The Top Three Questions to Ask When Hiring Customer Success Managers

The Top Three Questions to Ask When Hiring Customer Success Managers

Congratulations – you are a new people leader! My bet is that one of your first tasks in your new role will be to hire one or more new CSMs. Even if you are only hiring one CSM to replace you in the short term, as your team grows you will have to think about adding staff. It is hard to overestimate the value of hiring top talent.

I have been in people management in B2B software companies for over 20 years. During that time, I have had the privilege of leading both technical/customer support teams and customer success teams. During my time as a leader, there have been some stellar performers who have joined my teams.

However, there have also been some hires that were not, in retrospect, the right fit for the role. It is important to hire the best talent you can – not only for the sake of your team and of the company, but also for the individual you bring on board. No one wants to be in a position where they are a less-than-ideal fit for the role. It is demotivational and can lead to negative feedback about the company.

Based on lessons learned from my past, I have learned to look for the right characteristics in a candidate. I have a few key things I look for when hiring talent for open roles.

I usually ask myself the three key questions about any candidates I’m considering for a new role:

  • Do they have a high degree of emotional intelligence?
  • Will they work well as a member of a team?
  • Do they have a beginner’s mind?

I will expand on each of these topics below.

You will notice that I have not included technical skills in my areas of top consideration. I will explain why it is not as important as you may think at the end of this article.

1. Do they have a high degree of emotional intelligence?

What is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to recognize, understand and manage our own emotions and to recognize, understand and influence the emotions of others. The term was first coined in 1990 and gained popularity in 1995 after the publication of Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence.

Emotional intelligence is not just being a “nice person” or a people pleaser. Rather, it is knowing how to constructively express feedback – positive or negative – without allowing emotion to drive the message. Those with high emotional intelligence can engage in constructive conflict yet do so in a way that reduces or eliminates negative emotions that usually go along with conflict.

Emotional intelligence can also be described as a person’s ability to read a room. Some customer-facing professionals charge ahead with their message or their pitch, ignoring the reactions of those they are in conversation with. An emotionally intelligent person, however, shows the ability to understand the emotions of others. They can also change their messaging to resonate better with the audience, and evoke positive responses.

Interviewing for Emotional Intelligence

To determine if a candidate has the right degree of emotional intelligence, here are some good Interviewing questions to ask:

  • “How have you handled situations where you were part of a team that experienced tension or conflict?”
  • “Tell me about a time when your manager implemented a change that you didn’t agree with. How did you handle that situation?”
  • “Was there a time when your work was criticized? What was your reaction?”
  • “Have you ever been able to convince your co-workers to change their minds on something like a new process or a different way of doing things? How did you do that?”

It is important to ask follow-up questions to the questions above. A good interviewer will dig and probe for stories and examples that demonstrate how the candidate will handle stressful situations, and how they relate to others.

Another good follow-up technique is to ask questions about the candidate to their references. Ask the references what their view is on the candidate’s emotional intelligence, and how they dealt with stressful or negative situations. Some good questions to ask of references might be:

  • “What was the candidate’s reputation within the workplace?”
  • “Do you think they treated their co-workers and peers well?”
  • “What is the candidate’s communication style?”

2. Will they work well as a member of a team?

Why is it Important?

As the old saying goes, “teamwork makes the dream work.” Unfortunately, the opposite is often true – that lack of teamwork can make a nightmare.

Unless your Customer Success team is an army of one, the prospective candidate will need to work well with other members of their team. Additionally, your CSMs will have to work cross-functionally within your company. Since CSMs work largely (or exclusively) by influence rather than direct control, it is important that your team members can build bridges with teams rather than burn them down.

The ability to work well in a team is correlated with emotional intelligence. A candidate with high emotional intelligence is usually someone who is good in a teamwork environment, but it is important to probe this area to determine whether they are truly a team player or not.

Interviewing For Teamwork Skills

As a hiring manager, you will need to gauge a candidate’s comfort level with working in a team. You will also need to drill into how the candidate has used their teamwork skills in the workplace. Here are some good Interviewing questions to ask:

  • “Do you prefer working as part of a team or independently? How has that played out in your daily work?"
  • “When was a time when you worked in an environment where you have had to collaborate with other teams across the company?”
  • “Can you describe a time when you had particular difficulty working with your manager or with another team member?”
  • “How would you contribute to the culture of your team?”
  • “What would you do if a member of your team was not carrying their fair share of the work?”

3. Do they have a beginner’s mind?

What is it?

Wikipedia defines a beginner’s mind as “…having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject…” The concept originates from Zen Buddhism, but it can apply to virtually any area of life. Zen master Shunryo Suzuki, author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind describes it this way: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few.”

Those with a beginner’s mind approach situations with a fresh set of eyes and a new perspective. Too often, we let our knowledge and our preconceived notions guide us to a narrow way of thinking, and we may inadvertently bring old solutions to new problems.

Obviously, every candidate you interview will have experience and insight that they will bring to the role – they do not need to leave that at the door. However, it is important to hire team members who can put aside preconceived notions, ask leading and insightful questions, and propose new ways of addressing issues.

Interviewing for Beginner’s Mind

Determining if a candidate has a beginner’s mind requires a lot of situational questions. You will want to home in on how candidates have approached problems or opportunities in their past roles. Some good questions to ask are:

  • “Can you describe a situation where you brought an innovative or novel approach to a work-related problem?”
  • “In your prior customer-facing roles, what are some of the first things you did when you were assigned a new customer?”

I have also found great value in posing hypothetical questions with no real answer so that I can understand how a candidate thinks. The point of these questions is not to have the candidate find an answer, but rather to see how they think. My favorite theoretical question to ask in an interview is this: “Assume I gave you a research project to determine the exact number of tires in the United States. How would you approach the project?”

A candidate with a beginner’s mind would begin by checking assumptions about the question. They might ask questions like what types of tires you are talking about (car, bicycle, etc.), whether you mean only new tires or are also including discarded tires, etc. A thought process like this shows that the candidate approaches problems with few or no preconceived notions.

What About Technical Skills?

At the top of the article, I mentioned that I typically do not include a candidate’s technical skills as one of my top considerations when interviewing. I will explain some of my thought processes below.

As a hiring manager, I am usually the final interviewer in the process. By the time I speak with a candidate they have already spoken with others in the company and on my team. These interviews typically touch on technical skills, so by the time I speak with a candidate I have a good assessment of where their skills lie.

Additionally, I believe that in most situations a new CSM can be taught the technical skills they need for the role. In your specific situation this may differ, depending on how deep of an expert your team needs to be.

However, the skills listed at the beginning of this article: emotional intelligence, teamwork skills, and beginner’s mind are not things that are easily trained in a new employee. These skills relate more to who they are as a person, as opposed to what they know.

Scoring Your Candidates

When interviewing multiple candidates, I like to score them on how well I think they demonstrate the three qualities I listed above. The score allows me to compare candidates against each other. Of course, scoring candidates in this way is always a bit of a judgment call.

I’ve put together a simple rubric below with criteria I use to decide whether a candidate ranks high, medium, or low in a given dimension.

CSM Interview Rubric
CSM Interview Rubric

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