Leading a CS Team Through A Crucial Transition

Michael Hurley, CS Manager, Infor, walks us through how to help Customer Success teams through huge transitions or changes
Kirthika Soundararajan
March 23, 2024
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In Episode 11, Michael Hurley,  Customer Success Manager at Infor, talks to us about helping your customer success team through major transitions. He’s been a part of CS strategy transformations at notable organisations. He has served in leadership at companies like Oracle.

Here’s what Michael talks about in this episode:

  • When a CSM should get involved in the customer’s journey
  • What traits and skills he looks for when hiring for his team, and how he assesses them
  • How to help the team through organisational transitions
  • How to win the team’s trust during a transition

… and more.

Here's how our conversation transpired.

Sri: When should a CSM ideally get involved in the customer's journey?

Michael: Right before the deal is sealed. It's important to start off on the right foot and ensure the customer and the CSM have a compatible relationship. If you bring on the CSM later in the journey, you won't have much of a chance to switch up personnel or find someone who works better with the customer. During the implementation process, it's essential for a CSM to be present – not to help the implementation itself, but rather to hold the customer and the implementation partner accountable. Onboarding is often the most difficult stage of the customer journey with your company, and you need to have the CSM build a strong relationship and ensure everything goes smoothly. Some companies also have Implementation Success Managers who can be a great addition alongside the CSM.

Sri: What traits do you look for when you hire for a CS role?

Michael: The professional experience someone brings to the table, their professionalism , the behavioral traits they possess — honesty, integrity and values, and the ability to build strong relationships. While I was a CSM, I realized the importance of prior relationship-building experience.This is why many successful CSMs have extensive prior experience: they need a balance of skills and experiences to offer customers value. You can gain product knowledge on the job, but it's really the relationship and industry experience that are key.

When I'm interviewing someone, I also want to be able to connect with them; if they can’t connect – or be comfortable – with me, , I don't think they'd be able to build a rapport with higher-ups like CIOs or CEOs.

Sri: What's your technique to check for these skills during the interview process?

Michael: By asking them what they like, dislike, and what they are looking for in a manager and company. Of course, you can review their skills on paper, but taking the time to get to know them is essential. I'm always open to answering any questions about me or the company, and I strive to be honest and transparent with candidates.

Sri: Are there any red flags you look out for when you manage a CS team?

Michael: As a leader, it's important to stay informed about the team and its workload. If there's an organizational transformation happening, even the most level-headed employees may become frustrated. When you come up with a new idea, it can be uncomfortable for the team. However, it's important to keep talking about it and address any hard questions that arise. The best way to protect your team is to make sure they know you're in the same boat, facing the same challenges.

Sri:  How do you get your CSM to trust you and take that leap of faith during transitions?

Michael: It's normal for CSMs to not have complete faith during a transition. It's a balancing act, but it's mainly about introducing the change and being transparent about it. Your team is going to have questions and you may not have all the answers right away. But, it's important that your team knows you're going through the transition with them and that you are willing to be patient with them. It’s easier when you’re bringing in a new employee, but an individual who has held a position for 5-10 years may need more time to adjust. It is important to be patient with them, walk alongside them and answer any tough questions that come up. Leadership in these situations is especially necessary and will help your team immensely during the transition period.

Sri: Have you ever been in an uncomfortable situation that you managed to handle gracefully? What were your takeaways from the experience?

Michael: At one point, I was part of an organization where the CSMs were handling too many support tasks – like reviewing incidents. In my opinion, this is not the role of a  CSM.

To help someone transition away from that, you need to help them understand the value of focusing on business objectives.  CSMs need to have conversations with C-level executives to better understand their business values and how they can help. If CSMs are unable to engage at that level, customers could look for alternatives.  You have to ensure that CSMs understand this.

Sri: What are some other factors that have an impact on the experience of the CSM?

Michael: Firstly, it is essential to arm your team with the necessary tools and resources to help them thrive. Additionally, having expert resources, who understand the technical details, to aid CSMs in customer conversations is crucial. 

Finally, it is important to maintain a positive perception of the CSM within the company. The CSM must be seen as a valuable asset to the company, someone who can provide the best customer feedback and help shape the direction of the business. It's important that the sales team holds CSMs in high regard and sees them as  trusted advisors to customers. The CSM needs to be the go-to person for the sales organization – someone they can trust and rely on.

Sri: How do you keep the CSM positive when they feel they're not getting the right support from the rest of the organization?

Michael: CSMs are constantly under stress and being pulled in many directions. Organizations and customers both have different requests for them, and it can be overwhelming.

It's all about the relationship the CSM has with the internal product team and the customer. On one hand, they need to work with the product team to decide if the company needs to focus on the request right then.

On the other hand, they need to ensure that the customer understands the internal process and the current roadmap.  As a CSM, you may have to assess if it makes sense to work on the request as an enhancement,  or if a workaround could help customers in the meantime.

Sri: What are some factors you need to consider to make sure CSMs have a fulfilling career and professional growth?

Michael: I feel there are many answers to that question. To begin with, there are the softer skills that can't necessarily be taught – they are for the  leadership to foster. At Infor, we've introduced what we call Enablement sessions to share tips, tricks, and train CSMs on a weekly basis.  It's been really useful!

You could also ensure that product certification courses are available for CSMs. They should also be given the chance to learn more about other roles within the organization. This will help them stay up to date on different products. 

I believe it's important to give CSMs access to quality content, not only about the product but also about the company. It's an intangible benefit that will help them understand their role better and even consider career progression opportunities, within or outside the team.

Sri: What are your thoughts on workloads? Normally, there's a certain customer-to-CSM ratio that companies aim for. Unfortunately, budgets don't always support that ideal number. So, as a leader, what is your role in this situation?

Michael: As a leader in the customer success industry, it can be difficult to figure out how to best interact with customers and assign metrics like ACV or even the number of customers each CSM should have. I personally rely on trusting my team. When I'm starting out at a new company or managing a new team, I build trust by listening to my CSMs. If they're feeling overwhelmed, we'll talk through the reasons and see if there's anything I can do to help. That might mean redistributing workloads, taking customers off their plate, or adding headcount. In other cases, it might mean reducing the level of responsibility for the CSM. It's not always easy to tell which option is best from looking at the data alone. Having been at organizations that view CSMs as the go-to for everything, you may also need to encourage other departments to take ownership of their responsibilities to lighten the load on your CSM team.

Sri: Moving on to our next section of the podcast. We have some questions from our Preflight Community. What degree of communication is needed during a transition? How do you decide what to share with the team?

Michael: To get your team on board with changes, it's important to lay out the facts and explain the rationale behind them. Try to understand why they might be hesitant. Be open to hearing their thoughts. The best way to handle it is to have one-on-one conversations with your team, listen to their thoughts, and then explain why you want to go in this direction. After that, it's up to them to decide if they want to accept the change. 

It's natural that not everyone in the organization will agree with any big changes you make, and you should be ready for some potential attrition. 

Sri: What advice do you have for other CS leaders?

Michael: Understand the history and experiences that company has gone through - not just the last six months but also the past several years. This will give you a better idea of where you've been and where you're going, rather than alienating people who went through prior transitions and making yourself look foolish as an executive. It's important to not make the same mistakes that were previously made. 

As a leader, it's your responsibility to ensure that your CSMs feel empowered and heard within the company. They are the voice of the customer and the primary resource for determining the future direction of the business; if they are empowered, they will do great things for you. They should never be afraid to speak up. And my last advice is to always make sure that you're showing your team how passionate you are about their success, treating them with respect, and creating a strong sense of loyalty. These are the values that teams want in their leader.

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