How many customers can a CSM work with?

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A while ago someone invited me to an event called “how to become a manager”. The whole point of the lecture was to prove a manager is a very busy person who does a lot of work and dedicates his/her person to the wellbeing of his/her directs; up to the point when their commitments consume their lives and make their diaries a living hell. Lots of meetings. Actually, the claim was that the meetings would increase ∞ times when compared to the usual daily slacking off of an average employee

Many other claims were made. I get it, it wasn’t done with evil intentions and I do believe some managers are doing great things and they are genuinely busy – but not necessarily busier than the average individual contributor -. Often enough, they also have less responsibilities to the business – at least line managers, which was the first step they discussed in the event

Back to the lecture now! They presented additional contents and concepts that made sense but the whole point of the message conveyed was to help people thinking if getting into management was what they actually wanted – by showing the ugly side of the job. Everybody wants to be a manager and we tend to see only the beautiful side of it. We get it. But … after that event I seriously started to think that making the move into management was the thing to do

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Most of the CSM peers I talk to have a portfolio of customer that varies between 10 to 20 customers. The actual median value is most of the times closer to 20 rather then to 10. Another aspect to keep into account is the customer segment a CSM works with. A common simple model could be represented as follows

  • Customers below USD 50k annual recurring revenue

    Digital touch. This is a team of CSMs who engages with customers by email and other digital channels and means. Reactive interaction rather then proactive. They have a VERY LARGE amount of customers to look after. Businesses, integrators, vendors: they always have a large number of customers investing smaller amounts of money in them and a fewer customer with important investments – with all the other customers in between. The digital touch team manages to interact with all of them because they do not actually (usually) talk to customers. They work on a one-to-many model (collective webinars, mail lists, qualitative and quantitative online feedbacks and interviews etc.). This team can really scale without any particular constraint – beside technological ones. They can, just to say a number, manage 3000 customers, for example

  • Customers below USD 200k annual recurring revenue

    Inside CSMs team. This is a team working with customers remotely. They tend to have regular meetings/cadence calls, business reviews, all sort of activities with customer, but always online. The main takeaway is that we are looking at a similar organization as in sales organisation, where there are the inside sales and the field sales teams. Same story here. These teams are managing a number of customers between 15 and 25. Again, the median value is sadly closer to 25 rather then 15. In some cases they can even get to 40 and beyond

  • Customers between 200K and 1M USD annual recurring revenue

    The Field CSM team. Nowadays they might not visit much customers on site like they were used to do in the past (COVID19, more and more customers working from home too, etc.). The underlying idea is that they work with customers that are usually larger and more complex then the previous (more people to talk to, complex organisations, complex and large implementations, etc.). The number of customers a CSM is asked to work with is – generally – between 10 and 15. and 15 (sic)

  • Strategic customers with stellar investments

    These are the customers that invest so much you cannot afford losing them without declaring bankruptcy. These customers usually have a team of dedicated sales rep, customer success manager, resident architect, etc. A customer success manager in this space might have 1 customer, up to 5

Remember that the annual recurring revenue numbers might change dramatically from business to business, depending on where the company are in their journey to market domination. In fact, those numbers change in time as the business grows (or shrinks). In other words a customer that is very important today might be less important tomorrow. But this is a little sad story for another post. The bottom-line is that as a CSM you will probably have to manage on average a number of customer that varies between 15 and 25

A CSM fights and advocates internally for customers, to people who in many cases never saw a customer in actual flesh and blood – this is a quite strong statement and not always accurate but correct in many instances

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Why I want to be a manager then? I was sitting there, looking at this person speaking when I suddenly realised: “none of the managers I ever worked with had more than 10 directs at any given time!”. And they were not asked to fill data into SFDC, Totango or Gainsight! (They were asked to do reporting on the data CSMs filled in instead). At that point I checked multiple sources online and they all seem to agree no manager, under no circumstances, should have more than 9 directs, at any level of management. Those articles explain how having more than 9 directs makes it very difficult to have 1:1 weekly meetings with each one of them and other interesting facts. All true and correct

Why a CSM is than asked to work with 15 to 25 customers on average, meet them at least every two weeks and action on all the next steps that come from those meetings? Those are all weekly or fortnightly meetings for each customer! Not to mention the time invested because of escalations, internal meetings, etc.

40 hours a week. Let’s take out a day because of internal meetings, training, etc. How much of that is left? 32 hours? And 20 customers? 1.6 hours a week per customer? A good manager will run the count monthly, so they can say a CSM can dedicate 6.4 hours a month per customer. Almost a day! Without taking any time off to visit the restroom…

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In all this, strict measurements, metrics and KPIs are enforced so those activities need to be performed and management will report on them – and make you accountable. The final result is that a CSM cannot deliver any value to a customer. Let’s not forget customers have different maturity levels and skills. Some will take more of your time, some less

The point I want to make is that if you care about your mission, you won’t be enabled by your organisation to deliver good quality work and value to your customers without sacrificing your personal life, with everything that comes from that – burnout, turnover, etc.

And this is why I want to be a manager! The right choice for the wrong reasons!
What I actually think is that I would love to look after a team, assign the right amount of customers they can manage and push back on additional onboarding without the right headcount allocated, look after the best training, enable and coach them, caring for them. Why not being a director or a VP of customer success?! Designing the processes and the tools that will enable the people to deliver the most admired customer success practice in the industry – for our customers!

And still having, under no under circumstances, no more than 9 directs…

P.S. If you are a manager with more than 9 direct I want you to know you are the only one

Blinkist-style version of the post: a CSM can manage customers up to the same number of directs his/her manager can supervise, no more, yes less. 10, give or take

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