How to Become a Customer Success Manager

By: Collin Couey on February 19, 2021

Subscription-driven companies rely on renewals and upselling for up to 95% of their revenue.

While the exact nature of the customer success manager (CSM) position varies by company, its primary function is always the same: to increase customer retention, upsell, and handle referrals through proactive customer support.

For those with customer-facing experience, this role presents enticing opportunities, including:

Competitive salary: According to Glassdoor, the average annual compensation for CSMs is currently $65,000

Valuable experience: CSMs often interface directly with C-level executives

We found several key ways you can tailor your resume if you want to land that CSM job:

  • Education: A bachelor’s degree is nice, but job experience trumps education in some cases

  • Soft skills: Customer-facing experience, either with customer success or account management, is king

  • Technical skills: Familiarity with certain types of customer relationship management (CRM) or CSM software will give you a competitive advantage

We’ll go over why each of these is important to consider when developing your resume and talking to recruiters so that you’ll have a leg up over your competition.

It’s not just about the smarts; experience matters

Most companies are looking for a bachelor’s degree at minimum when hiring CSMs, but a lot of companies aren’t as interested in your academic education as they are your experience. They really want a few years of customer service experience as either an account manager or customer experience expert.

Remember, for the company, it’s all about retention, upselling, and customer support so that the business has great customer satisfaction scores—academic education doesn’t mean as much as experience in these situations.

That said, when a company does list a specific field of study in a job posting, they typically want someone with a degree in computer science, business administration, or information technology (IT). The preference for technical majors reflects the roots of customer success management in the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) sector, which has undergone explosive growth over the last few years.

Gartner found that 70% of all CRM systems deployed in 2018 were SaaS and expects this to peak at 85% to 90% in the next decade (full content available to Gartner clients). SaaS companies also make up a huge chunk of businesses looking to hire CSMs because, thanks to the increasingly crowded market, retaining existing subscribers is now extremely difficult.

With how easy it is to switch to a different type of software, CSMs with an understanding of software are especially valuable for SaaS companies.

And with the recent shift toward remote work, the number of companies looking for candidates with technical experience is only going to increase as more and more businesses are shifting to digital solutions.

Soft skills are key in the shift toward customer-centered service

The most important skills you need to become a customer success manager are soft skills. Things such as problem solving, communication skills, and the ability to remain calm and collected during difficult situations are invaluable for a potential CSM.

You’ll be talking to clients all day, so communication skills are core to the job. If you’re able to demonstrate your ability to convey complex ideas and concepts in a digestible manner when talking to a hiring manager, you’ll stand out from the crowd and show that you’re the right customer success associate for the job.

It’s no surprise that most businesses looking for CSMs list customer service and account management as the two most important skills to have in your back pocket. The only difference between an account manager and a customer success manager is the focus on customer experience.

If you don’t have experience in customer service or account management, don’t stress out—a significant number of employers also request candidates with experience outside of those two fields. The preference for sales, consulting, or marketing experience indicates that some companies want CSMs who are more specialized so they can communicate with their clients more effectively.

For example, 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.

As businesses continue to shift their customer experience strategies toward proactive customer service instead of reactive, they’re also looking for CSMs with the ability to anticipate customer needs and help with problems in a natural way instead of just running down a checklist. This requires the ability to read between the lines during conversations to dig down and find out exactly what a customer is concerned with, and that’s not something you can learn in school.

Technical skills are important to master when applying for CSM roles

Most customer success teams will require their staff to have a certain level of understanding of various types of software and other more technical skills. Of course, you need a passable knowledge of MS Office and the Google suite of software, but customer success teams also value experience working with or understanding more specific types of software; most notably being customer relationship management (CRM) software.

It makes sense because CRM software is centered around building and maintaining customer relationships through tracking important client details.

Most businesses will be fine with general knowledge about CRM software, but others might want experience with specific systems, Salesforce being the most sought-after.

CRM isn’t the only type of software businesses might be looking for previous experience with. Depending on where you’re applying, they might also want experience with industry-specific software such as healthcare or finance software.

While similar to CRMs in a lot of ways, CSM software is far more specialized around customer success. CSM software helps businesses collect data to gather insight, monitor customer behavior, and engage with customers in a more holistic way.

If you’re curious about the differences between CSM (customer service software) and CRM software, take a look at “Customer Service or CRM Software: Which Do You Need?

Advice for aspiring CSMs

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. However, if you make sure to beef up your resume with some of the skills we went over, you’ll be much more attractive to potential employers.

Seek out experience with SaaS companies to gain a significant advantage over other job seekers. In addition, proactively look for ways to deepen your understanding of CRM and CSM software solutions.

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

Every company has its own particular needs, so alongside the requirements that we have mentioned, applicants should customize submission materials to meet them.

Further reading