Customer Success Career Path & Education Study

2018/2019

Customer Success might sound like a new field that the tech industry recently invented, but it has strong roots in the early dot.com boom. The companies that really understood how to retain and grow their customer base ultimately survived. It’s why now more than ever, companies of all different stages and sizes are investing in this important function of every company. For this study we looked at the career paths, educational backgrounds and skill endorsements of 400 front-line customer success professionals across the US.

Our original goal was to look for skill gaps that we could fill with our CSM training program, but along the way we uncovered a number of interesting trends in our field. One of the most interesting and unexpected findings was that people are entering customer success from an incredibly broad set of other disciplines. The two you would expect, customer service (support, professional services) and sales (account management, business development) were certainly at the top of the list. However, we also uncovered a large group coming in from administration and people management roles, as well as from disciplines as diverse as engineering, marketing and human resources.

The following is an overview of our most interesting findings, organized by the discipline that customer success managers entered the field from. We have also included suggestions for how managers could use this information to increase skill levels and performance across their teams, as well as how practitioners can grow their careers.

Study Overview

Before we dive in, it is important to call out a few basics on the data set we used as well as some demographic findings. Our data included 400 front-line customer success professionals, 52.5% female and 47.5% male, based in cities across the US who had active LinkedIn profiles. In order to be included, the CSM had to be employed in a front-line customer success role at the time of the study, and have been in that role for a minimum of a year.

Education - The education level for this group ranged from high school diploma to a doctorate degree, with the large majority falling at the bachelor’s degree level (75%). A wide range of degrees were represented, including Communications, History, Music, Liberal Arts and Urban Studies, but the largest group (39.3%) had Business degrees.

Career Length - The range of career length ranged from 2-42 years, with the largest group at the 8 year point in their overall career path. In terms of customer success careers, the group ranged from 1-11 years in the field, with 84% falling in years 1-4. Half of the professionals were in their first customer success role, and another 25% were in their second success role.

Endorsements - We looked at the top 3 skill endorsements for each CSM in this study. Endorsements ranged significantly, but on a broad level fell into 2 buckets: domain expertise and business skills. For the purposes of this study, we grouped domain expertise endorsements together. Overall, domain expertise represents 35% of the top 10 skills that CSMs bring to the table.

Let’s take a closer look at how all of these unique individuals found their way to the customer success field and how they can continue to grow their careers.

CSM with Sales Background

The study data indicates that the two largest groups of people in customer success today came from either sales or account management. Account management, in particular, is similar to many customer success roles, and the customer success programs in many companies grew out of a more traditional account management approach. There is a natural transition from the account manager role (client-facing, focused on retention) into a customer success role (client facing, focused on retention). While the tactics differ between these two teams, the overall focus is often the same. In addition, customer success is moving to a world where most companies compensate CSMs based on retention and expansion goals, and compensation-driven sales professionals have noticed.

What does this mean for managers?

Sales professionals like to be able to tangibly see the cause and effect of their work. If you're trying to hire and retain CSMs with a sales background, it's critical to put goals in place and have tools that provide transparency on how they are tracking to their goals. It's what they are expecting, it's what they come from and if they don't have this kind of visibility, they'll leave.

Salespeople and account managers generally bring solid selling skills to the table, but with retention as a key focus of this role, managers may need to train CSMs with a sales background on how to manage long-term relationships. This includes developing skills like being a customer advocate, building trust, having difficult conversations, and demonstrating value on a daily basis.

What does this mean for CSMs coming from a sales background?

It’s important for CSMs to realize that their customer success managers don’t always know what motivates them, what they expect, and how their performance was measured in the past. They should ask for clear and actionable KPIs that they can work toward instead of assuming they will come at some point. They should know that this role includes retention and is not only about closing deals. This will require long-term account planning and relationship-building as opposed to quick wins.

CSMs with a sales background should focus on professional development in managing a CS program, project management, training customers, and learning how to utilize research and analysis to build a strong customer success business strategy.

CSM with Customer Service Background

Function before Customer Success

CSMs with a technical support, customer service or professional services background represent the second largest group of employees coming into customer success today. The nature of services and support roles mean that they often require the ability to build relationships and demonstrate value, which translates nicely into customer success. Those with an understanding of how to build trust, loyalty and meet the needs of customers are not only drawn to these roles but often shine once they become CSMs. In many organizations, customer success requires some level of technical ability, and those with a technical support or professional services background typically have the skills required to troubleshoot challenging customer issues and connect clients with the internal resources to solve their problems.

What does this mean for managers?

CSMs coming from a services role bring a solid understanding of the customer’s needs, but often the lack persuasion and selling skills necessary to drive adoption and renewals. In addition, they don’t always understand the business metrics that matter to their clients. Managers should provide ample training and support to get these CSMs comfortable with not only how to ask questions about a client’s business objectives, but also how to negotiate with customers.

In addition, CSMs with a background in services also might find themselves trying to help solve problems and not focusing on strategic objectives. Managers should provide insight into how and why the goals were created to help these CSMs see the bigger picture. Training on proactive time management can also keep these CS professionals out of firefighting mode.

What does this mean for CSMs?

CSMs with a services background truly understand the needs of clients and how to create loyal, happy customers. These CSMs must find the balance between happy customers and delivering business value. Services people also might not feel comfortable selling to those that see them as a trusted advisor. Building skills in persuasion and negotiation is useful, even when selling is not a part of the CS role. Talking a customer into spending their time to adopt a free feature can be just as much of a selling task as getting them to buy an add-on product.

If you are starting your career in customer success with a services background you should develop your skills in understanding various business models and metrics, consultative selling approaches, and proactively managing a portfolio of accounts.

CSM with Management Background

Both mature and growth-stage companies are hiring people out of management or administration into customer success roles. Many of these CSMs came out of a people or office manager role, although some senior managers from other disciplines appear to have jumped into CS as a second career. CSMs with a background in management or administration bring a different set of valuable skills to the table including cross-functional leadership, program and project management, and an understanding of business operations. Often these are internal hires, which also represents strength in terms of domain expertise.

What does this mean for managers?

Managers with CSMs who have come from the leadership track must focus on the supporting and challenging these CSMs to grow a different set of skills required to excel in the core CSM role. These CSMs often have little to no experience with managing a portfolio of customers, or with the typical touch-points in a customer journey. Training in customer success best practices is critical for this group.

If they have have been on the management track, they most likely have experience dealing with internal issues and are skilled in cross-functional leadership. They may, however, need help understanding how best to leverage this strength in a customer-facing role where the cross-functional team includes both internal and client-side contacts.

What does this mean for CSMs?

CSMs coming from a management or administration background will certainly display skills required to excel as a CSM such as working cross-functionally to solve problems and understanding how the CS business strategy rolls up to the larger company vision. However, there are skills required to manage a portfolio of customers where there may be gaps. This includes utilizing the technology and best practices in the CS playbook to efficiently support and guide all customers.

CSMs coming in from the management or administration disciplines will need to build their skills in CS best practices like onboarding, training, managing a customer portfolio, handling renewals, and using tools like a CRM or CS platform.

CSM With Domain Expertise

In our study, employees who entered the CS field in the past 5 years dramatically over-index in domain expertise. EdTech is hiring people from education, FinTech is hiring people from finance, and AdTech is hiring people with an advertising background. This makes sense as the customer success role proliferates across many different verticals, but it also causes numerous hurdles. This focus on hiring from within a domain versus hiring for CS experience may also be driven by a shortage of experienced CSMs in many markets. While these domain experts check the important box of understanding the industry, customer profile, and needs, but they often need extensive training on all customer success best practices.

Top 20 Endorsement Roll Up

What does this mean for managers?

Managing domain experts might pose a challenge since managers could be responsible for CSMs who have more knowledge of the space, product or customer needs than they do. This, however, does not mean that these CSMs can be left to their own devices. More than any of the other groups we studied, this group has little experience with any core customer success skills. Providing these domain experts with skills training on customer success best practices will make for some powerhouse CSMs.

On the plus side, these domain experts can be a huge asset to a team that has CS background but limited understanding of the industry. Managers should leverage the knowledge these CSMs bring to the table by having them serve as in-house experts and advisors to the rest of the group.

What does this mean for CSMs?

CSMs entering customer success after a previous career in a different space might feel overwhelmed at first. New lingo, acronyms, KPIs, and tools are just the foundation of this new career. However, domain experts are often best positioned to understand customer needs. That’s a great start but the next step in excelling in this new field is to focus on the core skills required to shine as a CSM.

CSMs who have come into their role as a domain expert should immediately focus on picking up baseline customer success skills like understanding customer outcomes, managing a portfolio, consultative selling, guiding the customer journey, being an advocate, and driving key metrics.

What’s Next

We are continuing to explore the findings from this study, and will share ideas as we run into interesting trends in the data. Keep an eye on The Success League’s blog for updates.

It’s a great time to get into the Customer Success field! Growing companies and mature companies alike are looking to build out this function because of the proven success when there is a team focused on the customer, it’s good for the overall business. Regardless of the background, CSM teams can be built to be rock solid if leaders understand the background of their CSMs and where there are strengths and gaps given the various backgrounds. Once gaps are identified leaders must then provide adequate training and support to skill the team up. This is where the Success League’s classes and workshops come in! We focus on all current best practices for the customer success industry today, and help leaders to address the needs of their through targeted online courses and onsite workshops. For details visit TheSuccessLeague.io.

Study Research and Report by Colleen St. John and Kristen Hayer