5 Tips For Hiring A Customer Success Leader / by Joseph Palumbo

More and more businesses are looking to Customer Success to help them meet their revenue, retention, and customer satisfaction goals, as well provide insight for product development and marketing strategy. In fact, the last few Customer Success conferences I’ve attended I’ve met an increasing number of people from businesses outside of the technology realm, the birthplace of Customer Success. Financial services companies, restaurants, and even health clubs are transitioning to more customer-centric business models built around a strong Customer Success component in hopes of garnering a competitive edge and a loyal customer base.

These business leaders understand what they want and how Customer Success can help them realize these goals, but after a multitude of conversations there is still apprehension on how to find the right person to shepherd their organization through the sometimes tectonic shift in business model and culture required to fully leverage the power of Customer Success.

Hiring any new employee, especially a leader, can be a gamble. A lot of thought needs to be put into the scope of the role, the level of influence and ownership, and which key performance indicators will decide success or failure. This is compounded for Customer Success roles because as a nascent discipline it is easily misunderstood and often conflated with sales, service, and operational functions.

Here are my five tips for any business, or business leader, in need of finding the right candidate to design and build the perfect Customer Success program.

A Plan of Inquiry, Not Action

Unless you’re one of the lucky few organizations that has terabytes upon terabytes of customer data to learn from (and kudos to you if you are), the right candidate should always approach the mission with a plan of inquiry, not action.

Sure, Customer Success has some fundamental tactics that can be put into place immediately, but it is virtually impossible to build a customer-centric culture without first answering some critical questions:

  1. Who are your customers?

  2. Why did they choose you over your competitor?

  3. What problems are they trying to solve?

  4. What do you they like most about your product? Least?

  5. Why are some staying and growing?

  6. Why are some leaving?

These are some of the questions I routinely ask interviewers that have considered me for a leadership role in their organization. And in an interview panel of six people, I can almost guarantee you’ll get six different answers to each of these questions?

Why?

It’s not because businesses don’t care about answering these questions. But most often because the data is incomplete, or is being looked at from only an engineering perspective, or a marketing perspective, and not holistically as required by a Customer Success expert.

Be suspect of a candidate who shows up with a 30-60-90 day plan that is heavy on action and light on learning. The most successful Customer Success strategies will play to the strengths of a business and the needs of its customers. Which lead to the next tip.

Bespoke vs Off The Rack

Customer Success has matured from an ambiguous amalgamation of several organizational functions into a singular discipline that has a defined set of strategies and metrics. But the one things it has to lack is rigidity.

Customer Success is not one size fits all, and the right candidate will be able to articulate how these battle tested strategies can be adapted to the unique landscape and challenges faced by your organization, and more importantly, your customers.

To put it more bluntly, any person (and unfortunately many do) can sound like a Customer Success expert by repeating what they’ve read in a handful of books that have become the core canon of the practice. But the true value of a Customer Success leader is how these strategies can be tailored to your business by aggregating and analyzing a large number of variables present in every organization, such as product, pricing, customer tenure, innovation, brand identity, etc. etc. etc.

The right candidate will treat your Customer Success strategy the like a bespoke suit made specifically for you, not an off the rack garment designed to fit the masses, albeit imperfectly.

Prioritize The Role You Need Today

One of the most common mistakes I see businesses make is trying to hire one person to act as Customer Success leader, which encompasses being both an architect and leader of a highly-effective, robust program and also be a hands-on Customer Success Manager managing their most important and high-risk clients on day one.

Certainly, an effective leader should spend time in the proverbial trenches to learn about the products, processes, and customers. But the job of leader is completely different from frontlines Customer Success Manager. Two very distinct role that are both full-time jobs in and of themselves.

Determine what your priority is. Do you need someone who can facilitate a cultural transformation in your company, or do you need somebody do something (anything) to prevent your most lucrative and strategic accounts from churning.

There is nothing wrong bringing on someone with Customer Success or Account Manager experience to roll up his sleeves and start reaching out to customers the first week on the job. In some cases that’s exactly what needs to happen to stabilize a highly volatile portfolio of accounts. But do not make the mistake that that kind of microeconomic approach will lead to the macroeconomic insight required to implement a sustainable and scalable program upon which to build a customer-centric organization.

The Goal Should Be A Customer-Centric Organization, Not Just A Team

From the perspective of a candidate, the primary question I try to answer throughout the interview process is:

Is this company dedicated to building a Customer Success team, or a Customer Success organization?

I’ve certainly found myself in the latter situation where a company thinks they can realize all of the benefits of a customer-first mentality by creating a small team of Customer Success Managers tucked away in the Support or Sales org with no real platform for advocating on the customer’s behalf.

This. Does. Not. Work.

If you’re in the market to bring on a Customer Success expert for the purposes of recalibrating your culture, your leadership team must buy into the fact that he or she will advocate for some big changes in how to approach “solved problems.”

As a business leader, you must really determine if your organization has an appetite, and is ready for, a fundamental change for proactive service delivery, or a reactive team that will spend the majority of its time putting out the myriad fires originating from outdated business models. Having a confident answer to that question alone will strongly inform what kind of candidate will be the right fit for the role.

Don’t Forget The Tools

And lastly, an investment into a Customer Success leader capable of catalyzing the positive change within your organization rarely comes without an investment in the tools required for him or her to complete the task.

Most hardened Customer Success leaders have spent the first months at a new job or within a new role cobbling together a handful of spreadsheets and a few new fields in Salesforce to measure, track, and analyze their various customer segments.

In fact, I did an entire video series on how I built a minimal, but fully functional, Customer Success tool to manage my CSMs and customers in Google Sheets. See below.

How to build a Customer Success CSM Tracker - Part 1

How to build a Customer Success CSM Tracker - Part 2

How to build a Customer Success CSM Tracker - Part 3

But every leader should want to set their team members up for success, and in the case of Customer Success this usually entails making some kind of investment in either a dedicated Customer Success tool, such as ClientSuccess, Strikedeck, Totango, or Gainsight, or spending the time and money to adapt current systems to the needs of a proactive service delivery team.

In most cases, the primary ROI for these tools is the ability to build and program a predictive engine that will help you team of Customer Success Managers to identify customers who are showing signs of churn or growth and react accordingly.

On top of installing efficiency by taking out the guesswork or manual calculations, these tools provide clear visibility into the key performance indicators of your Customer Success team, name Retention, Revenue, and Rapport (customer satisfaction). And having that insight into what actions move what needles is critical to know if your leader and team are solving for the real needs of the business.

So many other things…

In closing, there are so many valid things upon which to determine if a candidate is going to be a good fit for your organization. But following these tips above will also ensure that the candidate you select to build and lead your Customer Success team will also provide long-term success regardless of your business or the market around you changes.

As always, if you have questions or comments on how to set the criteria for bringing on a leader to advanced your business’ journey into a customer-first mindset, please reach out to me directly as I’m always happy to share my experiences.