The 5 Most Common Pitfalls in Launching a CSM Team

The Hare, mad at the Tortoise for beating her in a (now world-famous) foot race, said to the Tortoise, “Let’s have a rematch.”
The Tortoise thought to herself, “Slow and steady wins the race!” and agreed. “Where’s the finish line?” she asked. The Hare replied, “I’ll race you home,” and took off sprinting as fast as she could. The Tortoise calmly pulled her arms, legs, head, and tail into her shell. “I win!” she said.
(That joke is corny, but it will tie in to the theme of this post soon, I promise.)
Is your CS org a tortoise or a hare?
Customer success is one of the fastest-growing jobs in the world, but where is that growth coming from? Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be another “customer success is a business imperative” piece; I’m saying, realistically, is every company on Earth hiring one CSM each? Or are a few companies hiring thousands? What’s actually driving this rapid acceleration of CSM growth from an operational perspective? And more importantly, what does it mean for you as a customer success leader?
Mathematically speaking, we can infer that a huge chunk of the global economy is not hiring customer success managers at all. Many companies are hiring “normally” or incrementally. And that can only mean that the growth rate of CS hiring is driven largely by companies launching CSM teams all at once. And we can see that this inference is true when we talk to leaders who are spinning up new CS teams, pilot programs, or are rapidly expanding existing organizations. Some of these are young businesses or true startups. But from our observations, the majority of CSM growth is coming in established companies that realize they need a new team focused on proactive customer adoption and outcomes, in parallel to existing customer-facing teams like Sales, Account Management, Renewals, Professional Services, and Support.
As such, I’ve met thousands of CEOs, Presidents, CROs, and CCOs who are “working on launching” a CSM team.
Sadly, some of those companies have been “working on launching” for several years. Meanwhile, others have raced ahead and have gone from 0 to 60 in a matter of quarters. So what’s the difference? Why are some companies “tortoises” and some companies “hares,” and which one will win in the end? (See? I told you the tie-in was coming.)
Five pitfalls you need to overcome
I’ve seen five major obstacles established companies trying to launch CS teams run into, and whether and how quickly they’re able to overcome them plays a huge part in the CS team and the overall company’s success.
1. Getting stuck at the starting line
As with any new program or operation, one of the hardest problems to solve is where and when to start. So many companies spend quarters or even years deliberating issues like, “Should we start with our high- touch segment or our long tail?” or, “Do we focus on all of our products or just one of our new products?” They stall out over whether to start with headcount or software or tasking someone from Sales Ops to build out a dashboard or go out and get a VP to start from scratch or bring in a consultant. And all the while, nothing concrete ends up happening.
2. Figuring out role clarity
Since CSM is such a (relatively) new role, companies often get stuck around defining what the CSM is supposed to do. Should they handle escalations? Do they manage onboarding? What exactly should they do every day? In the meantime, your CSMs will organically fall into reactive fire-fighting by default. Without a strong mandate and clear responsibilities, CSMs tend to start filling in product gaps, supporting Support, or generally underachieving on the core mandate and upside of the CSM role: growth.
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3. Figuring out the right metrics
This is 2020—everything in any business needs to be measurable. But I’ve seen way too many nascent CS orgs get trapped in a trial-and-error cycle of trying to get their quantitative assessment “right.” Every company needs metrics to define and benchmark whether and how well CSM is working. And if they don’t own commercial activities, what do you measure them on? This can paralyze your team—or worse, set them back to square one if you are repeatedly changing their “north star” metrics.
4. Getting the experience right
Your customers are used to interacting with Sales and Support. But now you’re going to add CSM to the mix. Synchronizing the experience across all of these teams (and probably more) is going to be paramount. We’ve all had a miserable experience with a “fragmented” software vendor. How are you going to solve that—preemptively? And how are you going to get Sales, Support, Services, etc. to buy in to that mission?
5. Scaling CS
Let’s say you’ve solved all those first four pitfalls. Now can you do it for your entire growing customer base at scale? Not so easy. This is not one of those situations where you can figure it out once you get there. Not having a plan is basically failing in advance. And I’ve personally seen way too many CS orgs get stuck in “pilot” stage because they can’t scale their processes.
Overcoming these five pitfalls
So how do you get unstuck?
The first step is admitting that customer success is not an art—it’s a science. The fastest-moving companies are “industrializing” customer success to get over these obstacles and scale quickly. Here are five things they’re doing to accelerate:
1. Getting stuck at the starting line
Nearly every company that has moved fast in CSM has had “forcing functions.” This has usually been some combination of (1) using a standard methodology, (2) hiring a third-party consulting firm to drive the process, and (3) having a launch date (e.g., your next company kickoff or customer conference). It sounds super intuitive, but getting started is way more important than getting it perfect.
2. Figuring out role clarity
CSM is established enough that you don’t need to re-invent the role for your company. Gainsight, for example, didn’t invent the optimal CSM workflow out of thin air. Your CSM platform is built around best practices—the pace-setters in this arena are using playbooks and calls to action (CTAs) to define the “day in the life” of a CSM.
3. Figuring out the right metrics
Don’t overthink this either. Your workflow systems necessarily create an exhaust of data to help the company assess CSM activities and correlate them to outcomes like renewals or upsell. CSM is ultimately a revenue-generating investment. Your motherlode of data around customer and CSM activities will correlate to revenue—guaranteed. In fact, the most successful CS leaders are able to show how CSM involvement and specifically which types of activity yield higher net renewal rates.
4. Getting the experience right
In 2020, there’s no reason your cross-functional teams should be using siloed tools or datasets. If your technology is making alignment more difficult, it’s the wrong technology. Established companies need a common 360-degree view of the customer and collaboration playbooks—whether they’re “bought in” to the customer success movement or not. But the fastest-moving companies are keeping Sales, CSM, and other customer-facing teams on the same page with even deeper alignment starting at the top.
5. Scaling CS
Ninjas. Rock stars. Unicorns. I love them, but if we’re taking bets on Skynet vs. “ninjas” I’m taking Skynet every time. If you haven’t seen Terminator, I’m sorry, but the bottom line is that automation is scalable. Rock stars are not. Once CSM teams are launched, the most successful companies are using technology to automate repetitive activities like one-to-many emails, template communications, routine presentations, data analysis, and the like.

So what’s the moral of the story? In Aesop’s fable, slow and steady won the race. But if CSM is a race, it’s not clear the slow starters will ever catch up. You don’t have 5–10 years to “wait and see” if the Hare will get tired out and fall asleep. Companies go from start-up to bust or IPO in much less time than that these days. Don’t wait to find out which one you’ll be!

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Author: Travis Esquivel

Travis Esquivel is an engineer, passionate soccer player and full-time dad. He enjoys writing about innovation and technology from time to time.

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