Lauren has her MA and BA from Stanford University. She was a former USA National swim team member and enjoys staying active with running and surfing in the Bay Area.

5 Reasons Why a CSM Should be an Early Hire for Startups

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By Jeremy Gillespie

With the speed at which early stage startups move, and continual demand on limited resources, hiring for Customer Success is often pushed down the list of priorities. While it’s easy to make the case for why Sales, Marketing, and Product are the priority, hiring your first CSM is one of the most impactful hires early-stage startups can make. 

The common case for an early CSM is simple: retention. Retention is the lifeblood of your organization. After all, it’s far easier to earn predictable, recurring revenue from existing customers than it is to find new customers. By prioritizing an early CSM hire, retention will follow. But, there are 4 additional (and equally important) reasons to prioritize your first CS hire:

Ensure Customers Are Successful

The primary role of a CSM is to work with the customer to achieve their goals. Customers who achieve the outcomes they expected from your solution will not only renew, they will be advocates for your company in the marketplace.

As an alternative to hiring a CSM, many startups saddle the sales team with maintaining existing customer accounts and this can be a big mis-step. Looking after existing customers will never be the primary focus for the sales team and this can leave you exposed to unsuccessful and disappointed customers.

Support Product Validation

CSMs build incredibly strong relationships with customers – especially in the early days when things aren’t always smooth. With this rapport and trust they can uncover how the customer really feels about the product.

The level of transparency that comes out of these customer relationships allows you to build probing questions into your CSM touch points to determine where the product meets (or doesn’t meet) their expectations. This information is crucial to stay ahead of issues and keep your finger on the pulse of your customers.

Help Define The Product Roadmap

Should you add a new feature, change the user interface, or improve the existing product? Since your CSMs are able to understand how customers feel about the product, they can support the development of your product roadmap. 

Use your early CSM hire to gather feedback from customers to inform your product strategy. While your customers may not drive innovation, they can provide a wealth of insights, and you can leverage their experience with your product to drive improvements to your solution and a stronger product-market fit.

Work Cross-functionally

More than any other role across a company, the CSM works with every single department -- from marketing to sales to product to services to finance. This perfectly positions them to create a cross-functional, seamless customer experience.

Since each department impacts your customer in some form or fashion, and the CSM sits between them and the customer, your CSM can work across departments to make the customer successful. Be sure your first CS hire is someone who can document the optimal customer experience so you can replicate it as you scale.

These are 5 reasons you should prioritize an early CSM hire for your startup. You’ll inevitably face new challenges as you acquire more customers as your company scales, but with the right foundations you will be starting your Customer Success journey on the right foot.

Want to learn more about building your team? The Success League is a customer success consulting firm that offers online training and workshops designed for success leaders. Topics include Hiring Top Performers and Onboarding new CSMs. For more information on these and our other classes and workshops, please visit TheSuccessleague.io

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Jeremy Gillespie - Jeremy is a growth marketing expert who loves using complex data to build creative retention solutions. By leveraging data and technology, he excels at creating innovative retention and expansion marketing programs for businesses of all shapes and sizes. Jeremy is a founding advisor to The Success League, and is also the founder of Built to Scale, a Bay Area consulting firm focused on helping businesses build scalable customer acquisition and retention programs. He holds a BA from the University of Pittsburgh and MBA from Point Park University. He's a proud former Pittsburgher, currently living in San Francisco.

Hiring a Technical CSM


This week we're joined by guest blogger, Nicole Jackson, with a perspective on how to hire a fantastic technical CSM. Enjoy!

By Nicole Jackson

Customer Success folks come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Assessing the laundry list of qualitative skills necessary can be time-consuming. Now add a requirement that the CSM must be very technical, maybe even have some programming experience. It might feel like you’re searching for a needle in a haystack.

As a hiring manager, you might not even personally have the technical skills that you’re looking for! It can feel daunting. Fortunately, there are a few things we can do to make this a positive, streamlined, and repeatable process.

Setting Yourself Up for Success

Take time to think about what the right fit looks like for your team. What would ensure that person will also be a good fit one year down the road? How about two years? How quickly your team must scale should influence how adaptable this person should be.

Think about your must-haves and your nice-to-haves. Decide beforehand what’s negotiable and what’s not so you can write an inclusive job description, attract a diverse candidate pool, and eliminate some potentially biased decisions down the road.

Browsing other job descriptions can help you get started. Titles vary, so try searching for combinations of these: Support Engineer, Technical Customer Success Manager, Technical Support Specialist, and Technical Support Manager.

Find inspiration and consider posting your available positions here:

Get a second opinion. For example, if this role is expected to fill a knowledge gap between current CSMs and the engineering team, involve the engineering team lead. Ask them which skills or experience would demonstrate a candidate’s ability to fill that role. Is it something that can be highlighted in a work sample?

Remember, the right language is key. Swapping out just a couple of words can make a huge difference. Don’t be afraid to have other teammates review the job description for inclusivity, accuracy, and tone. The best descriptions will come from a collaborative effort and represent the team.

Evaluating Experience and Technical Chops

The Screening

A cover letter and phone screens are relatively standard so be sure not to skip these filtering methods. Adding a few open-ended questions to the application, to be answered in the cover letter, can serve as the first step in the qualification process. You may (or may not!) be surprised by how many applicants don’t follow instructions.

The Work Sample

After a successful phone screen, have candidates follow up with a work sample. Make it a simplified version of a task they’ll be expected to perform in their day-to-day. Will they be supporting an API? Have them make a few requests. Will they be onboarding new customers? Have them sign up for a trial account and perform a few integration tasks.

Before sending out your first work sample requests, make sure you’ve prepared a structured grading rubric so that all candidates can be measured using the same metrics and scale. Break down the work sample into a list of actions or requirements that you expect completed. Grade each candidate using true or false to indicate whether they met the expectations or not. You could also score them numerically, just be sure to assign expectations to each value before you start scoring.

After grading, ask a teammate to review the same work sample. Your scores should be very close. If they are not, continue to iterate on the rubric.

To aid the reduction of unconscious bias, obfuscate candidates’ names. You can do this by having an impartial employee anonymize the work by copying responses into a new location, assigning it a number, and storing a key of candidate names and numbers in a separate and secure location.

The Structured Group Interview

If you are going to implement one new hiring process, let it be a structured group interview. This is another crucial step in helping eliminate bias. Similar to the work sample, prepare a list of questions across numerous disciplines. Again, use a numerical grading approach that is tied to predefined expectations. Ask all interviewers to take detailed notes during their interview and grade answers during or immediately after the interview. Invite a diverse group of peers to participate in the interviewing. Here’s an example:

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Follow the group interview with a brief meeting to discuss internally how the interview went and talk through any concerns. By now, you and your team should have a good indication of whether or not you are willing to move forward and will have scores to backup your decision.

Additions like a work sample and structured group interview can prove invaluable not only for a technical hire, but also for non-technical hires. Hiring is a time-consuming process so try iterating on this approach over time. Train yourself to look at current processes and responsibilities through a hiring eye at all times, take great notes, and you’ll save yourself a lot of time on the next hire. Happy hiring!

Want to learn more about building your team? The Success League is a customer success consulting firm that offers online training and workshops designed for success leaders. Topics include Hiring Top Performers and Onboarding new CSMs. For more information on these and our other classes and workshops, please visit TheSuccessleague.io

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Nicole Jackson - Customer Success has been at the heart of Nicole’s entire career, but driving customer happiness and operational change at her first SaaS company back in 2013 paved the way for her transition into both a more technical and strategic realm. Nicole’s focus is on elevating customers, partners and teams in all life cycle phases through operational success. She holds a BS from the University of Massachusetts and recently graduated a full stack web development bootcamp at the University of North Carolina. As a dedicated animal advocate, Nicole is also passionate about combining her business and technology experience to innovate and advance solutions for animal rescue.

Building a Customer Success Talent Engine

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By Lauren Costella

In January 2018, McKinsey came out with a fantastic article about the Customer Success 2.0 Growth Engine! If you haven’t checked it out, I highly recommend it. Many of us in the CS space have already been working to move our organizations from the 1.0 model of simply preventing churn to driving growth, and this article was a great reminder of why this is so important for impacting our companies. The article mentions five elements to a 2.0 Growth Engine:

  1. A unified go-to-market strategy

  2. Sustainable funding model supported by premium offers

  3. Customer success talent engine

  4. Advanced analytics to predict customer behaviors and target customer segments

  5. Customer success philosophy embedded across the organization

All of them are really big and really tough nuggets to crack. I’ve been working through each one myself at Medrio, but one element in particular caught my eye and is very much worth discussing: A Customer Success Talent Engine. In summary, the article describes a “CS Talent Engine” as having clarity on responsibilities, capabilities, and characteristics of top talent; a learning journey for building those capabilities within the team; and a clear career path to keep the talent you have engaged and in place.

Before I jump into the details on how I went about incorporating these practices into Medrio (more intuitively than anything else, since the article came out this year), perhaps I should talk about the pain of what it’s like to not have a Talent Engine in place. Long story short, I learned the hard way, and hopefully my experience helps you take action now versus later. (I faced other challenges as a new VP, and I talked about them in my last blog with the Success League)!

In 2017, my team grew from 10 people to over 25 people globally. These changes included:

  • Building a brand new organization with our CS Department from the ground up without clearly defined roles

  • Replacing a completely turned over support team

  • Being able to adapt to general internal employee turn over/growth into new positions

This is a tremendous amount of change for a relatively short period. And, if your team is anything like mine, it felt like chaos for the veterans and overwhelming for the newbies, and in a fast-growing company, no room to slow down. We had to continue to hit our numbers.

Needless to say, the point about having a Customer Success Talent Engine resonated well with me, and it just so happened to align perfectly with a great song by Spark called “Talent is an Asset” which makes it a perfect add to the CS Playlist for discussion! So without further ado, here’s a few tactical suggestions on how to start building your engine.

Clarity on Roles and Responsibilities  

This is SUPER critical for success. As I mentioned above, we didn’t have clarity on the role of the CSM starting out. So, CSMs were positioned by AM team members as personalized “technical gurus” for our customers. This caused issues with multiple teams but it was most painful with our AM team because it positioned our CSMs away from being “proactive” and driving toward specific customer outcomes and put them in just a “support 2.0” bucket. As we tried to move away from the technical positioning, our AM teams felt like CSMs were doing too much of “their” job.

What I did:

  • Spoke with my fellow executives about what we wanted from AM and CSMs

  • With a defined state and buy-in from the executive team, I hired an outside consultant to help work with our AM and CSM teams in order to get them on the same page

  • Through joint AM-CSM workshops, the two teams emerged with agreed upon job descriptions, joint accountability on defined metrics of success, and a suggested structure to support it


  • It’s been really successful! Our AM/CSM teams are now podded together by geography, which align to the new business generation side of the house.

  • It was highly effective because our CSM and AM teams defined the roles, responsibilities, and metrics, so there’s a buy-in from both sides.

Today, CSMs are the Relationship and Value Navigators and the AM’s are the Commercial Experts, which is what we all wanted! And the two teams are achieving their joint goals (and our business results as a company)! Not only that, but my job description for CSMs has improved tremendously, allowing me to source great new candidates, which leads me to my next topic…

Internal Learning Journey

This was especially important for us to define for all of my teams. I mentioned that our Support team ended up turning over completely, and then grew from 3 team members to 12…globally! But every team has experienced turnover and growth. And again, if your teams are like mine, right when you believe you have everyone in place, your VP of Product comes along and steals your talented team members…just kidding, no really that happened (I’m not bitter). Joking aside, when this happens you realize quickly that you need a way to on board new people FAST.

What I did:

  • Identified a tool we could use for both creating customer eLearning training and repurpose for INTERNAL training (two birds with one stone)

  • Created Management by Objectives (MBO) projects for every team where they had to build out training slides on their jobs (what they do every day), what tools they use, how were they measured, any soft skills needed, etc.

  • Added in quiz questions

  • Put together product training (then repurposed for customers)

  • Put all of these trainings into Litmos

  • Hired the Success League to run training sessions that we couldn’t or didn’t want to build

  • Created a process to keep it updated on a semi-annual basis


  • Version 1 of Medrio CS University was launched in September 2017 (4 months after starting)

  • The point of this project was to provide a way to onboard internal employees locally and globally in a consistent, cost-effective way. We can’t always do meetings at 3 or 4 AM! And we can’t fly all employees to the US.

  • Is it perfect? No, but let me tell you, it’s a great start! I’ve been through the entire training, and what’s awesome, so has my team (regardless of their role). The ability to get exposure into other areas has been a fantastic bonus, which promotes the spirit of providing a clear career path for the team.

Career Paths

This topic is one that is near and dear to my heart. And honestly, I’m still developing this one. But I have a few things in the works, just no results quite yet, but I’ll share the plans in any case.

What I’m doing:

  • Taking Senior CSRs (Customer Support Representatives) and aligning them to my AM/CSM pods to help proactively manage low touch accounts

    • This is great for customers who may not otherwise has any high touch engagement and allow our CSRs some exposure into working with customers in a proactive vs. reactive way

  • Having Senior CSRs run our kick-off and onboarding processes with some of our key accounts and some light training

    • This allows our CSRs to learn more about training and some of the technical services our accounts need. It gives them exposure into the paid training our professional services team provides and how to engage with customers.


  • I’ll have to follow up!

My biggest takeaway in the Talent Engine conversation: simply start! Whatever you tackle first, the impact is huge. As our musical muse Spark says, “Talent is an Asset” and none of us can afford to waste it! So get cracking!  

Are you looking to build your own CS talent engine? The Success League is a customer success consulting firm that can guide you in your quest. We offer a complete CS Leadership Training Program as well as individualized consulting designed for success leaders. For more information on our classes, workshops, and consulting, please visit TheSuccessLeague.io

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Lauren Costella - Lauren is a change agent, communicator, leader and passionate champion for Customer Success in business, since a great customer experience drives retention, growth and brand advocacy. Her expertise centers on building early signs for risk and growth, defining cross-department success plays, team enablement, operations and process, and selecting and implementing CS software. When she’s not working as the VP of Customer Success for Medrio, you can find her serving as an advisor and blogger for the Success League, an active board member for the Customer Success Network, and blogging generally about her CS experiences on the CS Playlist. Lauren has her MA and BA from Stanford University. She was a former USA National swim team member and enjoys staying active with running and surfing in the Bay Area.