As your customer success team scales it becomes increasingly important to understand the dynamics of how your team will grow and change into the future. Customer success is relatively new when compared with functions like sales. Tried and true career paths don’t always exist. To compound that, customer facing roles often suffer from a shorter shelf-life compared to other roles as team members look to move away from the front lines.
Team members will move on, others will get promoted and new people will want to join your team. We all understand these dynamics but are rarely deliberate about managing these scenarios to help build predictability into your hiring.
Career paths might sound simple but getting them right is tricky and a moving target. Many other customer success professionals I speak to will dismiss the exercise of career pathing as “fluffy” or a luxury. Maybe I’d agree with in the case of a fast growing startup or a new CS org making their first hires. However, once you move into growing customer success teams it’s impossible to scale without spending time on this.
I find it useful to think about career paths in customer success from three perspectives -
- How to feed your CS team with the right people from other departments in your company
- How to retain and grow your existing team members
- How to feed the rest of the company with talent nurtured within your team
As you can see, it’s not just about how you craft career paths within your team but also how people flow in and out.
In reality it’s difficult to tackle all of these challenges at once so I would prioritise your starting point by asking some questions.-
- How long does it take to fill an open CS role? Is it too long?
- Are we struggling to hire external candidates at the right level?
- What’s our attrition rate on the team?
- What’s our average tenure on the team?
- What’s the average ramp time on the team?
- How many managers do we hire internally versus externally?
- When people leave where do they go and for what reasons?
- What is the feedback from the team on career growth? (anonymous surveys are a great tool here)
It may take a while to get the answers to those questions but it should shed some light on where the priority is. For example if you have a happy team, getting promoted and sticking around but struggle to fill new roles on time it makes sense to spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking career paths to feed your team from other departments.
Feeding Customer Success
The most obvious way to feed your customer success team is by hiring the right people from the outside. I’ve written about how to hire for customer success teams before.
As you scale however, it’s critical to look internally for customer success talent. Hiring people internally allows you to move faster as existing team members move through the growing and seeding phases.
In the early days this isn’t always an option because you need generalists with more experience but as that team expands institutional knowledge can be passed on faster to newer less tenured team members who feed in from other teams.
People tend to grow their career and move into customer success from technical/customer support teams. In many companies sales (particularly more junior roles) is often a feeding function for customer success if reps are more motivated by building long-term relationships while using their strong sales foundation.
The key here is to create a formal structure or guidance plans for people in these roles to make the jump. Self-training resources, shadowing team members, the ability to meet teams before applying are all great ways to open up the discussion and make internal mobility less of a black box.
Growing within Customer Success
As mentioned above it, can be a challenge to retain great CS talent over time. As you build out career paths for your own team consider what incentives you have to grow people in a number of ways - i) as individual contributors, ii) as leaders and iii) to other roles within in customer success.
Career paths as an individual contributor -
This is the most critical piece of all. If the only option for people to grow their careers is by moving into management you run the risk of attracting the wrong kind of talent for those roles or making them very competitive and forcing people to look outside your company.
CSMs looking to develop as an individual contributor tend to ask questions like -
- If I start as a CSM what does the path of an individual contributor look like?
- Will I be earning more money after 1 year?
- Will my title change as I develop?
- Will the work become more differentiated as I get more experience?
- Will the type of customer I work with or my account ratio change?
Many companies approach to the individual contributor career path is to grow compensation (% increases) and titles (senior etc) as tenure increases. While this approach is definitely a start, work differentiation should also be built into career progression as you grow.
Providing teams with the opportunity to work with different types of businesses or customer sizes is a great way to fuel career growth outside of just title and compensation changes.
Career paths for CSMs into leadership -
The most traditional career path for CSMs over time is management. Moving to be a team lead > manager > director > VP of customer success seems like the most logical career path but it’s not for everyone.
We aren’t always deliberate about hiring leadership from within but hiring great leaders from your existing team is a key lever for scale. It should always be balanced with experience and perspective from the outside but if you do plan on hiring internal CS leaders you need to spend time thinking about how you will support and nurture the best candidates as well as making the process fair and objective.
Growing into another role within CS -
This article by Gainsight has some great examples of the customer success career paths to other roles.
Training, professional services, operations, customer marketing are all logical career paths for customer success professionals to continue to grow and develop.
How do you enable this movement in your own company? Is it a formal career path or something that just happens?
Seeding from Customer Success
Nobody wants to lose their top team members but if you’re creating a team that’s moving internally in your own company to other departments it can be a great long term asset.
Looking at the bigger companies out there - CSMs traditionally move into sales, operations, product or leadership roles in other departments. The people who make these moves will hopefully take the voice of the customer with them and advocate on behalf of the customer experience.
Unless this is happening at an alarming rate, I wouldn’t spend too many calories here as the onus is on the individual. Accept the fact that it will happen and measure it so you can feed that back into your hiring and career paths plans.
Wrapping it up -
The key point here is that career paths don’t just happen. In a scaling CS org you need to be deliberate about how team members flow in, grow and move on from your team. Invest in it and put resources behind it because it can be competitive advantage. As with all things customer success, it’s going to be different in every company but I’m hoping some of my thoughts and tools on the topic will get you started.
How do you think about customer success career paths?