Dear Insider: Is people management the only way to move up in Customer Success?

Dear Insider: Is people management the only way to move up in Customer Success?

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Q: Is people management the only way to move up the ladder in Customer Success? I love being an individual contributor but it seems there is a point where that is not well seen anymore.

People management is by far the hardest aspect of my job, and any leader who says otherwise is probably not putting the emphasis on it as they should.

That said, it’s also not for everyone. Sadly there has not been a lot of visibility or celebration around the career path of an IC, but trust me, it’s there.

First, let’s discuss the standard title trajectory which is not necessarily the scope of the role.

  • Customer Success Associate
  • Customer Success Manager
  • Sr. Customer Success Manager
  • Customer Success Director
  • Principal, Customer Success Director
  • Customer Success Executive

These are a handful of titles I’ve used for IC’s as they have advanced their roles in my various organizations. While the title does not define the scope, it allowed them to have upward movement professionally.

The real evolution of the IC role is around the scope of the work. For example, you could be the most senior CSM in a role supporting the SMB customer base, where the work might be more transactional but being a senior CSM managing Enterprise will require a different skillset as you will need to be much more strategic in how you support them.

The other thing to consider outside of title and scope might be autonomy, visibility, or participation. A senior IC might be given more autonomy to run their business with minimal oversight from their manager. Their experience and track record have earned them trust and credibility and therefore granting them the right to manage and design the appropriate experiences for their customers.

You may also have more visibility with the leadership team and be asked to participate in more high level discussions. Given your responsibilities and strategic book of business, leaders might be coming to you for advice and guidance. You may also be given opportunities to participate in special projects across the business.

Don’t think about a career path as an IC as something that is less than, it’s just different. Work with your manager and map out what a career path might look like at your current company and remember growth shows up in all different ways.

Q: If you had to choose one quality that is most important to have as a Customer Success Manager, what would it be?

This is such a great question and one that can be debated, as I am sure everyone would have their own opinion on the top quality of a high-performing Customer Success Professional.

Before I get into my number one, I think there is value in sharing a few that I’ve found to be critical.

  • Communication
  • Technical Aptitude
  • Business Acumen
  • Empathy
  • Critical Thinking

Each of these are key for any successful CSP. One thing that sets apart Good from Great in my opinion is intellectual curiosity.

Intellectual curiosity is a person's willingness and desire to learn new things and dig deeper than the surface.

As a CSP, this skill will ensure that you have a deep understanding of your customer; it will support deeper alignment and the ability to provide strategic consultation on an ongoing basis.

Think about this in your ability to ask questions and always seek clarity. One of my favorite methods to introduce my teams to is The Five Why’s Method. This method walks you through situational analysis and how to get to the root cause of issues but outside of problems it can also be helpful as you seek to understand.


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Q: To be able to succeed in Customer Success, what is more important for you: the company, the team, or your manager? (Or a 4th option that you think is even more important!)

Wow, this is a great question and I could probably argue several points in defense of each of these.

That said I’d say the most impactful aspect would be the company’s philosophy around Customer Success. I’ve worked for several companies where they would say they were customer-centric but their actions clearly indicated that they were more sales or product-centric. Because Customer Success is an outcome that requires the support and participation of all cross-functional teams.

If a company is not truly customer-centric this will be nearly impossible to achieve. The success and failure (mostly) of customers will be viewed as a direct result of the CS team which, as we know, is impossible.

In these environments, successes are never remembered and failures are never forgotten making personal and professional success in the role extremely difficult and highly demoralizing.

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