The start of your career as a customer success manager (CSM) is the beginning of an exciting journey: You foster relationships with businesses small and large, and help them achieve amazing results with your product. However, it’s often the case that new CSMs experience a lot of stress and fear about what they should or shouldn’t be doing and the consequences of what they do or don’t do. To help fellow CSMs get on a quick and painless start, I prepared a list of seven common scenarios new CSMs fear most and how to handle them, based on the experience of several CSMs here at Wrike, including myself.
1. You don’t know the answer to a question
One of the most common concerns I hear from new CSMs during onboarding is: “What if a client asks me a question during the call and I don’t know the answer?” The root of this concern is that it’s implied that a CSM is a product expert and should know the answer to any question that clients may ask. Well, that isn’t entirely correct. While it’s true that CSMs are product experts, no one expects them to be walking encyclopedias on the product. It all comes with experience — both deep product knowledge (after several years you’ll probably be able to quote your help center by heart) and the ability to offer industry-based best practices.
So it’s fine to tell clients that you’ll find the information they’re looking for. But don’t forget to follow up with them via email or schedule another call on this topic should any extended explanations be required. Another efficient approach is to look up the answer with the client during the call.
I can recall several situations when clients made specific requests on whether an action was or wasn’t possible in Wrike. I could tell that the matter was urgent to the clients, so we worked together to test whether or not what they wanted was possible in the product. In some cases, we just found the direct solution. In other cases, I was able to provide workarounds. And even in the cases when the answer was a clear “no,” the clients thanked me for my honesty. Surprising, right? But they stated that my confirmation saved them the time they would otherwise waste on trying to do it themselves.
2. Telling a client when your product can’t do something
It’s essential to set the right expectations for your clients during the sales and product trial phases (if there is one). Sometimes the sales team may not clearly communicate the capabilities of the solution you’re offering. Sometimes clients misinterpret information in your educational materials. Finally, the clients’ demands may change over the course of using the product. The result of all these situations is the same — the clients will expect features and functionalities that your product doesn’t have.
I remember being afraid to answer “no” to any product-related question that my clients asked me. I didn’t want to disappoint them, and I always felt upset when the product lacked a feature that my clients needed. But it’s impossible to satisfy everyone. There will always be a demand for more features, for the product to work differently, and many other things. The key question here is how critical these features are for the customer. Would the client still have enough value from the product as is, or would the lack of that feature decrease the value of your product? In the latter case, it’s highly unlikely that you, as a CSM, can do much about it. And yes, that customer may end up churning.
What’s important though is that the CSM should highlight the benefits that the client can get from the product. In some situations, for example, one team in the client’s organization might stop or decline using your product, but another team might actually benefit from it. Ask questions! That’s always a good starting point to identify new opportunities. And if the features that the client is asking about and that are missing in your product are minor, they’ll let you know not to worry about it.
3. A client says they’re evaluating other solutions for the next year
While this statement should definitely be a call to action for a CSM, it isn’t always a cause for alarm. There are many reasons clients may consider exploring other options, and sometimes there are real opportunities for growth. Let me provide several examples:
- The client may have been using your competitors’ solution along with yours, and management has decided to consolidate the users into a single solution. So in this situation, your competitor’s solution has always been there.
- The client’s organization has a formal process in which all vendors need to be reviewed and re-evaluated annually, regardless of whether the previous period’s results were great or not.
- While your product met the client’s requirements in general, it lacks certain features and functionalities. Your client’s organization may have been researching other solutions available on the market to understand whether it would be possible to get more at the same or even better price.
In any case, the first question that a CSM needs to find the answer to is why other solutions are being evaluated. Next, if your customer is already looking at specific products from your competitors, you need to prepare a battle plan for each. The plan should connect the client’s existing challenges to your product’s strengths and highlight what makes it a better fit for their needs compared to your competitor’s offers. Also don’t forget to emphasize all the transition costs of switching to a different solution, such as team training, product adoption, the necessary integrations, and more. Being mindful about competition doesn’t mean that you should be scared of it.
4. Challenging a client to confirm their product knowledge
I’ve personally made this mistake many times. At the start of a call, I make it a habit to ask the client whether or not they’ve done any formal training on the product. In many cases, after getting a positive answer — which wasn’t necessarily yes, but rather something like, “Yeah, we know all the basic information” — I just moved on to discuss more advanced concepts and features. However, at some point, it became clear that our discussion wasn’t moving forward because the client didn’t have foundational knowledge on core aspects of the product. It was like teaching a student driver how to drift when they were still learning how to accelerate and steer.
After that initial question on product training, I then ask the client to show me several, specific things in the account. For example, to use Wrike efficiently, the client needs to have a clear understanding of how to set up a project correctly. I ask the client to demonstrate a project they’re working on, and then I review it according to six criteria. If all is well, we move on to advanced topics. If not, we take the time to review the basic material before moving forward. What’s important here is that the CSM highlights why it’s critical to know all the basics about the product and what the negative consequences would be should the client choose to ignore them.
5. Reaching out to an unresponsive client over and over again
When you’re too persistent with emails and calls, there’s always a chance that you’ll end up in the clients’ spam folder. So outreach needs to be well planned and coordinated with other departments (e.g., marketing or sales), so you don’t end up bombarding clients with emails on the same topic. However, it doesn’t mean that you should stop your attempts to contact unresponsive clients after two or three emails. Here at Wrike, we’ve seen a lot of cases when clients finally responded to the fifth, ninth, or even twelfth email. It could be that the team is just really busy. Also, it’s possible that the subject lines of the first six emails didn’t resonate with the client’s pain points, but the seventh one hit the spot. There are many other possibilities for why a client is unresponsive.
In any case, here are a few recommendations:
Make sure that you have several contact persons in the clients’ organizations. This gives you an alternative when one of the team members is unresponsive for any reason.
Make the emails you send as engaging as possible. Ideally, each email needs to be tailored to the client’s specific needs. But if it isn’t possible and you’re working on scale, make sure that the emails in your sequence address different, common challenges your clients are facing, so at least some of them will resonate enough for the client to actually schedule a call with you.
6. Telling a client that they’re not using the product in the most efficient way
Sometimes you jump on a call with the customer, ask them to show or explain how they’re using your product and from the first few minutes it becomes clear that the usage isn’t even close to efficient. The tricky part is that the client could be satisfied with how they’re using the product and don’t want to change their processes. When I first started at Wrike, one of my mentors shared some valuable insight: “If you have to choose between making the client happy or helping them get value from the product, always choose the value. I’ve seen happy clients churning, but it’s highly unlikely that a client getting real value from the product will cancel their subscription.” That’s why I always try to challenge clients on how they currently use the product.
Sometimes the “right” way of using the product would require fundamentally rethinking processes. That could potentially be time-consuming and require a lot of effort from the team. Because of this, you need to have a clear set of arguments on how exactly the client’s team will benefit should they choose to follow your recommendations and the positive results they can expect to see. In many cases, though, the situation won’t be that dramatic and your recommendations will be minor corrections, which can be implemented relatively easily. Just keep in mind that both you and the client share the same goal of maximizing the value they’re getting from your solution. And don’t forget to remind them about it.
7. Being respectful of your own time
It’s important for a CSM to be flexible. As I stated earlier, learning the best practices of using your product won’t always be at the top of your clients’ priority list. So, sometimes you’ll need to reschedule client calls and choose a better date and time to fit their needs. However, it’s important to establish reasonable boundaries and let clients take advantage of this flexibility. Unless you’re a strategic CSM working with only a few clients, it’s highly likely that your book of business includes several dozens of clients. So blocking time for a single client who keeps rescheduling calls at the last minute means that you also lose the time that you can spend helping other clients. I try to politely communicate this to the clients, and to this day they’ve always reacted to me positively and either chose to prioritize the call with me or at least let me know that they had to focus on other things at the moment but would follow up later.
Another common situation that can be highlighted here is when a client does indeed attend all the scheduled calls but never (or almost never) does their “homework” or implement any recommendations you provided. It’s important to highlight in these situations that you’re happy to assist them in achieving amazing results with your product, but these results rely on their own efforts as well. And without these actions completed, a follow-up call probably wouldn’t be the best use of both the client’s and CSM’s time.
I hope that these recommendations make the start of your career as a CSM less stressful. Leave a comment below if there are other tips you’d like to share.