How To Excel As A CS Leader At An Early Stage Startup

Jon Johnson
Senior Customer Success Manager

Interview Highlights:

  • Early-age startups should prioritize CS leaders as first hires in order to build the foundation for proper scaling.
  • CS leaders need to know how to react strategically to customer challenges.
  • Customer outcomes accomplished is a far better measure of success than product or revenue.

Could you please introduce yourself and what you do for Splash?

My name is Jon Johnson, and I’m a Senior Customer Success Manager at Splash. 

Splash is a platform that helps businesses create, measure, and scale their event marketing programs. The company is based out of New York, but I’m in Ventura, California, just outside of Los Angeles.

Why should a company’s first CS hire be a CS leader instead of a cheaper CSM?

I think DNA and culture are important. It’s a lot easier to start healthy than it is to apply band-aids to fix the problems in the future. A junior-level CSM might be good, but they won’t have strategy or process at the top of their mind. They’re focused on the job itself. It will help things in the short-term, but it will hurt your chances of long-term success with these customers. 

But if you hire somebody that understands ecosystems when it comes to product-led development, and understands tools and management, they’re going to know when it’s time to up that maturity and invest in more tools and people. 

So I always advocate spending more money on day one to bring in a leader, because that person will set the culture for that department. They will be able to have executive-level conversations and can advocate for both the customer and their team. Your CSM is not going to be on the budget calls with investors. That’s not their job nor his skillset. 

If you hire a Junior CSM first, your growth will be stunted and you’ll always be playing catch up. And when you eventually do bring a CS Leader in there, they’ll have an uphill battle as they prove themselves within the organization. They’re new. Their voice hasn’t been heard yet, and so they’re not as trusted.

How can CS leaders develop strategies that are tailored to the organization?

To start, you need to look at how you are onboarding CSM’s. I’m a big fan of the 30-60-90 plan. 

Your first 30 days in any organization should have little to do with your actual job. That first 30 days should be spent truly understanding the business. It’s understanding what problem you’re solving and setting your focus. Your team can’t help the rest of the business if you don’t understand what the different limbs do. 

Your next 30 days is spent getting a bit deeper. After understanding the business is understanding the team’s place in the organization. How does CS drive revenue? How does CS interact with product? With Sales? How does CS work with support and services and solutions? It’s all about understanding where CS fits and how we interact with the rest of the company when a customer has a need and vice versa. 

The last 30 days is understanding your individual contribution to your team’s inner workings. How do you support your CS team? How does your CS team function and how can you help them do their best work?

I would also apply that same logic to customers coming in the door. You close a new customer, and then send them through the entire process of implementation. You can apply the same trajectory of the 30-60-90 day plan I mentioned. You don’t have to follow the timeline exactly, of course - every SaaS product onboards at a different speed - but you have to learn about your customers first before you can go down to the fine details.

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How can a new CS leader initiate change within his organization?

The strategy that always works for me is tying it into revenue. But not just revenue won; also revenue loss. 

If you’re not tracking all of the different aspects of how money’s coming in the door, and how revenue is being activated within your organization, what your burn rates are and the actual costs of those departments, then you’re missing a pretty big question.

You have to look hard at what your team is doing. Do you have visibility into how your CSM’s are interacting with their customers? Are you using a ticketing system, or are you tracking conversations in Salesforce? You need to do an analytical deep-dive.

I’m a big proponent of data, visibility, and transparency. I’m not suggesting you micromanage, but how are you going to augment and grow your organization if you don’t have the data points behind it, right? So we need to look at how our customers and our CSM’s are interacting. And if you see that CS is sending support articles 9 out of 10, then you’ve got a problem. 

You have to go to the deeper level of reviewing what the organization is doing. What their internal KPI’s are and how their OKR’s are structured. And I know how my point of contact supports other roles in his organization. 

How do you balance between proactiveness and reactiveness within CS?

There’s always an argument for both sides. I would say a lot of what we do is 50/50. You will never be a hundred percent proactive. There’s always going to be a fire to put it. So one of my titles on LinkedIn is that I’m a “theoretical firefighter.”

If you don’t have the skillset to be proactive, nor a strategic mindset, or an empathy-driven relationship with your customers, you’re going to be putting out fires a hundred percent of the time. And this is not to say a junior guy doesn’t have those skill sets. 

But someone in leadership, who has built and managed teams and has seen these fires before, knows how to respond to them in a way that is more strategic. Just because you’re reactive doesn’t mean you’re not strategic--that you’re not thinking about the big picture. 

If you don’t have an understanding of the customer and their organization, and you’re not applying that knowledge, then you’re just kicking the ball down the field for another services call. 

Can we unpack the idea of reacting strategically? That sounds interesting. 

Sure! Let’s take the example of a firefighter, right? What do firefighters do? They react! They are an absolutely reactive organization. They don’t know which house is going to catch on fire. 

But what did they do before they go on calls? They learned the best way to put out different types of fires. They learned what tools to use. They learned where to put the water in the fire to make sure it doesn’t spread. They understand air flow, material types, backflow, and back drafts. 

You cannot be a successful firefighter - a successful reactive person - without proactively - understanding all of the potential strategic outcomes. 

There’s so much in that analogy that I love. And it can be applied to almost any other industry. That’s the proactivity we’re talking about. It’s not that I made the first move. It’s about preparing myself with education, training, and tools, and having the resources to respond to whatever comes at me in a strategic way with an outcome-driven mentality, which is to put the fire out.

Do you have any last minute insights to offer our audience?

Outcomes! Put that on a banner.

Every company that comes out of Y combinator or any of these incubators are usually driven by product or revenue. But they need to pay attention to the customer’s desired business outcome. If the stated outcome is to increase their brand presence and their customer acquisition so that they can IPO in a year, how are they using our tool to accomplish it? How much value are we in their ecosystem?

We should make sure we’re not overestimating our value to customers. If three years down the road, we’re 70% of the reason why they were able to achieve their outcome, then the customer is justified in buying our software. If it’s only 2%, then that three years is a failure - even if our  business made money off the relationship. 

There’s a reason Customer Success is named that way. If you only focus on your success, you’re going to ignore and lose your customers. If you focus on helping the customer, your business is more likely to succeed and thrive.


Splash is a platform championing the next era of event marketing by helping businesses market, measure, and scale their event marketing programs. From beautiful event pages and customized registration forms, to email follow-up programs and easy integrations with other business systems, Splash empowers teams across the organization to design on-brand, measurable, and compliant event marketing programs that deliver exceptional experiences and inspire quick action on attendee data.

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