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Subject Matter Expertise vs. Customer Success Skills: Which is More Important?

Which is more important for a CSM candidate to have? Customer Success skills or subject matter expertise?
Patrick Icasas
November 30, 2021

On this week's featured episode of Humans of SaaS, we have two strong contenders, duking it out in the battle between subject matter expertise and customer success skills. In one corner, we have Alex Farmer of Cognite AS (in favor of technical knowledge), and in the other, we have Shari Srebnick of Searchmetrics (in favor of soft skills). Which will emerge from the ring victorious? 

Defining Core Customer Success Skills 

To evaluate this competition accurately, we need to first understand what each side entails. When Shari is hiring for a new role, she looks for core soft skills in her prospective employees, including: 

  • Empathy 
  • Critical thinking skills 
  • Ability to strategize 
  • Skill at handling difficult conversations and situations

She also appreciates an applicant who asks extra questions during the interview. Shari sees it as a sign that prospects are digging deeper into the conversation at hand. She likes to see how applicants work out complex problems as well - for example, how they would go about answering the question: “How many quarters fit across the Golden Gate Bridge?” If they don’t ask follow-up questions, or they don’t talk through their process of answering it step-by-step, that helps Shari see that perhaps they aren’t as equipped to handle complex issues in a CS role. 

Defining Subject Matter Expertise 

Alex values credibility and subject matter expertise in his CSMs above all. What he looks for when hiring a Customer Success Manager is someone who has technical proficiency in the product, but also someone who can break down technical problems and bridge the gap for customers.

When a CSM has domain expertise, they are able to speak with more credibility to the customer. Alex believes that technical knowledge is the best way to battle an angry customer or a tough situation - intimate familiarity with the product means the CSM can explain and facilitate a meeting in a way that helps the customer relax. 

Which skills are easier to teach? 

You will likely not be surprised to learn that Shari and Alex are also split on which skills are easier to teach. Our guests have placed priority on the skills they believe take longer to cultivate. Alex believes that, especially with a more technically challenging product, domain expertise is harder to teach. 

While Shari recognizes that technical expertise is important, and ideally wants her CS team to have some knowledge of what it is they’re working with before getting started, she believes someone who has core customer success skills can be brought in slowly to the technical side of the job. She likes to give starting CSMs a book of business with core customers who may not ask as many technical questions to bring someone up to speed gradually. 

While Shari sees soft skills as being more innate, Alex believes that you can teach soft skills by investing in onboarding and helping new CSMs learn by doing and shadowing. 

Does a lack of skills put the business at risk? 

With technical expertise, Alex sees the CSM walking into a room and instilling confidence in the client. The move for customers from sales to customer success can be risky. Setting customers up for a good onboarding is key, because if that process doesn’t go well, the relationship is at risk. 

As far as Shari is concerned, empathy is something you can’t teach. You either have it or you don’t. In the onboarding process, and all throughout the customer relationship, she wants to see how CSMs can handle difficult conversations and manage conflict. While she acknowledges that teams can work on empathy by role playing and shadowing, she believes there is a lot about empathy that can’t be taught. Instead, it needs to be innate. 

Sometimes, it doesn’t matter if you have plenty of time to prepare. If you’re not perceptive and quick on your feet, you may get flustered and lose the customer’s confidence. It’s important to remember not to take things too personally. They’re not mad AT you, they’re just mad. Transparency is important. It’s OK to be honest and say “I don’t know” for the first couple months as you are learning more over time. 

If Alex is hiring for subject matter expertise first and foremost, he acknowledges that he may hire people who haven’t been CSMs before. He works to create a pathway that turns domain experts into CS generalists for the future. Then, he’s more equipped with a CSM who can handle technical complexity. This comes in handy when they have a relationship with a customer who wants them to drive the vision. The CSM with domain expertise can come into the situation with more background knowledge. Alex also believes that the talent pool is richer for domain experts. 

Difficulty of Hiring Based on Skills 

If you limit yourself to a talent pool of subject matter experts, in Shari’s opinion, you are pigeonholing yourself. She believes it is just as valid to learn technical skills on the job, especially through shadowing. How are CSMs supposed to move jobs if they are only able to be hired into roles that are narrow and industry-specific? Core CS skills are what got Shari her job. 

What do you know more about than anyone else? Alex believes that’s the question folks looking to get into CS should ask themselves. If they already have passion and experience in an industry, that’s where they should look for their first CS job. 

What came out on top? Subject matter expertise or core customer success skills? 

If you want to find out who was crowned champion in this head-to-head, you’ll have to listen to tcche podcast to get the whole story. And tell us: what side are you on?

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