4 Things Every CSM Should Know Off the Top of Their Head

Arit Nsemo is the Senior Director of Customer Success at Searchspring, and a member of Vitally’s Success Network.


Being a Customer Success Manager is a big job, but it doesn’t always look that way on the surface.

As a CSM, you not only need to be an expert on the product itself, but specifically on how the product can solve specific problems for your customers — and you need to identify and track customer outcomes to ensure their success.

Once, I was in a big internal meeting with several senior leaders, including my CEO at the time. I was presenting some ideas for how to get customers faster time to value and to unlock expansion opportunities. I was in a leadership position myself at the time, but I also managed a book of business. 

During the meeting, the CEO asked me what my retention rate was for my book of business and I couldn’t answer the question. I fumbled for a minute and then admitted that I didn’t know. I was so embarrassed, and it warranted a coaching moment from my boss at the time. I’d fallen into the trap of letting Revenue Operations and Finance teams calculate my numbers, and only thought of it in service to my quarterly bonus payout. It was a mistake I would not repeat.

Sometimes we get so bogged down in the day to day as CSMs, that we don’t take time to zoom out and get a clear picture of what we really need to be focusing on. Back-to-back customer calls, internal asks from teams, admin work, and endless emails can cloud the basics.

So, as a CSM — what are the most important things for you to know when it comes to your book of business? 

1. MRR/ARR in your book of business

It's important to know how much revenue sits in your hands. CSMs are revenue team members, even if that hasn’t always historically been the case. Most of the company revenue and most of the growth opportunity sits in the hands of CSMs. 

As such, you’ve got to know your numbers. How can you treat this revenue as if it’s your own business and be a good steward of your customers? The first step is to actually know what that number is.

If you’re not sure how to figure this out, or it’s not immediately apparent in either your CRM or your customer success tool, ask for help! You can usually lean on an operations team for this kind of thing.

Related: "What's the best metric for tracking the impact of your CS team?"

2. At-risk customers

If you're managing more than 75-100 accounts (or you're a scale CSM), you may not be able to list them all without looking at a report, but if you manage fewer than that, I'd expect that you know all of them and why they're at risk. Sometimes it’s going to take proactive engagement, and really good question-asking to get to the bottom of who is truly risky. 

Maybe your company has reliable customer health scores, but in my experience the most reliable indicator of customer health is CSM sentiment. Know your customers. Know who is at-risk and why. And most importantly, trust your gut, but verify. If you feel something is off with an account, ask probing questions to get a better understanding of if your sentiment is valid and backed up by data.

Bonus points here come from proactively uncovering risk, coming up with a plan to address it, and sharing that plan with your manager. CS leaders love knowing about risk in advance, and churn isn’t fun, but surprise churn is even worse. Plus, coming to your manager with a plan keeps them in the loop, but also doesn’t ask them to solve anything for you is a manager’s dream.

3. Your personal net revenue retention rate (NRR) and gross revenue retention rate (GRR)

For NRR, take your starting MRR plus expansion MRR, subtract churned MRR and contraction MRR, then divide by the starting MRR. For GRR, you just want to look at how much revenue you had at the beginning of a time period (usually quarterly), and then at the end. Divide ending revenue by beginning revenue.

As a note, GRR can never be more than 100%, but NRR can (and should!) be over 100%. NRR and GRR are often the gold standard metrics when it comes to customer success and post sale revenue management. It’s a finance metric and is often reported to the board. 

No, your individual book of business’ GRR/NRR probably isn’t reported to the board, but learning to speak the language of the board sets you up to make better decisions with your customers, and to have a clear understanding of topline business metrics, which can only help with your career growth.

Related: 10 Customer Success KPIs That Top CS Leaders Track

4. Your top advocates in your book of business

These are the power users, the ones that love your product, that give good feedback and are reference-able. Not only is this going to be useful to support sales and marketing, which makes you an invaluable cross-functional partner as a CSM, but you can also learn so much from your advocates because they tend to be doing all the right things to be successful. You can use their behavior to build content and to drive outcomes across your book of business.

If you zoom out every now and again to ensure you have a handle on what’s outlined above, you will continuously improve in your role just by understanding it as a share of the business, knowing what actually makes customers successful, being a strong internal cross-functional partner, and learning to speak the language of the board. 

One of the most important things about being in the CSM role is the ability to stay curious. If you’re able to approach each day with a beginners’ mindset, and you keep the big picture in mind without getting lost in the minutiae, you’re much more likely to be positioned to help your customers drive their desired outcomes, and crucially, you’ll be much better positioned to advance in your career.

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