ArticleBest PracticesAugust 3, 2018
What to Look for in a VP of Customer Success Image

What to Look for in a VP of Customer Success

By Dan Steinman

This should be a pretty easy blog post to write, right?  However, I’ve only ever been one and have never hired one, so writing this is forcing me to think about it in a new light.  A very interesting exercise.  Credit here to my right-hand man, Paul Piazza, for great input on what he appreciates in a Customer Success leader and what he wishes I did better.

So, here are five must-haves for a VP of Customer Success:

1.  A true passion for customers

Let’s start at the very top.  I want, in a VP of Customer Success, one of the key things I also look for in a Customer Success Manager – a true passion for customers.  This is something that is easy to lose as you climb the management ladder.  You tend to get less engaged with individual customers and more worried about the KPIs.  Stressing over your churn rate because your bonus, and your job, are riding on it, is not the same as truly caring about your customer’s success. 

Don’t settle for someone who simply talks a good game, dig in and figure out whether they have real passion.  In the toughest situations, this is what will ultimately pay off, not just pure intellect or even experience.  Make sure that there’s a physical effect on them when their customers are not doing well, not because of the pressure you put on them but because that’s part of their DNA.

2.  A willingness to get their hands dirty

Make sure he/she is truly willing to get their hands dirty.  Customer situations can be messy and your VP of Customer Success needs to be willing to get directly involved in the details at times.  Staying “above the fray” is often a sign of fear and sends the wrong message to his team and to the customer.  

Respect and loyalty can both be greatly enhanced by an executive who engages in real conversations with challenging customers, not just political-speak.  This is especially true where the VP is inheriting a team and does not come in with that level of credibility.  I would definitely do a reference check with a couple of former or current employees and ask for stories of their direct involvement with customers in tough situations.

3.  A philosophy

The fact that Customer Success is a fairly new domain is exciting and troublesome at the same time.  Exciting because we get to blaze our own trail virtually every day.  Troublesome because it means that everyone has an opinion on how it should be done.  In a previous role, I can’t even count the number of conversations I had with other executives explaining why we didn’t have a CSM assigned to every account. 

Intellectually, they understood that we couldn’t afford to give out the cell phone number of a highly paid product expert to our $800/month customers, but instinctively it was challenging for them to accept that every customer did not have a single-point-of-contact.  

Every company is obviously different so there’s no one-size-fits-all model for Customer Success.  But if you don’t start off with a firm philosophy, adapted to your current situation, it’s easy to get pushed and pulled in different directions depending on whom you most recently talked to.  And being pushed and pulled in every direction is essentially akin to twisting in the wind.

4.  An understanding of what their individual CSMs do every day

This is probably just Leadership 101 but it really, really applies in Customer Success.  The VP has to understand in detail what his team is doing all day every day, otherwise he can’t understand the impact of some of his “simple” requests.  If I don’t know what my team is grinding on every day, it would be far too easy to give a mandate like “let’s get our NPS score up by 10 points” without any clue of what it might take them to do that. 

I once had a CEO who said “it’s amazing how quickly some of my worst ideas have been implemented.”  The point is, be careful what you say because others are listening and taking action accordingly.  This is true of all leaders but especially in Customer Success where the book has not yet been written on how to do it so, to someone, every idea sounds like a good one.  An effective leader here will really know, in detail, what his team is doing every day.

5.  A knack for influence management

Much more than most roles in an enterprise, your VP of Customer Success must be highly skilled at influence management.  Customer Success is truly an enterprise-wide undertaking and almost every team on which he relies to reach his retention goal does not work for him.  If customers are not getting properly trained, he needs to influence the training group. 

If customers are not being successfully on-boarded, he needs to affect change with that team.  Poor customer support experiences will affect renewal rates so that must be dealt with.  A poorly performing product or missing features will result in more churn so Engineering and Product must be guided accordingly.  Even Sales’ unquenchable thirst for new deals must sometimes be reigned in if the wrong types of customers are coming through the pipeline too frequently. 

None of these groups are necessarily under the control of your VP of Customer Success and some, like Sales and Engineering, will likely never be even if the title is Chief Customer Officer.  So, the ability to influence those who control the fate of his customers without direct management of them, is absolutely critical.

All the classic leadership skills that would apply to any executive obviously apply here, too.  But the above list is pretty unique to a leader of your Customer Success team.  Choose wisely or suffer the consequences.

Picture of Dan Steinman
Dan Steinman GM, Gainsight EMEA
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  1. […] What to Look for in a VP of Customer Success – Dan Steinman […]

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