10 incorrect assumptions CSMs make

There is so much going on in the day-to-day for customer success managers (CSMs) that wrong assumptions are made. I hope to expose some of these so we can create better dialogue and avoid them.

“The renewal is in the bag”. I remember uttering those words as a customer success manager (CSM) and then having to eat them a few weeks later when my client sent me a churn notice. “Um, my boss decided that we don’t need your solution anymore. Sorry about that. I really liked working with you though”.

That last part kills me because you liked working with them too but that won’t help you make your bonus nor quench the feelings of dread that you have when you have to report this to your manager. The problem was that you assumed you knew who the decision-maker was for the renewal. You can mitigate this risk by documenting who needs to be involved in the renewal discussions. You can simply ask for this information. Just let your client know that you want the renewal process to go as smoothly as possible and you need to know who is part of the renewal decision-making process and who makes the final decision. If there are unfamiliar people that are brought up, make sure that you are selling them the value of your solution. If you get any hesitancy in the response to your questions, you need to probe further.

This is just one of a number of incorrect assumptions that CSMs make or do not realize they are making. I was guilty of this as well and I want to get these out in the open so we can create a better dialog and avoid some of the mistakes that I made. Here are a few of the wrong assumptions I’ve made over the years.

Incorrect Assumptions that CSMs Make:

  1. This client is “green”. There are countless times where I’ve seen CSMs with rose-colored glasses not pull the fire alarm on a client that is obviously at-risk. For some reason, they feel that things are improving or aren’t that bad. My advice here is that it’s best to be safe than sorry and mark a client that you have a feeling is in trouble as at-risk until you verify with the right client stakeholder that they intend to renew. Even then I wouldn’t be satisfied until you have a signed agreement. Being overly optimistic is a death sentence for a CSM. CS leaders hate surprise churn so be conservative and call out potential issues early.

  2. I get the worst clients. This is something that is common to hear from CSMs. I get it. CSMs have extremely tough roles and they get some really challenging clients. It’s wrong to assume though that you are the only one that gets the tough clients. Most likely your colleagues also have some real doozies they are dealing with too. As a CSM it’s critical that you reach out to other CSMs that you work with and better understand what they are going through. Most likely they have 1-2 clients that are having difficulties with and you can help each other. This ties nicely with the next assumption.

  3. I don't need help. I can do this myself. As a CSM you may feel that “you got this” but in reality, there are times when “you don’t got this” as there is too much on your plate. It’s one of the biggest challenges as a CSM because it can be impossible to predict your workload. You can have a day that looks clear get completely upended by a few client code blues. You don’t have to be a hero here. Customer Success is a team sport. If we all don’t win (i.e. renew our clients), we all lose. When you are overwhelmed with a client question or a bunch of stuff coming at you, go get help. It isn’t a sign of weakness - it’s a sign that you trust others to get you back on track.

  4. I don't need to do this QBR. I have more important things to do. It may be very well that there are more important things to do to help a certain client but you need to ask yourself: “Do I understand what my client defines as success with our product? Do I understand how their success is measured?”. You may feel that you are working on a really important task for the client that will make them happy but your title isn’t customer happy manager, it’s customer success manager. You could be working on something that will solve an immediate problem but won’t lead to a renewal. A quarterly business review (QBR) or whatever the hell you want to call it will help you take your relationship to another level as should learn more about their business, their challenges and where things stand in your relationship. It’s a forcing function to get out of the day-to-day grind and have some “real talk”. If you don’t do this you are going to see a key client give you a churn notice that you never saw coming and the only person to blame in most of these situations is you.

  5. My manager knows all the challenges I have. I can guarantee that your boss doesn’t know all the challenges you have as a CSM. There is so much that CSMs have to process from needy clients to delayed product features. Be sure that manage up appropriately by letting them know what is on your plate and where you need help. You should also make sure that they know what you have accomplished. It could be something small like getting a client to use a new feature or a complex workaround that you helped orchestrate. Most likely your manager had no clue that you did that as they are too busy with their own responsibilities. You need to be your biggest cheerleader so get out the megaphone and let people know what you did. Having a slack channel on customer stories is a great approach.

  6. You know the challenges of your manager. I can also guarantee that you don’t know all of the problems your boss is facing. Let’s face it you don’t want to know them for the most part. Just know this - they are typically under a lot of pressure to deliver. As a CSM, you see one slice of the business from your perspective but it’s only your perspective. Before you make assumptions on why your manager didn’t get back to you or why they took a certain action that you may have disagreed with, try and get the full picture. While your boss should help provide you with this, at times they can only reveal so much. Try and assume the best of others and just ask your manager what their biggest challenges are right now. You will be surprised what you learn.

  7. My client is aware of all the features we release. In reality, most of your clients ignore all of your product communications. They delete the emails and dismiss the annoying in-app messages. They don’t care what these new features will do. They have their own jobs to do. It’s for this reason that CSMs have to take the time to make sure that clients are aware of any new features that will really help their clients. This goes back to the need to have “real conversations” with your clients (typically as part of QBRs) so you know what their priorities are. Try and help cut through the noise of your marketing team so they have a clear understanding of the new features coming out and how they can help their business. Don’t focus on the new feature. Focus on their business objective.

  8. Your Product team is aware of that feature gap your client brought up. Your product team already has a roadmap based on their research and their own priorities. They are getting product requests from sales, customers directly, and others on your team that you have no clue about. While one of the product managers may have some insight into a feature request that one of your clients raised you can’t assume that they understand how important it is or that it will be done in the near future let alone at all. Make sure you get the document the feature, outline why it’s important, and get it prioritized using whatever process you have in place.

  9. Your support team has the context they need to solve your client’s issue. In most cases, your support team is addressing client issues with the limited information they have in front of them and what they gather from the client. They don’t have that Wikipedia page of the client that is in your brain or the notes that are tucked away somewhere in a nice folder on Drive or Box. For complex issues, give your support team some context on why this issue exists and what shape the client is in. For example, if the client is in their renewal period, you need to have support step up their game to avoid any unnecessary distractions. Help your support team in these situations and create a better customer experience.

  10. My 100% renewal rate means I’m an awesome CSM. As a CSM, results matter but your impact goes well beyond that. Are you looking out for the best interests of your customers? Are you a good teammate that people trust and respect? Are you looking for ways to make overall improvements within your department and company? The “success” in customer success manager goes well beyond your numbers. The CSM role is a critical role in the organization as you are the voice of the customer. You are the person that is in between the client and the product and typically can make or break what the overall client-vendor relationship will look like. Go beyond the numbers and you will have a better career for it and most likely have a better outcome in life.

What do you think? Are these on the mark or missing them? What other incorrect assumptions have you made as a CSM. Please share them.

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