Customer Success: How to Hire the Right People

In our past blog posts, we covered: Today we’ll dive into the people side—upon which all these foundational pieces are built. We’ve defined the core value-added processes and mapped the platform to support those processes. Now it’s time to populate the team to do the work. Here’s why the first two steps were so critical:
  • When structured properly, the processes with clear definitions for value-added activities and key skills become a guideline for what we look for in new hires and what training they will need.
  • Done right, the platform will support our team and focus their time on the most value-added work.
  • With clear processes, we also can drill down and refine roles, including who hands work off to the Customer Success (CS) team and who CS goes to when it’s time to share information or delegate tasks. It’s critical that roles between sales reps, account managers, and service personnel are clear and distinguish what they do relative to the Customer Success team.

“Hire for attitude, train for skill”

I didn’t invent this saying, yet you can read a variety of articles from the Harvard Business Review to Fast Company explaining why some entire companies adopt this hiring philosophy. It’s especially relevant to customer-facing Customer Success roles and requires you, as a leader, to know what’s important to be successful on the job. Beyond just defining the tasks, processes, and activities needed to get the job done, you also need to know what context, environment, or perspective your employees will face in order to do their job well. For example, if part of their job is to encourage the adoption of new features from a software suite, they may need a combination of persistence, stick-to-it-iveness, and patience to deal with customers who don’t know why or how the features of an application are used. If they are expected to manage contractual agreements and terms/conditions then attention to detail, willingness to get into those details, and attitude (desire to get specific) may be critical skills needed. And it’s worth repeating that in any customer-facing role, the attitude of service (interest in others, helping others, seeing others succeed) and selflessness (it’s about you, not me) are important to have in a role that will give your employees and your customers satisfaction month after month.

Setting Clear Expectations is the Key to Outstanding Performance

Human Resource (HR) groups often will support managers in hiring and focus on job advertisements and job descriptions, sometimes, using generic summaries designed for payroll and administration. To effectively manage expectations from the very start (i.e. before someone is hired), I’ve found the following effective in defining roles and jobs:
  • Photo by Jopwell from Pexels

    1. Why the job exists: Use simple words to explain the rationale for the role. This job exists to do what? And why is it needed? What’s the scope? (national, global, regional)
  • 2. Key responsibilities: What are the top five to ten responsibilities for the role? Don’t confuse them with activities. Rather, what is someone responsible for getting done? For example, one responsibility for a Customer Success Manager is to “manage the quarterly business review (QBR) process with key accounts.”
  • 3. Key skills and experience: This is usually based on company-hiring guidelines and it’s usually where most companies finish their job descriptions. This section should be a combination of skills required or expected, experience in similar roles or with similar customer types, or domain knowledge in an industry or technology as appropriate. Be clear on “must-have” experience versus “desirable” experience.
Items 4-6 below are additional topics that I’ve found help set clear expectations:
  • 4. Key deliverables: If someone is doing the job well, what output and outcomes, defined as deliverables, are you expecting them to produce? In our QBR example above, a key deliverable could be, “Create the quarterly business review package including analytics and insights for use in QBR meetings.”
  • 5. Key metrics: How will you measure the success of the role? For example, one outcome metric could be, “Expansion of account/application usage by X% in the top 20 accounts.” Or it might be, “Maintain a 95% renewal rate for accounts older than two years.” What does success in this role look like? And—don’t forget that you’ll need at least one major metric tied to the success of the client—based on the value they expect from your company and the product or services they purchased.
  • 6. Key partners: Who interacts with this role? Who partners with this person? Define these key partners—they can help clarify teamwork and relationships that need to be nurtured.

Onboarding, Training, and Coaching—The Key to Helping Employees Succeed

Who’s Doing the Onboarding and Training?

The process you use to onboard, train, and coach your employees is critical in Customer Success and it all starts with who’s doing the training. If you’ve done a solid job in process definition and role/job definition, training and onboarding can readily follow. However, be careful who you pick to train new hires—avoid solely picking a star performer and asking them to buddy up with a new employee, instead, pick someone who’s most effective at mentoring, listening, and teaching. After all, we’re asking someone to impart wisdom and knowledge to another, not asking them to do the work itself.

Photo by Elevate Digital from Pexels

Finally, remember to onboard your Customer Success Managers with a full view of the company, what the products and services are, how they are sold, and what value proposition is being promoted to target customers. Context matters a lot and goes a long way to setting the CSM up for success as they deliver on promises your sales team makes.  

Who’s Doing the Coaching?

Coaching is a different process than training—requiring observation and feedback skills to help guide, steer, and improve an employee’s performance over time. Ideally, a manager or supervisor who can observe an employee in action, and then coach with empathy—listening first, identifying just one or two things to focus on to improve, and supporting the employee as they try new skills or a new approach to their work—can make all the difference in the world.  

Moments of Truth and Empowerment: Fix the Issue First, then Fix the Root Cause

How your Customer Success team handles critical customer interactions, either proactive or reactive, at key moments of truth, can make or break a relationship. In blog 2, I suggested that you know where in your process these moments arise so you have clear expectations on what’s supposed to happen, who does what, etc. Sometimes, these are intentional moments like introducing or upselling features; the first 30 days of application usage; the first quarterly business review. Or, they can be reactive moments that require your team to step up and fix something that has gone wrong like a system outage, application bugs, or delays in feature rollouts that change the customer’s perception of your company’s performance.

Photo by Oleg Magni from Pexels

The question is: When these moments arise, how empowered are your people to do the right thing to “make it right” for your customer? Or are they hidebound by rules, regulations, or overhead (e.g. significant amount of approval levels for minor items) that inhibit their ability to best serve customers? Empowering Customer Success managers to go above and beyond the norm at moments of truth means giving them leeway with responsibility—to solve the customer challenge, first, and then afterward, figure out what went wrong to fix the process or eliminate the root cause. Ideally, the team learns from the experience and the organization improves its ability to serve others in the future. For more, see this customer journey mapping post from TSIA. Empowering Customer Success managers also means letting them pace and decide, within reasonable bounds, when their customer is ready to take another step, buy an upgrade, change a feature, or expand adoption of a solution.  

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” (Drucker, Shein, or Fields)

An important note on culture: Everything said about people must be put into the context of your own company’s culture—how you work together, what’s valued, how risk and failure are managed, and what performance norms are set. Process and role definition, as well as training, have to be done in a way that’s aligned with the unique culture of the organization. The risk, if this isn’t followed, is that the culture will reject ideas that do not reinforce the norms, expectations, and collective behaviors.

Key Takeaways:

  • Hiring the right people with the right attitude can make a big difference.
  • Clearly-written and complete job descriptions can help identify the right people and set clear expectations upfront in the selection and onboarding process. Remember that metrics tied to customer outcomes make a difference.
  • Make sure the right people with the right skills are doing the training, onboarding, and coaching of your folks.
  • Empowerment is a balance of freedom to do what’s right for the customer with the responsibility to ensure that root causes are fixed to prevent challenges in the future.
  • Everything you do with people has to align with the culture of the organization

What it looks like when it’s not working:

  • People are hired based on credentials more than fit.
  • People get limited training and learn on the job (no expert mentors).
  • Role definition unclear related to operations, sales, and others (overlaps and gaps).
  • Higher-than-normal turnover.
  • Morale issues crop up (second-class citizens effect, etc).
  • Individual versus team spirit.

What it looks like when it’s working:

  • People are hired with purpose and intent (fit to the role).
  • Training available for all roles at all levels.
  • Employees have a clear understanding of what’s expected of them, from their management and their accounts.
  • Career path(s) in and out of CS available (e.g. sales, operations, others)
  • Teamwork and best-practice sharing occur because people know their roles, who they partner with, and what’s expected to deliver value to their joint accounts.
Next blog: Scaling – How to Effectively Grow & Key Considerations Going Forward
About the Author: Morris Wallack is currently an active mentor, teacher and advisor with over 36 years in high technology executive roles. Skilled in business planning, marketing, sales and services operations he held executive roles at Hewlett Packard and 3D Systems, with experience with new business startups, global management, service (XaaS) management, remote team management, customer success management and sales operations.  He currently serves as a mentor with SCORE, CED VMS (Venture Mentoring Service) and NC State (BUS501/Poole School of Mgmt). Morris holds a BSEE from Cornell University and an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

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