Explore a career in Customer Success Management in Tech - Discussion with Nereyda Esparza, Customer Success Manager @Amazon
Nereyda Esparza, Customer Success Manager at Amazon (Amazon Business), shares her insights on what working as a Customer Success Manager is like. CSM is a relatively new but up and coming function, found in a lot of tech companies today.
Nereyda has a BA in Latin American Studies from Smith College, and M.Phil from University of Oxford.
Check out the podcast below to listen to the complete discussion.
Some of the areas that Nereyda touches upon in this episode include:
1. Nereyda's background and career path
2. What is customer success management
3. Difference between customer success management and account management
4. How customer success is a relatively new role in tech
6. Example of a project Nereyda worked on as a CSM, and examples of activities Nereyda undertook on the project
7. Skills you need to do well in this function
8. Advice for interested candidates and recommended resources
Thank you for listening!!
Detailed transcript of the discussion:
What is Customer Success Management? And do you know how this function came to be?
I don't think there's a single point of origin where we can say like this company this year. But if you look at recurring revenue model companies, Customer Success management has its roots among these companies in the late 90s. And we're talking about you know, specifically with tech companies, every tech company is going to have some sort of post sale, customer relationship maintenance role. So they could either have an implementation team or a training team or a support team and account manager team, they'll have all sorts of those post sale roles. But I think the origins of CSM come from a shift in the mindset - rather than starting with a question of what can we get out of our customers? How can we get them to acquire more, to adopt more to really buy more. How can we get them to renew a year over a year? I think the question shifts to, how is the customer going to define success?
Vantive was one of the first companies that had a director with an actual title of customer success. Vantive is a CRM company, and their model worked on basically referrals. So their sales team would go out and say they could call any one of their customers and ask for a referral. But if the customer in hand had a terrible implementation experience, they were less likely to give a referral. And Vantive started to approach it a little bit differently. And that's when they hired their first CSM director. And I think the two questions they ask are - how are you going to define success? And what do you expect from us to help you get there?
Let me give you one more example - Are you familiar with Stitch Fix?
Can you describe it for the benefit of any listener who may not be?
I'm not sure if Stitch Fix has a customer success function. But it helps to illustrate that mindset shift in the way of thinking about customers. The way that their model works is when you go to the website, you sign up, and you essentially are paired off with a few stylists. And you tell them your preferences, what you're looking for. You tell them your style preferences, your sizes, your price range, type of materials that you like, all of that information. And then the stylist will put together a box and that box contains multiple items. You receive the box, you try the items, and then you essentially return what you don't like. And over time, you essentially end up with a particular type of style that is paired with a particular type of stylist. So it's really based on your happiness. And it is a subscription based model. So basically, that means that at the end of the month, if you did not like the items that your stylist sent you, you could cancel your subscription at any time. It is about thinking about that customer experience first. So I really credit Katrina Lake, who's the CEO of Stitch Fix a lot for thinking about what would be customer success as an example.
Customer Success Managers and Account Managers - can both the roles coexist in the same company? And if so, what's the difference between the two?
You might not like this answer. So I totally expect some follow up questions as well. It can be a little blurry sometimes. What are the true differences?
I think account management and Customer Success management are almost two sides of the same coin. A lot of the times they go hand in hand and you'll hear senior Customer Success leaders talk about how the relationship between sales and customer success is super duper important. Like they have to coexist, and depending on the size and function and industry and vertical that the company may be in, they may even overlap.
One of my early roles was a good example of how those two overlap. Let me first define customer success management. And then I'll tell you a little bit about the differences between the two.
I think that customer success management, very simply, it's when your customers achieve their desired outcome through interactions with your company. Especially if you are a recurring revenue model company, you really have to start to think about what does customer success driven growth look like? We have to make sure that these customers return to us time and time again, if you are based on a referral type of service, that is going to become extremely important. And where you start to see the differences between the two roles is that you have, one role, the customer success management role, which is, I think, in a lot of instances really focused on the implementation, the onboarding, the integration of the product and service, where the customer success manager is a complete product expert, and also can provide those best practices. And the end goal being adoption. So how do we get that customer to really adopt and get the most out of what they are integrating.
As opposed to the account management role, which is focused on more long term, they're thinking about retention, and renewal. So the account managers might be a little bit more tied to the sales function. In many instances, they may have a specific quota for renewals. So in my job, I had the responsibility to meet with school districts and implement the product, deliver all the training, report measured progress with the program in the classroom. But at the end of the year, I was also in charge of the account renewal. So in a way my CSM role also had a few elements of Account Management.
And I think, at the end of the day, both functions have similar goals. They want to retain, they want to nurture, they want to grow that customer relationship, but they're going to have specific differences in the job scope and functionality of when they enter the customer lifecycle.
If both of these roles coexist, can we say that a CSM does not really have a quota, whereas the account manager does have a quota? Is that accurate?
Exactly. I can't speak to every single company. But, it is largely the case that in an account management role, you are, I think, more likely to have some sort of sales goal or target. But I don't want to say that that is necessarily the case in every single role or function. So I agree with you, I think CSM roles tend to be a little bit more focused on the customer experience. And again, tend to be a little bit more time bound, right. So you're in, you're out, you do your thing, you hand it in, transition it back to another team as you do. Again, that's not necessarily going to be applicable to every single instance. But I think if you can say, for my company, we're specifically focused on onboarding and implementation, okay, and measuring that. Whether we want to have 100% adoption rate of all of the users for this particular product, then we're going to track and measure and project plan against that.
Okay, this is another very interesting point that you just brought up, which is that it's time bound. So the Account Manager is probably the one who owns the relationship over many years. And the CSM might come in, depending on the project and timing.
So let's say you’ve deployed some new product, then you're brought in because you are the one who can really work with the customer to figure out their unique situation, and how can the product or service best meet that situation and then once that's done, you will probably move on. So you are not owning the relationship as such, that's the account manager.
And for if you're a very large software company, you will also have pretty sophisticated customer service teams as well. So there are multiple service ops where the customer can get support. But I would never say for example, customer success is not customer service.
Can you share an example of some projects that a CSM might work on?
I can talk to you a little bit about maybe my experience with Amazon business. So let me first define for listeners who might not know what we are. We are Amazon businesses, the B2B marketplace that combines the selection, the convenience, the value that customers know and expect from amazon.com with some new features, and some just pretty unique benefits that are that are tailored for our business customers. So it's the b2b marketplace of Amazon.
Any new customer engagement that I might be brought into, will begin with an internal handoff between me and my sales counterpart down there, the customer advisor for that particular account. And in that meeting, I will receive a brief overview of the scope of the project, I'll receive some information about any potential risks or challenges and the roadblocks. And more importantly, I think we'll all get a debrief on any technical requirements that the customer may have. So we call that initial call a a internal customer advisor to customer success manager handoff.
And I pause on that, because the handoff is super important. There's actually a lot of literature out there on how to do this the best way, especially if you're a customer that's interacting with many internal teams, we want to make sure that you are prepared as much as possible. Before you have that first meeting with the customer, you want to make sure you understand this.
Great, just a quick note over here. Would it be possible for you to share an actual project, like an example and then maybe illustrate the stages through that project?
So let me walk you through the stages, I think that might be helpful. So I worked with a customer recently. So in this instance, we're working with an enterprise customer, they wanted to integrate the Amazon business marketplace, with their existing e procurement system. So currently, Amazon business has the ability to integrate with any procurement system. So there, if you go to our website, you can probably get a quick overview. But essentially, any procurement system is a place where end users who are essentially buyers can access the marketplace, through a more kind of regulated interface on their company's behalf.
So this is a pretty complicated technical integration. It does require the involvement of multiple teams. And the goal for this customer is to, of course, have a successful integration with that procurement system. But they also want to make sure that they have a successful communication and training plan and that there is a key component of change management involved, because we're essentially there, all of the employees at their company are going to be introduced to a new way to access Amazon, then what they're familiar with so far, which is going through our personal or consumer accounts. So if you're going to be purchasing for your business, there's going to be some change management involved in how you actually access that particular customer account.
So there are typically five stages of what I would go through. So in this particular case, we spent a lot of time in that first stage, which is the planning stage. And in the planning stage, we'll define my customer’s requirements, I'll help them build a communication strategy. So for example, they may have an internal intranet system, in this case they used their own learning management software. So I could build specific training decks and communication decks, emails and communication templates for them. I spend a little bit of time in that planning phase trying to understand what their existing purchasing method is and their policies. And then together we'll put together a project plan, I'll define a timeline, a go live date, and we'll try to co-create some joint measures for success - that could be adoption rate, how many folks that we want to have actually use this service, etc.
And then we move into the second phase, which is the configuration phase. So in the example for this customer, I had to essentially pull in the appropriate teams to help me with that technical integration. And the idea is that my role and function is to manage all the people involved and keep them on track against that project plan so that we're working backwards right from that desired launch date. And then we move into that final launch phase, and this is when I actually deliver the training that we had agreed on, I'll make sure that if there's different stakeholders involved, so there might be some administrator roles versus end user roles, they might want certain types of messaging from their their current policies in place, then I’ll facilitate and communicate that change management strategy through the training and communication process that is part of the third phase, which is the launch phase.
And then the last two phases are evaluation and control. So we'll talk about what reporting I can pull for them. So if you think about the average Amazon business, customers want to know, what are people acquiring? What are they buying? Where can we start to see trends for those purchasing decisions.
And then the final phase, the fifth phase is a transition. I will transition that customer back to the customer advisor, which is essentially my sales counterpart. And they will continue providing that account management support for them on a more long term basis.
Interesting. So during this project, I guess you're working with two sets of people - you're working with people from Amazon. And then you're also working with a bunch of people from from the client’s side. So you're actively coordinating activities across both companies.
It can be very hairy. When you have teams in Seattle and Boston and in multiple international locations, and then your customer, I'm in the Central Time Zone. So I think the best thing I can describe it as is, if you are standing at a balcony, looking down at a dance floor, where everyone is, what they're supposed to be doing your, you're holding them accountable, you're facilitating that end goal.
And a lot of the times, I think one of the things that I find really challenging in a good way is that every customer has a different technical requirement. So although we are product experts, and can facilitate that, it's really up to the customer success manager to really know what the customer is saying to them. So if someone were to tell me, for example, we really care about transparency and visibility and controls, then I know that I may want to recommend curation for them. So the ability to offer a more guided buying experience on Amazon business becomes key.
Would you say that a lot of projects that a customer success manager would work on, requires some change management and some sort of figuring out what's the best to do in the product for that customer?
Absolutely. And I think that's why your earlier question is really interesting, because if you think about it in those terms, and the line between account management and customer success, it starts to blur a little bit. And I think about a company like LinkedIn, that has a bunch of products,
So if someone is researching something, or you're looking at someone's profile, and they have an MBA, maybe you want to learn more about an MBA. Or she knows how to write in Python, and you want to learn more about Python. Then how can LinkedIn start to facilitate that learning process. LinkeIn also has things like e-learning and Sales Navigator and those are essentially renewable subscriptions, recurring revenue model products. So they have to think about - where can this customer success role really define a pathway, for that customer to maximize the impact that they will have using our product.
Do you need to be technical for this role?
I would say it does not hurt.
You have to understand the product and answer the customer’s questions.
And if you think about what the typical background for CSM is, there isn't one. But I can tell you about some trends.
So it really depends on the company that you're at. I think consultants tend to do extremely well in this type of role. So I go back to that McKinsey example. McKinsey says that it's really hard to find someone who has client hands, which is essentially someone who can empathize with the customer, really identify the key pain point and see the customer through to their success, and also be equal parts technical, or have a really good background or understanding of the specific industry or vertical.
My manager, he has both a deep understanding of the procurement space, and the suppliers space. So that is interesting for b2b purchasing. But he comes from a consulting background. So he has many years of experience at Deloitte and led teams there. And again he can combine both of those experiences pretty well for this role in a leadership capacity. If you think about my experience, where I started from, I just truly deeply enjoy working with customers. And I have spent quite a lot of time educating myself and learning and growing by experience on how to provide the best customer experience, technical aspects, you really just pick up over time. There are many ways someone can ask you the same question. So after a while, you start to build that technical capacity.
It is a very cool role, and also a very hard role. Because there are not a lot of people that I know of who are super technical and super good with customers as well.
Since we're talking about the background, can you also touch upon the educational background? Do you hire straight out of school? Or is it more of lateral hiring?
I think from what I've seen so far, and keep in mind, there are many exceptions to this. But typically, you want someone whether you're straight out of school or not, someone who either has some experience in and having a deep product orientation, so they know the product, they know how to get the most out of it, they've done product development, testing, even coming from a marketing background is interesting. Because you're deeply ingrained in product development.
Or there is the second bucket, which is more of that customer orientation bucket. So someone who has done a sales role, for example, someone who has been in an account management role or communications role, really understands what it's like to work directly with customers and be held accountable to that. And I think there are, of course, many exceptions, but if you would think about more technical, so cloud based or cloud infrastructure companies, Microsoft, AWS and I Imagine that the CSMs there are going to be a lot more technical. Because you're talking about a more technically focused product.
And can you talk a little bit about the career progression?
So I was listening to this interview with Byron Deeter, he's an investor, and he was being interviewed by the chief customer advisor at Gainsight. He talks about how there's really no limit to a senior person in the CSM function. So if you start as an individual contributor, which is what I am doing right now, you might be in charge of a portfolio of strategic relationships that are constantly changing throughout the year. But I could definitely see myself growing in a more possibly like a leadership capacity and managing a team. But because I have a deep product knowledge, and because I'm working with different customers, I may also want to move more into a leadership role in both either product or sales or tech. So it just depends on what I'm most interested in.
But to go back to Byron, he was talking about how the CEOs that he tends to invest in, fall into that second bucket I was talking about earlier, which is that deep customer orientation, and that he wishes that he would see more CSM roles. But the function is so new that I think there just hasn't been enough time to see the long term potential of the function yet.
I really think that CSM will be a way to get to the CEO path. So it's a way because you are interacting with multiple teams, you have that exposure, and you can really grow and develop. But I think with anyone, it's about being extremely driven, and setting your course and just sticking with it.
If were to run into yo on any given day, what kind of problems would I find you working on?
So you'll probably find me working on my calendar.
Do you have a lot of meetings?
I have so many meetings, and I wouldn't have it any other way. The most successful people in this role are those that are super meticulous with their time, when you are working with many different types of customers, it's easy to just get into back to back kind of calls. I like to carve out a specific time in my calendar where I can do research and problem solving. So during my week, I may have project kickoff calls, I may have handoffs, between the customer advisor and me, I may have some follow up calls with an integration specialist, I may have some meetings with product, if I want to get an update on where we are on a roadmap with a specific feature that I think might benefit my customer. I'll be meeting with them. But I do try to just carve out a specific time on my calendar where I'm problem solving, so I'm collating information and I'm researching. I'm looking through our collateral. I'm trying to ask my peers and my colleagues what the best practice may be for a particular scenario. And I do try to kind of stay a little bit more vigilant and protective of my time in terms of how can I maximize the space to make sure that the next meeting is super productive.
Do you have any progress on that procurement system that we're integrating? Have you received the tests that we sent? You got it? Great. Now we can move on to the next step. So you're really checking off a lot of boxes. It's like running a marathon.
Does the job get stressful? Let's say a customer is sort of banging down your door asking a question, and you don't know the answer. And the person who knows the answer is not responding, then you're sort of in a fix. Does that happen?
So for that, and I should have mentioned that actually, the biggest team I interact with most of the time is my own team. Because you're pulling on a large ocean of knowledge. These folks have been around for a while and they've probably seen every scenario imaginable. And if they haven't, then we can work on it together. It is a little frustrating if you can't get to what you need immediately. I think that's part of the growth aspect of the job. There's always some part of the job that you want to be able to grow and learn and be in a kind of stretch role type of situation.
What do you think are the most interesting aspects of this job?
What I like about this is that even though you're kind of, in a lot of ways, it may feel like you're doing the same thing for the customer over and over again, no customer is alike. And what I really say to people is, if you are customer obsessed, and you love working with folks, and are able to have that client relationship with them, meaning that you are okay, seeing them through the good and the bad and the ugly, then this is a really good opportunity for you, because you are still helping grow and nurture the business. But doing it in a way that can be really satisfying, because you are literally taking something that is an idea. Seeing it through every stage of an implementation, those five stages I mentioned earlier, to fruition. So there is a point in time where you can say, great, we've checked every box, customer is happy, we can move on.
And I think from that perspective, just the possibilities of where you are able to grow your career because the number of people that I interact with on a daily basis, both on the internal and external client side, I've made a lot of great friends in other industries, I've learned a lot about different types of companies. I know way too much about procurement, purchasing than I ever thought I would in my life. But the thing I never thought I'd be doing, working for a math program. So there's so much that you can learn in the role as well. So if you're a lifelong learner, this might be a great role for you.
Are there any aspects that you do not like?
I think I mentioned about time management. It's hard, I mean, when you have that many people involved in an implementation, you almost have to step back and say, Okay, who's in the zoo? Who needs to be here? And is it really worth it to have the modeling call? And then coordinating all of that. And then there's also, different teams have different goals. So if you think about just managing those expectations, the customer may have a specific goal in mind, the technical team might have a specific goal in mind, the sales team has a different goal in mind, I have a different goal in mind. So just facilitating that change management, even within your own internal systems is really important. And I think ultimately, we want to provide the best customer experience possible. But everyone has different priorities that they bring to the table. So sometimes it's about stepping back.
I hate to play the woman card, but I'm going to do it anyway. I did go to Smith College after all, but it's about learning how to say no, it took me so long. And it’s still something that I struggle saying no, no, we're going to stick to that time, we decided that that was the time that was going to work. I'm not going to reschedule it again. If you can't make it I will fill you in and keep you posted and copy you into everything. But we're gonna stick to and just say no, you know, push back a little bit.
Is there an exercise that you can do to get a sense for whether you will enjoy Customer Success management?
So a couple of things that you can do, I think, because the background of CSMs is so varied, there's just so many ways that you can come to this function, I'm not going to recommend that there's only one particular avenue that you can pursue. But I think it's extremely helpful if you can, wherever possible, to be in a customer facing role. And I'm not talking about internal customers, where you might work with different internal teams, but with actual customers, if there's no particular CS role, or function, where you at the company or experience that you might be working on, I would suggest that you maybe start a sales role, or start in a marketing function, or more of a even a Product Manager role that is heavily involved with customers.
There's no better way than working directly with customers and seeing if you like it.
Is there a way for candidates to stand out in the application process?
I think this conversation really helped me think about how I came to the role specifically. And I laughed because I was like, you don't have to have any specific background, but it really does not hurt. So if I think about how I came to Amazon into a customer success role, Amazon came to me because I was already in the EdTech and elearning space. So they wanted someone with an education technology background to come and join their team. And I think again, that might be a great way for you to enter this space, If you have a lot of niche experience that you can build upon.
I had a lot of mentors in my early career. It’s helpful to have a niche. it doesn't mean that you have to stick to that for the rest of your life, but you are known as the person that does government contracts, you are known as the person that does highly technical integrations, you are known as the person who is really good about Hispanic marketing, whatever that may be, to help you get your foot in through the door.
And I also have another piece of advice, which would be, I had a mentor earlier in my career at Amazon that I would meet with on a regular basis. And one thing he told me was, no one is going to give you anything, no one is actually going to approach you with a ton of opportunities. And there are many cases where yes, right opportunities may come directly to you, but they don't just appear out of thin air, you really do have to be the owner of your career, you really have to own every aspect of your career, you have to really manage it. So one thing I'll say is, you really have to, if you're interested in that role, go schedule an informational interview, go put time on that person's calendar, send them a note and tell them exactly what you want. If you're in a position where you need to consult with your manager, first, sit down with your manager and say, I want to get promoted. I want to do this, you tell them exactly what you need.