How to Navigate the Customer Success Career Path

Dan Morris | April 16, 2019

Man climbs indoor rock wall

Customer Success Manager (CSM) is one of the fastest-growing jobs in the United States. And yet the attrition rate is high, with the Customer Success Association finding that turnover exceeded 60 percent over two years.

What’s causing such high turnover among success professionals? According to Emilia D’Anzica, a strategic customer success and advocacy consultant, “If individuals don’t have opportunities to constantly grow, learn and be challenged, they will leave for a new job where they may be getting paid only slightly more but where they have more gateways for growth and stimulation.”

Enter: the customer success career path.

The Customer Success Career Path

As Hubspot explains, “Customer success is relatively new compared to functions like sales, and tried-and-true career paths don’t always exist.” So maybe sometimes it’s better to see your career more as a challenging rock climb than a ladder.

Think of the analogy this way. A ladder points up with each rung placed directly above the one below at equidistant intervals. In contrast, a rock climb features a multitude of hand- and foot-holds of varying shapes and sizes at varying angles and distances from one another. The result is a path that’s less direct while nevertheless heading upward, enabling the climber to choose the journey that makes the most sense for them rather than having to stick to a “one-size-fits-all” route.

All of that said, there are a handful of customer success career paths that are starting to become more well-defined:

  • CSM → Manager of CSMs → Director/VP → CXO
  • CSM → Enterprise CSM
  • CSM → Account Executive or Account Manager
  • CSM → Sales Engineer or Sales Operations or Sales Enablement
  • CSM → Professional Services
  • CSM → Product Marketing
  • CSM → Product Management

If we take a step back, some patterns start to emerge within the paths listed above. Let’s take a look at each in greater detail.

Move into Management

The first career path mapped above shows the route that a CSM might take if they wanted to remain in success but move into a leadership position.

To clear up any confusion: despite having the word “manager” in the title, CSM is typically an entry- to mid-level position that’s responsible for managing customers but not usually supervising other employees. But as the number of customers increases, a company’s success team will also grow, requiring someone to “manage the managers.”

Depending on the size of the success department and company as a whole, the next step might be Customer Success Supervisor or Director of Customer Success. From there, the path could lead to VP of Customer Success and even an executive position, including Chief Customer Officer (CCO) or Chief Executive Officer (CEO). As Gainsight explains:

“One key aspect of being a successful CEO is understanding intimately how the pieces of the company organizational puzzle fit together and one could argue that Customer Success people will understand this better than any other role in the company. If not CEO, then CCO is a perfectly legitimate aspiration. That role typically has responsibility for the entire post-Sales customer experience. That’s OnBoarding, Customer Support, Professional Services, Customer Success, and perhaps even Customer Marketing and Install Base Sales (renewals and upsell). Those are all areas about which an experienced CSM will have a wealth of knowledge.”

The challenge, however, is that the skills required to be a successful CSM are not necessarily the same as those needed for managing teams, not to mention full departments or the entire company. So moving into an internal leadership role won’t be the best option for everyone. “Instead, for example, they may be interested in moving from ‘small’ to ‘enterprise’ to ‘strategic’ customer management roles,” writes the Customer Success Association. Meanwhile, other CSMs may “want to move to another department to explore a completely new role.” Let’s take a closer look at each of these alternate career paths.

Focus on Fewer, Higher-Value Customers

A company’s business model, size, and stage will impact its number of customers and the relative value of each. For example, a B2C mobile gaming company might have tens of thousands of customers each paying $10 per month. On the flip side, a B2B enterprise software company might have less than 100 customers who each pay a few thousand dollars per year.

These differences, in turn, will affect the day-to-day duties of success professionals, “from [a] start-up where a CSM does everything from support to renewals, to public companies where a CSM may have a very prescriptive role with one or two customers in their portfolio.” This then points to a second potential career path for success professionals, which is to begin in an environment with a lot of relatively low-value customers and then advance to other product lines or companies with fewer, high-value customers — allowing for greater specialization and impact on the bottom line.

Change Departments

Another common customer success career path is to move from success to another department, either within the same company or at another organization. This option actually dominates the bullet-point list above, demonstrating the vast array of roles to which a CSM could smoothly transition.

Moving to Sales

One of the most obvious paths leads from customer success to sales. SalesLoft tells the story of a CSM who transitioned to an account executive (AE) role, explaining that “customer success experience translates well to sales positions. Each role focuses on building relationships and providing an excellent customer experience.” In particular, the AE’s previous success experience armed her with deeper product knowledge, a stronger ability to develop buyer profiles, and existing relationships that translated to increased referral sales.

Moving to Product Management

As referenced in the point above, a CSM role requires extensive product knowledge, which means there is also a relatively straightforward route from success to product management. CSMs “understand what works and what doesn’t and what they (customers) wish it could do that it won’t do,” explains Gainsight. “And you’ll get good at articulating the needs in a way that they can be turned into product solutions.”

Moving to Professional Services

Yet another future path to consider is professional services. As Gainsight explains, “If you are a CSM for a complex product, you will, by definition, develop consulting skills. In fact, much of what you do will likely become paid-for services at some point in your company’s lifecycle.” So, if a CSM is interested in using many of the same skills but wants to work for a different type of organization with a different type of business model, professional services might be a good fit.

Moving to Training

As detailed in our previous post on the characteristics of a CSM, one of the core responsibilities is customer training, from onboarding to ongoing product usage. The experience of developing training materials (e.g., tutorials, slide decks, webinars) and presenting training sessions makes it a natural transition from success.

Real-Life Customer Success Stories

If you’d like to learn more about potential career paths in customer success, we hope you’ll check back later this month when we’ll feature an interview with success superstar Irit Eizips, Founder and CEO of CSM Practice.