Study: What Employers Look for in a Customer Success Manager

by

Managing Editor, Software Advice

Subscription-driven companies rely on renewals and upselling for up to 95 percent of their revenue. As such, many are now hiring customer success managers (CSMs) to ensure their customers realize measurable returns from their solutions.

While the exact nature of the position varies by company, its primary function is always the same: to increase customer retention, upsells and referrals through proactive customer support.

For those with customer-facing experience, this emerging role presents an enticing opportunity. According to Totango’s 2014 Customer Success Salary Survey, the average annual compensation for CSMs is currently $94,864. In addition, many CSMs will gain valuable experience interfacing directly with C-level executives.

Customer Success Salary Infographic

To learn what companies are currently looking for in CSM candidates, we analyzed a random sample of 300 job listings for customer success management titles (explained in the Methodology section). We also shared our research with Ellis Luk, who writes about customer success as Totango’s marketing and communications manager. Her insights are integrated into our research below.

Key Findings

  1. Most employers sought candidates with customer support and account management experience, especially in high-growth, software-as-service (SaaS) environments.
  2. Many employers (44 percent) required at least three years’ experience in the workforce, and many candidates will need more than five due to other requirements.
  3. Of the listings that requested specific technical skills, 47 percent requested previous experience with customer relationship management (CRM) software.

Employers List a Wide Range of Academic Requirements

A combined 62 percent of employers required a bachelor’s degree of some kind. This includes the 18 percent that also requested a graduate-level degree. Another 23 percent preferred candidates with an undergraduate degree, but were willing to accept equivalent work experience—while 14 percent listed no academic requirements of any kind.

Altogether, the wide variation in degree requirements reveals that different employers place different levels of emphasis on academics when it comes to hiring CSMs. In part, this may be because the companies in our sample varied widely by size. But it might also indicate that some companies are more flexible than others when it comes to finding the best fit for an emerging role.

Level of Education RequiredCustomer Success Manager Required Education

Relatively few of the listings mentioned any preference for specific fields of study. Of the ones that did, the majority (60 percent) requested candidates with degrees in business administration—fairly unsurprising for a role that hinges on client interaction.

However, nearly as many employers requested some sort of technical degree, with 42 percent of these particular listings requesting degrees in computer science. In addition, 25 percent requested engineering, 24 percent requested management information systems (MIS) and a significant number of others requested general or information technology (IT) degrees.

Top Requested Degrees by Field of StudyCustomer Success Manager Top Requested Degrees

The preference for technical majors reflects the roots of customer success management in the SaaS sector, which has undergone explosive growth over the last few years. Retaining existing subscribers is now extremely difficult, thanks to an increasingly crowded market and the rise of cloud-based deployment, which makes switching products cheaper and easier than ever.

According to Luk, “[these SaaS employers] want CSMs to be very comfortable with the technical aspects of their products in order to truly help their customers.” As a result, the CSM role may be a particularly enticing opportunity for technical candidates with strong communication skills who are seeking experience interacting with senior-level executives.

Employers Want Customer-Facing Experience

Unsurprisingly, most listings in our sample (65 percent) were seeking candidates who had some form of customer-facing experience. Typically, this included delivering presentations, resolving issues and upselling.

In particular, employers want CSMs to have a demonstrable record of interacting with senior-level clients. Digging into the data, we found that 22 percent of all listings specifically requested that candidates have experience interfacing directly with C-suite executives.

Experience Preferred or RequiredCustomer Success Manager Required Experience

Another 56 percent specifically requested candidates with experience as an account manager—which makes sense, considering that’s the traditional title most closely resembling the newer role of CSM. However, it may also suggest that some employers are simply re-titling their traditional account manager roles to capitalize on the growing popularity of customer-success buzzwords.

In addition, 49 percent wanted candidates to have previous customer-facing experience at a tech company, further underscoring the need for CSMs to be able to understand, explain and sell technical concepts and products.

Another 10 percent specifically requested previous experience in a high-growth, startup environment. Most of these were startups themselves, looking for candidates with a proven track record of helping similar companies flourish.

A significant number of employers also requested candidates with experience outside of customer service and account management: For example, 30 percent of employers accepted—or in some cases, even preferred—people from a sales background, and 23 percent sought candidates from a consulting or professional services background.

Different Employers Prioritize Different Qualifications

As with the chart above, the word cloud below exemplifies the wide range of qualifications that employers are seeking in a CSM.

A handful of terms stand out across nearly all 300 listings, with the largest words such as “customer” appearing over 400 times in total and mid-sized words such as “sales” or “software” appearing over 100 times. But even the smallest terms such as “CRM” or “consulting” were mentioned nearly 50 times each.

This diversity of requested qualities suggests that different companies still have very different ideas of what the position should entail for their organization. For instance, Luk says that companies requesting sales experience “will likely look to their CSMs to assist with renewals or upsells, and are more likely to have a quota for their CSMs.”

Requested Experience Word CloudCustomer Success Manager Word Cloud

Alternatively, employers seeking candidates with consulting experience may place a higher priority on client service skills and experience interfacing with executive clients, since those applicants are more likely to have accrued account management experience and exposure to C-level clients more quickly than applicants from other backgrounds.

Most Employers Request Minimum Experience of 3-5 Years

Nearly half (44 percent) of listings requested that candidates have spent at least three to five years in the workforce. To have access to most CSM opportunities, applicants will likely need to accrue at least three years of general professional experience, ideally in a client-facing role.

However, many CSM listings specifically requested accountant management experience—typically a more senior function. For these jobs, candidates will likely need more than five years of experience, unless they have otherwise accrued significant experience managing accounts and interfacing with C-level executives.

Required Years of ExperienceCustomer Success Manager Annual Experience

Interestingly, 57 percent did not list a total-years requirement of customer success experience (account management and/or high-level customer service experience). Typically, this was because the employer also accepted candidates with a sales or consulting background. However, all but 17 percent required applicants to have a specific number of years working in some kind of professional capacity.

CRM Tops List of Desired Technical Skills

Of the 300 listings we sampled, 32 percent mentioned specific technology or software skills (excluding basic, ubiquitous software such as Microsoft Office). Among these particular listings, 47 percent required or requested that candidates have previous experience using CRM systems. According to Luk, there are many reasons behind this.

“CSMs help the customer strategize better ways to utilize the product. This even includes other platforms that their product might integrate with, such as CRM [systems],” she says. “Not only that, but CSMs will also manage their own day-to-day activities and [manage] customers with CRM tools.”

Some listings requested experience with specific CRM software applications, such as marketing automation (MA), or sales force automation (SFA). Seventeen percent mentioned MA, probably because many employers in our sample were marketing companies (or MA software vendors themselves). Conversely, only 10 percent requested SFA—likely because they lumped those functions in with CRM in general.

Technology Skills RequestedCustomer Success Manager Technology Skills

The “Other” category includes experience with industry-specific software such as healthcare or finance software, suggesting that the CSM role is catching on outside of SaaS (more on this in the next section). It also includes programming languages such as SQL, reflecting that employers need CSMs to interface with both internal development teams and customers in order to address technical issues.

This “Other” category also encompasses employers requesting experience with software specifically designed for customer success management, such as Gainsight, Evergage or Totango. That’s fairly surprising, considering these solutions have only been around for a few years.

This, combined with the early success of CSM software vendors, suggests that experience with these products early may give candidates an advantage in the near future.

Most CSM Employers Are Tech Companies

Because the CSM role first evolved to meet the needs of the growing SaaS sector, it’s no surprise that 72 percent of the listings were posted by tech companies.

And so far, all signs indicate that the customer success mindset is working. According to Gainsight, SaaS companies with a dedicated Customer Success team have a 24 percent lower churn rate than those that don’t.

Demographics: Employers by IndustryCustomer Success Manager Employers by Industry

However, it’s also interesting to see further evidence that other industries that traditionally rely on account management are beginning to adopt customer success management titles: 7 percent of employers in our sample were marketing companies, and 6 percent were banking and finance organizations.

Breakdown of Customer Success Job Titles Sampled

We began by surveying listings with the exact title “customer success manager.” Eventually we progressed to close equivalents, then to titles with comparable job requirements. We only considered “account manager” titles when it was clear that the role focused more on customer experience and retention over sales-related functions (such as upselling).

Job Titles Included in SurveyCustomer Success Manager Job Titles

The “Other” segment in the chart was composed of additional close equivalents to “customer success manager,” such as “customer success lead” or “customer retention manager.” It also included a range of quirkier titles, such as “customer success hero” and “principal architect of customer success.”

We also attempted to ensure that more senior titles were comparable based on the companies posting the listings. For instance, we only considered titles such as “director of customer success” when they were posted by smaller employers.

Conclusions

The role of CSM is still new. With employers seeking applicants from a variety of academic and professional backgrounds, there’s no single definition of what an ideal candidate should look like.

It is clear, however, that companies want applicants to have experience interfacing directly with clients, preferably at the executive level. For this reason, consulting and account management experience may be the clearest, quickest path to a career in customer success.

Regardless of their background, applicants should focus on strengthening the technical side of their resume. Accruing experience at SaaS companies will confer a significant advantage over other job seekers. So will a deep understanding of key business technology, such as CRM systems. And as the customer success field matures, being familiar with CSM-specific software will likely give applicants a further edge.

Because this study aggregates a wide range of job listings, the results paint a general picture of what companies want in a customer success manager. They do not create a perfect, one-size-fits-all candidate profile. Every company has its own particular needs, and applicants should do their best to customize submission materials to meet them.

Methodology

This study was conducted by reviewing 300 hundred job listings found through aggregators such as Indeed, Glassdoor and LinkedIn. The size of the companies in our sample varied widely, from corporations such as Microsoft and mature startups such as Box to a spectrum of newer startups.

If you’d like to further discuss this report or obtain access to any of the charts above, feel free to contact me at jayivey@softwareadvice.com.

Salary infographic created by Totango. Word cloud created using Wordle.

 
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