From Business Development to Account Management / Customer Success in Startups

It took a long time but I don’t regret any of it. I’m where I want to be (for now). And now I’m being approached about how I did it more regularly, so let me open this up to the internet.

In February 2014, after working in recruitment and finance, I re-started my career by joining an exciting startup with a HQ in Silicon Valley as a Business Development intern. However, I was based in the London remote office and there were 5 of us — 1 x Head of Sales, 1 x Solutions Engineer, 1 x Customer Success Manager, 1 x Technical Support Engineer and me, the BDR intern. It was exciting, I was working from home 2 days a week straight away, I had autonomy to approach things how I wanted, and I was being paid (more handsomely than any of my experience outside of Tech). Soon enough, I realised this was the industry for me.

Fast forward to May 2015, I’ve got a 18 month visa for working for company HQ in San Francisco. I’ve moved my life, moved away from family & friends, and ready to start the adventure that would be a premature experience/calling for most people who have worked in tech or business development for less than 15 months.

If you feel this is too much detail already and want to get to the meat of the article, feel free to skip this section. But for others, the transparency of my experience may relate to them or give additional insights.

Whilst in SF, the company and my relationship with them struggled. The company weren’t selling (the BD team I was part of had set up over 400 meetings in 2 quarters — 0 had closed), there was a failed acquisition and and now the experienced sales executives (amongst many others ) were laid off. “BDRs” they said, “Your time has come, you must close”. So I became a Business Development Manager — from outbound prospecting, to discovery calls, to pricing, negotiations, closing and failing to close. I never wanted to be in a closing role, yet I found myself in one where I was failing to impose myself on the role.

By November 2016, my visa was to expire. I said goodbye to my American colleagues, my sales-role and I set off on a backpacking trip to South America and would return to London in April 2017, ready for my next career adventure — non sales.

For those of you that had tuned out on the last part, I’d advise you to return — it’s likely the point where you are now.

My experience in SF and as a BDR taught me a lot about startups, tech jargon, the sales-cycle and who the other parts of the puzzle were that should make software a success. I wanted to become a Customer Success Manager — I enjoyed talking about technology to some of the smartest people in the office. The time they took to teach me little bits about APIs, data, implementation, dashboards were fascinating. These were skills I wanted to learn, it was how I wanted to use my brain, and I felt had much more breadth than the social science of getting people onto discovery calls for the sales executive to close (too much of a luck thing, rather than social science for me).

I had a rolodex of companies that I was to reaching out to and used external recruiters, too. But when speaking to recruiters I had one main problem — I had no real account management experience and so was not considered for the positions that offered reasonable pay. I couldn’t understand it — why would a company dismiss the experience you gain after 3 years of Business Development and Sales if you wanted to move into Customer Success? The truth is, this is the experience that most companies or recruiters look for, they pigeon hole your experience vs their job spec. They’ve undervalued the skills you can take from one to the other.

Which transferable skills?

My belief is that sales experience (from business development or closing) is going to be more valuable to a company (sometimes) than someone that is a thoroughbred account manager/customer success manager. A salesperson understands margins on sales, that commission is paid, that you have to protect every last $ that the customer is paying to the company where you can. Anyone who has read “Customer Success: How Innovative Companies Are Reducing Churn and Growing Recurring Revenue” will have known that recurring revenue is worth more than the initial sale — a Customer Success Manager looks after the Lifetime value of an account and so should have sales skills behind them.

A salesperson is also versed in value and not just features. They should know more about the competition than their counterpart account manager. Knowing what the competition is doing becomes part of the air you breath (which should not be forgotten), so when the time comes when a paying account can’t understand why they are paying more for you rather than your close competitor, you will already be armoured with value and market knowledge to have to not find yourself on stumbling-ground.

Once you make that transition over to Customer Success, you become the best friend of your in-house salesperson, too. As you speak with your accounts, you keep an eye/ear out and uncover more opportunities of putting your company’s stack into theirs and you feed this back to your sales-team. And since you haven’t stumbled on $ amount when speaking with your customers, you leave your salesperson to make the most of the opportunity you’ve presented to them.

The salesperson also has the experience of putting together and looking at contracts, talking about numbers and being hard-nosed to avoid conversations on discounts. I always like to tell people about the product manager I worked with that would offer discounts straight away to customers that showed an interest in purchasing in large amounts — why offer a discount when the potential customer hasn’t asked for one yet? At some point, the Customer Success Manager will be faced with talking numbers, and the salesperson is likely to be more natural to not shy away from these conversations and approach the situation well. Thoroughbred customer success managers beware — your business acumen will be tested and you should be looking to pick up on sales experience, too!

Intra-company communication is also a vital skill you pick up on as a salesperson. Remember back to those times you’d received RFPs or questions you didn’t have answers to straight away — you went straight to the person you thought would be able to help you so you could close the deal / handover an opportunity. The same happens in Customer Success and you’re talking to the same people. Yet this time it’s not to close new business but to maintain existing business; it’s not on selling the customer what could happen when they sign but rather what is available now with what workarounds you’ve uncovered from your product/support team and managing expectations of what the account has bought into. Same thing, different part of the sales lifecycle. What you find is that you’re still doing everything for the prospect or the customer, above and beyond, to make them happy and keep their business.

There are some skills that a Customer Success Manager will be more acquainted with than someone coming in from sales, though these new skills can be learnt. The Customer Success Manager will operate predominantly in post sales so will demonstrate the best practices of using software X with workarounds Y. These best practices are usually custom to the company (with some overlap from your experience you’ve gathered elsewhere) and will be taught in-house when you’ve transitioned to your new role, decided upon by people more experienced than you. So you shouldn’t feel shy about this part (unless you are the one deciding/coming up with best practices for customers). You may be looking into data more, you’ll be dealing with the fireworks when something goes wrong in production, you’ll have those conversations where your account is wanting to churn. But you deal with these situations with the same enthusiasm you had for closing the business deal — you keep your customers anyway you can, you escalate where you need to, you become personable (and not professional )about your company’s fuck up which your account now have to deal with.

Once I had the idea of where I wanted to be, it took me 4 years to transition from Business Development (Representative/Manager) to a full Customer Success /Account Management role. It doesn’t need to be the same for you. Be prepared to say no to company’s/recruiters that tell you that you haven’t enough experience to dictate the salary you’re expecting, acknowledge that some company’s will say no to your transition whilst others will look upon your experience with open arms. Understand your transferable skills, be prepared to learn new ones.

I’m thankful for the technical support engineer in the UK office that spent his time with me teaching me everything I needed to know, the sales executive in SF that taught me what he could, and to the company I joined as a Customer Success Manager (it was sales really ;) but it was close enough) when I first came back to the UK. But I’m also thankful to myself for turning down the multiple BDM roles I was asked to interview for when returning to the UK, to saying no CSM/AM roles that a fresh grad from University with half a brain turned on could have achieved (beyond my experience), and saying no to recruiters that told me I hadn’t enough experience to get what I wanted.

To all the other aspiring Customer Success Managers out there — good luck.