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What’s in A Name? A New Way to Think About Customer Success Managers

In the early days of Customer Success, I rolled out a concierge program to reach out to new customers. It was a simple approach aimed at front-loading the customer relationship; a handshake after the deal closed. The concierge reached out to new customers to welcome them and to provide an overview of the product and services they purchased.

Concierge: a person employed (as by a business) to make arrangements or run errands

While a concierge welcoming new customers was a good start, by its definition, it was a stop gap. At that time, our customer facing teams were reactive firefighters, whom the renewal reps deployed to save at risk accounts. Eventually, waiting until renewal time to address customer issues wore out the teams and put the company at risk.

As I learned more about Customer Success it became apparent that a best practice is to provide a strategic advisor, usually called a Customer Success Manager (CSM), to oversee the ongoing customer journey. We needed to define what the role meant for our company and for our customers. Internally there was an argument for assigning highly technical resources to manage accounts. Yet, when I reached out to customers and listened to their needs, I consistently heard, “We don’t need someone technical to guide us. We need a quarterback.”

Quarterback: An offensive back in football who usually lines up behind the center, calls the signals, and directs the offensive play of the team; one who directs and leads

We designed the CSM role around the framework of the quarterback. Since it was critical to move our teams from the defensive and reactive work they were mired in, the offensive and leading aspects of the quarterback analogy appealed to us.

Since that time, Customer Success has become a huge trend among companies in all industries. The CSM role started on a "simple promise of transforming customer engagement from a traditional ‘reactive’ to a ‘proactive’ mindset,” says Puneet Kataria of CustomerSuccessBox.

Regardless of the promise, there is a lot of confusion about what the CSM actually does. Too commonly CSMs are more focused on manual renewal transactions at the end of the license, than on engaging new customers. Part of this confusion might be due to the analogies used to describe this new role. In addition to quarterbacks, CSMs are often compared to coaches, matchmakers, and conductors.

Coach: One who instructs or trains; trainer, drill master, advisor, teacher, tutor, manager

The role of coach is concerning because CSMs frequently get stuck delivering training to customers. While they might think this is a good way to provide value and onboard customers, it’s extremely ineffective. How does a team scale when strategic CSMs and expensive technical resources show each customer individually how to log in and navigate the product? They can’t. Customer Education, on the other hand, is a one-to-many model with role-based, consistent, and hands-on training. It’s a scalable approach with real impact on customer retention. At my previous company, well-trained customers were 20% more likely to renew and had a 15% higher net promoter score.

Matchmaker: One that arranges a match; one who tries to bring two unmarried individuals together in an attempt to promote a marriage

While a matchmaker might bring teams together, they aren’t responsible for what happens after the match or marriage, and this analogy may be a better fit for sales teams.

Conductor: To direct the performance of an orchestra; a material or object that permits an electric current to flow easily

My preferred analogy is conductor, which appeals because CSMs need to bring coherence and harmony to the customer experience. Unfortunately this often isn’t the case because CSMs are bogged down trying to make customers happy. This is akin to picking up each instrument in the orchestra and attempting to play it on their own. CSM as conductor balances the musicians, or the customer facing teams, to deliver a seamless customer-facing journey. Rather than doing all the jobs themselves, they leverage playbooks with defined roles and responsibilities, triggers, and tasks for all the roles to fulfill.

Mikael Blaisdell of the Customer Success Association emphasizes, "The job goes by many names: Customer Success Manager, Client Advocate, etc., but regardless of the label, it’s about customer relationship retention and optimization. And the most effective way to keep your customers is to make them as successful as possible in using your product."

It’s an exciting time in the world of customer enablement. In this dynamic and evolving field, there’s no one way to do Customer Success. Companies too quickly deploy roles they hear others declare the right way. For example, at one company I talked to the entire Professional Services (PS) team was renamed to Customer Success overnight, and PS Consultants, now CSMs, are tasked with renewals and retention activities quite different from their usual consulting tasks and metrics.

The way forward is to listen to customers and internal teams, and then build programs and roles aligned with your business. Stop throwing terms and roles others use at your customers and take the time to learn what works for your company, for your products, and for your customers. One Customer Success team I work with declared, “We thought Donna was going to tell us how to do our jobs. Instead she helped us define our destiny.” Let me know how I can help define your destiny.

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