What is Customer Success?
“Sales generates customers, but customer service keeps them.” — Drake Powell
Customer Success is one of the most important parts of a business. It’s the support the company offers to users (and sometimes potential users) of its product/service, and it’s the place where a customer’s technical problems and creative challenges get resolved.
A Customer Success associate has a number of responsibilities. The most common:
- Walking customers through the process of using your product/service
- Helping troubleshoot issues encountered in the use of your product/service
- Managing the live chat on the company’s website
- Answering texts, phone calls, and inquiry emails
The common skills you’ll be using in a customer success role:
(Click here if you’d like to read about these skills in more detail.)
- Email communication
- Verbal communication
- Emotional intelligence
The biggest (false) stereotypes about the role:
People think customer service is about talking to irate customers and handling annoying complaints. They don’t want to do this type of work because it sounds frustrating and boring.
This isn’t true at all. Difficult customers exist, but the majority of your time will be spent answering questions and coming up with solutions for really great customers. A tongue-in-cheek (but also accurate) alternate role title might be “Master Problem Solver.” People come to you with discomfort, and your job is to help them devise solutions.
Sounds pretty fun, right?
The biggest secret about customer success roles:
It’s the #1 best place to break into a tech startup and start your career.
Allow me to explain.
Low Barrier to Entry, High Returns
Customer success is one of the easiest role types to land at a startup at the beginning of your career, because it has the lowest barrier to entry. That means that you need the least amount of experience (as opposed to roles like sales and marketing, that have a longer list of requirements you have to fulfill in order to be valuable on day 1), and the least amount of hard skills (like software knowledge, etc.).
To be an effective marketer, you have to have to be able to use a whole list of software tools (things like Mailchimp, Hubspot, and Facebook Ads), and be able to use them to drive numbers for the company. To be in a sales role, you have to have product knowledge and be effective on the phone.
To be good at customer success, you don’t need the hard skill background that comes with experience. The most important things are your ability to be diligent, pay attention to details, be willing to learn, and be great at interacting with people in a friendly, helpful manner.
That means it’s the best role type to come as you are, jump in, and start creating value for your new company.
But that isn’t the only reason a customer service job is the best place to get your foot in the door. Landing a role in customer success is also a fantastic strategic decision to kick off your career.
Experience in customer success makes you really valuable, both to your current company and on the job market.
There are two reasons for this: 1) knowledge of the product, and 2) knowledge of the customer.
Let’s dig into knowledge of the product first.
“The best way to learn is to teach.”
There’s no better way to learn about something than to explain it to someone else, and that’s exactly what you do on a day-to-day basis in a customer success role. You’re getting paid to learn about the product by solving other people’s problems and teaching other people how to use different product features.
After a few months in customer success, you’ll have an extensive (and likely fairly complete) knowledge of the product your company sells — which means, if you want to go into sales, you’ll be able to talk about it, and if you want to move into marketing, you’ll be able to describe the product to the broader world.
In a customer success job, you’re getting paid to solve the customer’s problems — but you’re also getting paid to learn.
Perhaps even more valuable, though, is point 2 — knowledge of the customer.
At the end of the day, the most important thing to a company is its customers. Without customers to buy its product or service, a company can’t exist.
That means that knowledge of customers is really important. It’s easy to feel removed from the customers when you don’t interact with them, and to have a bunch of assumptions that aren’t necessarily true. If the marketing or the product development teams aren’t interacting directly with the customers, they’re just guessing what those customers are like.
If you have direct customer knowledge, you become a more valuable marketer or product developer or programmer — or any other type of role you want to work in down the line.
Because, here’s the thing — no matter what role you start out in, you’ll be switching roles at some point in the future. And customer success just happens to be the best foundation for that.
Misconceptions About Your First Job
One of the biggest fallacies of launching your career is that you have to pick the perfect first role to work in, because whatever you choose, you’re going to be stuck working in that role for a long time.
Even if you don’t consciously think about this, it’s still an assumption in the back of your mind. It’s part of why you feel a lot of pressure to choose the “right” role type.
This is an assumption that’s perpetrated by the college mindset, where you invest four years of training into a particular type of work prior to ever doing the work itself — which is a heavy investment to get wrong if you start doing the work and realize you don’t like it.
The reality is very different in the professional world. You aren’t locked into the role type you start working in. In fact, I’d be very surprised if you kept working in it throughout your entire career. Most of the successful professionals I know have moved through multiple role types before they’ve settled on one they want to niche down into.
Where you start is just that — a starting point.
In the professional world, the specific role type you start working in is far less important than the experience of working itself. That’s why, early in your career, looking for places to get your foot in the door is far more valuable than focusing on specific types of work. You can get to that later!
In addition, working in Customer Success takes the pressure off of picking the “perfect” role type (although that’s a fallacy anyway — there aren’t perfect roles, and you aren’t locked into whichever one you pick!). Instead of investing lots of time learning the skills you need for a specific role type (without knowing much about it or knowing if you’ll like it), customer success allows you to get to know a company (and all the things that go into it, including the different role types) and get a better feel for which role types you’d be most excited about working in.
But Don’t Just Take My Word for it. The Case Study:
I’d like for you to meet Emily. Emily is a Praxis alumna who’s currently working in marketing at PandaDoc, one of the biggest and longest-standing Praxis business partners (and also a super cool SaaS company in the startup world, with offices in San Francisco, St. Petersburg FL, and Minsk).
When Emily came into Praxis, she wanted to work in marketing. But she ended up landing a role instead as a customer success associate at PandaDoc — which at first seemed like a compromise. But over time, Emily was able to obtain deep knowledge of her company, their customers, the product, and the company’s needs — which she was eventually able to use as leverage to land a role spearheading a new part of the marketing department.
Emily talked about her experience in this episode of Talkin’ ‘Bout Praxis. If you’re interested in using a Customer Success role to launch your career, I’d highly recommend listening to it and hearing her story.
How to Leverage Customer Success into Another Role Type
So, you’re sold. You want to use Customer Success as a jumping off point to launch your career — but you’re also pretty sure you don’t want to stay in customer success forever (and that’s perfectly fine! You have a long career ahead of you, and almost infinite possibilities for what you can spend that time doing. I expect you’ll do lots of different exciting things in the coming years).
Where to start? How to strategically use Customer Success as the jumping-off point for your career?
- Land a customer success role at a cool company. Crush the interview process, maybe make them a value prop, and put your all into landing an awesome opportunity. Once you’ve landed the opportunity — congratulations. You’ve officially taken the first step in launching your career, and you’re now off the ground.
- Once you’ve landed the role, focus first on crushing it. The #1 rule when leveraging an opportunity to open new doors is to absolutely crush what you’re doing right now. People always want to promote the best performers. Don’t even think about other opportunities at the onset. Just put your head down and put everything you have into being as valuable as possible in your current role.
- Learn, learn, learn. Pay attention to the patterns you’re seeing. You’re going to gain knowledge quickly once you get started — knowledge of good customer service practices, knowledge of your customer, knowledge of your company’s product. You don’t have to do anything yet with the knowledge you’re obtaining. Just pay attention to it!
- Get to know the other departments in your company. Watch how they work and what they do. What problems are they trying to solve? Stalk their Slack channels, and go through everything they share publicly. Ask lots of questions. Don’t be annoying with the amount of questions you’re asking, but don’t be shy about asking for more information, either. You’re asking people to invest time into making you a more valuable entity to the company — so as long as you aren’t getting in the way of their ability to do their jobs (which is ultimately the most valuable thing to a company), don’t be shy about asking questions.
- On your own time, start to learn more hard skills that make you more valuable. Add more software tools to your toolbox. If you think you want to work in sales, take a Salesforce course, and familiarize yourself with tools like MixMax. If you want to go into marketing, start learning AdWords and Google Analytics.
- Start watching for opportunities to create value in other departments. If the marketing team needs more content, offer to take photos or write blog posts for them. If you have a social media account that needs more attention, offer to take it over. If you have down time throughout the day, offer to write and send cold emails for the sales team. If you don’t have enough information to see opportunities but you know you want to help, don’t be afraid of making a more general ask. “What’s one project you’ve been putting on the back burner that I could take over” is always a great starting point.
- Be persistent and be patient. If you listen to Emily’s story, you’ll hear her explain the number of tries (and the multiple months) she had to work through before she finally got a “yes.” Sometimes unlocking opportunities takes time; but while you’re waiting, you’re becoming smarter and more valuable, so when the right opportunity finally does come along, you’ll be the obvious candidate to take it on.
Remember — it isn’t about where you get in the game. It’s about the reality itself of playing. Take the first opportunity you can to get into the startup space, and then leverage it to move you closer and closer to the place you ultimately want to be.