The Perfect Playbook For First-Time Customer Success Managers

Congratulations, you just landed your first CSM role in a SaaS company! It’s an exciting opportunity...but the anxiety is real. 

You have many questions: What do a CSM’s day-to-day tasks look like? What if all my customers churn on the same day? How do I handle customer calls? 

Starting any new job is hard. But it's much harder when you're taking on a customer-facing role for the first time. Customers are the heart of any business, so any slips on your end can directly impact churn. Understandably, you're under a lot of pressure to succeed. 

That’s why we wrote this playbook. It won’t answer all your questions (that’s impossible), but it will do two things: 

  • Prepare your mind for the challenges of a new CSM role
  • Show you how to succeed as a first-time CSM 

The Common Challenges First-Time CSMs Experience

Most first-time CSMs struggle with three things: 

1. Learning Overload

There’s so much to learn as a first-time CSM. Not only do you have to get up to speed with a brand new role, but you also have to learn a new product and the business’s CS process. Honestly, it’s hard.  

If your organization doesn’t have a structured onboarding process, you might be thrown into customer conversations while trying to make sense of all of this information. It’s a lot to keep up with and quickly overwhelms you. 

2. Prioritization

Let’s say you go through a proper CSM onboarding process; eventually, you’ll be given a book of business or a list of accounts that it’s your responsibility to retain and expand. Then, it’s up to you to figure out how to prioritize your customers on top of your other responsibilities. 

You’ll struggle with which customers to reach out to first and how much time to spend on one customer versus another.  

Unfortunately, there are no simple answers. You need to experiment, make a few mistakes, and gradually find your rhythm. In these early days, you should lean on the CS department leader to learn the current processes and best practices for reaching out to your accounts on a recurring schedule. 

3. Imposter Syndrome

Nothing prepares you for your first solo customer call. It's like your first school recital — no matter how much you’ve practiced, you might forget your lines or experience cold sweats and sweaty palms. 

The first time you talk to a customer, you won't know much about the product yet. But, you need to handle this conversation confidently, reassure the customer, and help them resolve issues, even on topics you aren’t familiar with. 

What CSMs Should Do in Their First 30 Days

The first 30 days as a new CSM look different in every organization. Some organizations throw you into the weeds to figure things out from day one. Others won't give you a book of business for an entire quarter. 

This doesn't mean you should take a que sera sera approach to your first job. There are things you can do to set yourself up for success early. 

We asked expert CSMs from Dash, Officely, Hicomply, and Vitally to share their best tips to help you ramp up in 30 days.  

1. Learn the Product

“Learn your product inside out. Make sure to use it like a customer would so that you are able to help your customers get the most out of what they have bought,” says Zoe Grylls, Head of Operations at Hicomply. 

Your first priority as a new CSM is understanding how the product works and the problems it solves for customers. You can learn all you want about the role. But if you hop on a customer call and don’t know the first thing about the product, you won’t be able to help them.   

“You’re probably not going to know everything there is to know about the product that early. But you do want to get those product fundamentals down — like the core features and use cases — in the first 30 days,” says Taylor Pettiford, Senior Customer Success Manager at Vitally. 

Start by reading the product documentation. From there, schedule walkthrough tutorials with your product development team for hands-on training. Kristina Semcenko, Customer Success Manager at Officely, also suggests you jump on product demo calls with a colleague or two to test your knowledge. 

2. Familiarize Yourself With the Company’s CS Operations

Get to know the type of CS organization your company is and how CSMs collaborate with cross-functional teams like Product and Sales. 

In an ideal world, you’ll get information about the company’s CS operations during onboarding. But, if the business is just building out its Customer Success function or you’re the first CS hire, your onboarding will likely not cover the basics. In that case, you’ll need to figure out the company’s CS organization structure yourself. 

Our best tip: Start from the product. If it doesn’t have a significant learning curve, then the company is likely running transactional CS operations. But if it’s a complex product, you’ll spend most of your time teaching customers how to use it — that’s an education-centric CS organization. 

For a transactional CS organization, you’ll collaborate more with the Sales team to identify expansion opportunities and upsell customers. If you're with an education-centric organization, you'll work closely with the Product team to educate customers and share product feedback from your calls. 

Once you identify the team you’ll be working closely with, get to know them. Jump on calls with them, invest your time into understanding what they do, and build rapport. 

3. Ask Questions

“The biggest thing that helped me as a new CSM was admitting when I didn't know something,” says Taylor. “I know it’s tough, especially as a person in a new role and organization. But you cannot be afraid to admit when you don’t know something — whether that’s about the product or the internal workings of the business.”

We couldn’t have said it better. It’s your first CS job; nobody expects you to have all the answers — even the customer. If a customer asks a question about the product and you don’t know the answer, it’s okay to say, “Hey, I’m not sure about this. I’ll take it offline and find the right answer for you.” That’s much better than doing or saying something wrong. 

“It takes about two minutes to stop, ask a question, and get the right answer. But it will probably take two hours or more to fix the mess resulting from you not doing that. So, take that bit of time to ensure you’ve got the right information instead of making the wrong assumption and cleaning up the mess later,” Taylor adds. 

4. Segment Your Customers 

Segmenting your customers as soon as you receive your book of business will help you allocate your time more efficiently. Customers aren't all equal in terms of account value, but they are all important to your business's growth. You need to distribute your time fairly among them on top of your other responsibilities. 

The segmentation criteria depend on your organization, but you’ll typically dedicate more time to your top accounts (i.e., the ones that are paying your company the most) than the smaller ones. Some CSMs spend more time on new accounts to help them ramp up quickly, while older accounts get routine check-ins, like monthly or quarterly calls. You can also segment customers by product usage and renewal data. 

Learn more: How to set up customer segments in Vitally

How Companies Can Help First-Time CSMs Succeed 

Much of your success as a first-time CSM depends on your organization. Without the right resources, tools, and structure, you'll struggle in the role, even if you're incredibly talented.

Here’s how SaaS companies can help new CSMs settle into their role quickly. 

P.S.: This is where you hand this guide to your manager or company decision-maker. Just kidding; keep reading to see how top companies set their CSMs up for success. But share this section with your team so everyone else is on board. 

1. Create a Robust Onboarding Process 

Have a reasonable buffer period for new CSMs to learn about the product and your organization before assigning them a book of business. By reasonable, we mean the onboarding period should be at least 30 days. It's enough time for a first-time CSM to understand their role, the product, and the CS organization structure on a fundamental level. 

According to Taylor, a standard CSM onboarding process has three things: 

Product Training

Set up a formalized training program where new CSMs learn everything about the product. Make sure they experience the product as a customer would. 

“Vitally took us right through the customer lifecycle stage when it came to training,” explains Taylor. “We learned everything — from integrations to data configuration and general overviews. Some of these things were not necessarily part of our role but part of a customer's rhythm or motion when using Vitally. So we had to understand them.” 

Product training isn’t a one-way street. It’s not about bombarding the CSM with non-stop information. Instead, it is more like this: Hey, let's hop on a call. We're going to train you on this feature. Then, you go into your demo portal, build it out, and apply your learnings.

Watercooler Chat

The CSM role is very very collaborative. It touches every other business function — from Marketing and Sales to Product and Engineering. Watercooler chats can help new CSMs familiarize themselves with the people in other teams, so it's easier to work with them in the future. 

Taylor says Vitally’s watercooler chats helped him integrate with the rest of the organization quickly. 

“During my onboarding at Vitally, I had informal chats with our co-founders and Engineering and Product Marketing teams. Learning about these people on an individual level really helped to personalize our relationship. It just eases your nerves down the road. If something comes up, you can easily approach these people because you know they’re super chill.”

Peer Mentorship Programs 

Every first-time CSM should have an onboarding buddy. Ideally, this person is an experienced CSM who can answer questions, organize regular check-in calls, and ensure that new hires are set up for success early.  

“You’ll have many simple questions that you might not feel confident enough to ask on the public channels as a first-time CSM. So, it really helps to have someone in your corner who can answer these questions privately, at least until you have a better idea of how everything works,” says Taylor. 

Charlie Pinker, Customer Success Lead at Dash, shares a similar view. “First-time CSMs need a lot of support. So, make sure that they are embedded within a team that can show them the ropes.”

2. Invest in the Right Tools

Hiring a CSM means you’re ready to build out your company’s CS function. But you can’t do it without the right tools. 

“But we've been making things work with our spreadsheet and CRM software.” 

You've also likely been missing out on important customer insights, ignoring customer issues until they lead to churn, or running your CS operations like a fire department, dashing from one emergency to the next. It's not worth the hassle. 

Now that you have a CSM on board, it's time to set things right. A Customer Success Platform like Vitally can help you streamline your CS operations, so it's easier for new CSMs to collaborate with the rest of the team and find information quickly.

Here are some Vitally features that stand out for first-time CSMs: 

  • Internal notes: Create outlines to guide customer conversations and document customer call highlights in real-time.
  • Knowledge base: Create extensive documentation about your product and CS operations to help first-time CSMs ramp up quickly. 
  • Hubs: Bring all your customer conversations to one place with our data-powered Hubs. CSMs can chat with customers, send emails, and communicate with other project stakeholders right in Vitally. 

Learn more: 18 essential Customer Success software features

3. Hand Over the Accounts in Phases

You won’t expect a toddler to run when they’ve just taken their first step. So, why do you think a first-time CSM can handle an entire book of business within weeks on the job? It’s a recipe for disaster. 

Break the book of business into smaller chunks and allow the new CSM to get acquainted with the account and customers before taking on the entire load. Say you’re assigning 25 accounts to a CSM. Give them five first. Assign another 10 after a few weeks, and so on. 

Taylor suggests that the first-time CSM shadows an experienced colleague for some time before handling customers independently. 

“You should have hours and hours of shadowing sessions, whether live or recorded calls. And then, do a breakdown with someone seasoned on the team. It’s not about asking the CSM to watch recorded customer conversations alone. Someone needs to be there to explain what worked well on the call and what could have been handled better.”

Emily Lamb, Product Manager at Dash, shares a similar opinion. “Shadow as many success calls as you can. This not only gives you an idea of the goals your customer base is working towards but will also give insights into how your team approaches Customer Success.”

Related: What’s the golden ratio of Customer Success Managers to customers? 

How to Grow Quickly as a First-Time CSM

To wrap up, our contributors shared their number one tip for excelling in the CSM role as a newbie: 

Charlie from Dash: “Think about what excellent Customer Success looks like from the brands that inspire you, and embody that every day.”

Zoe from Hicomply: “Listen and think like a customer when working to solve problems.”

Taylor from Vitally: “Master de-escalating high-pressure situations even when you don’t have all the answers.”  

Emily from Dash: “Take time to explore how the most successful customers are using your product. Look into how they have configured it, how regularly they use it, and what makes them successful.”

Kristina from Officely: “Your role will always change; sometimes, you might wear 10 different hats. But remember that you're making a difference, and you're the number one cheerleader for your customers.”

That’s it from us! We hope these tips help you have a stellar Customer Success career. We can’t wait to see you win. 

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