How I Turned Customer Success and Project Management into Perfect Partners

Rochelle Shearlds
Director of Global Customer Success

Interview Highlights:

  • Unclear roles and responsibilities lead to conflict between the CS and PM
  • Always map out the customer journey
  • CS and PM leadership should always be aligned; model cross-functional collaboration

Can you please introduce yourself and what you do?

I’m Rochelle Shearlds. A lot of people call me Shelly. I’m the Director of Global Customer Success at Medrio. 

Medrio is a leading e-clinical technology provider. The company is based in San Francisco and we have offices in North America and Europe.

You’ve worked in both Customer Success and Project Management. What do you think are the biggest differences between the two teams?

I would say it depends on the industry and on the company, but from my experience, generally speaking, project management is hired to deliver a very specific thing within a certain time frame without going over budget. That’s their goal. There’s an endpoint. So there’s a very clear way to point your finger at what success looks like for a project manager. 

The CSM role is still evolving. It’s newer. The concept and role are derived from account management and relationship management and even a little bit of project management. It’s very gray. It really depends on the organization, even in terms of where the team sits. You have some CS teams that sit within the ops organization. You have some CS teams that sit within the sales organization. It can be a really fluid role, which is a stark contrast to project management, which is pretty black and white. It is also revenue-focused so CSMs must balance the day-to-day and strategic objectives of both the business and the customer.

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What usually prevents PM and CS from working together seamlessly?

Leadership not clearly defining each team’s roles and responsibilities. When that happens, there is a lot of overlap where the PM is trying to focus on relationship management, and the CSM almost steps on their toes trying to project manage because there’s a lack of trust and project activity isn’t fully visible. 

So I would say that the biggest obstacle is not understanding where each team specifically adds value to the customer journey. 

What’s the best way managers can handle that situation?

There are a few different ways to approach it. What needs to happen first is you need to make sure that every team understands their role. Start by creating a RACI document, and once that’s in place, once everyone understands where they fit in, you need to encourage collaboration. 

Things are always going to happen. Those two teams are always going to work jointly to produce successful outcomes. And so in the beginning, while you’re trying to build that cross-functional collaboration, those two teams should be meeting internally on a consistent basis to build trust. Trust is the biggest missing piece because everyone wants to do a good job. But if you’re not clear on another person’s role when they’re working on the same customer and project, then it may lead to some confusion and conflict. 

What I’ve done in the past - and what I still do - is co-facilitate a monthly cross-functional meeting with my PM counterpart. We open the floor to talk about what’s gone well and what hasn’t, and use it as a brainstorming session. That really encourages collaboration. Everyone’s on the same level playing field. There’s no hierarchy. No one is more important than anyone else, and everyone’s perspective is valued. 

Second, we don’t just let the two teams meet on a consistent basis. Leadership from those two teams should be meeting as well. They should ask each other, “is there anything that my team can help your team with?” and say “Here’s a process that we recently created and how it impacts your team.” They should be asking each other for feedback and building a relationship between the two teams from the top. I'm very lucky to have a great relationship with the head of our PM team. Similar to me, she has experience with leading a team focused on long-term success so we are sensitive to each team’s perspective.

The third is making sure there is an executive presence. The executive team needs to understand the importance of both teams. They need to know the value of celebrating small wins so that each team feels like they have a stake in the success of the company. Medrio’s executive team excels at celebrating individual contributions and encourages everyone to look for ways to highlight another team member’s success.

Do you have any examples of times when PM/CS teamwork went exceptionally well?

When I first joined Medrio, we had not fully mapped out our customer-facing journey so there was a lot of overlap and confusion between the two teams. The PMs were asking, “what does a CSM do? The CSMs had the same questions.

One very specific thing I did first was to talk to the team lead of the project management team and ask her what I could do to help. I asked things like:

  • “How is my team causing your team pain?”
  • “What can we do to make your day-to-day easier?”

It was really opening that door to feedback and being prepared to make some changes. I extended the olive branch and it had a tremendous impact.  

What if one team is doing both Customer Success and Project Management?

I personally believe that PMs should never have to be pressured to handle the long-term, because they should always be focusing on delivering a specific product or service by a specific time. 

That’s what success looks like for me, but I get it. Some organizations don’t have the budget to have two completely separate teams. So if possible, split the PM team by focus.

Perhaps certain individuals on the project team exclusively focus on project deliverables, and then some PMs focus on escalations and troubleshooting with internal cross-functional teams. They’ll be the advocate and voice of the customer within that project. 

So from a customer standpoint, it will feel that they have someone on their side focused on long-term initiatives, but also someone making sure that the project is delivered on time and on budget. 

Consider what happens when the project goes live. Is the customer set up for success? Does the customer have one point of contact they can reach out to? The project managers on the team that are doing relationship management might divide their time into a 70-30 split where 70 is doing project management while the 30 is completely focused on long-term outcomes. 

What are the warning signs that a manager should watch out for?

Frustration, burnout, and turnover. 

“Red-yellow-green” client temperature meetings should be happening every week at the very least. Daily quick standups if there is something big going on. It gets the pulse of not only the customers from the project team’s perspective but also gets a pulse on how the team is doing overall. 

You should be having one-on-one conversations with your team members and making it easy for them to give feedback about how they’re feeling. But I would absolutely recommend that you make it easy for people to give feedback - even without needing to meet. 

Do you have any recommendations for organizations that want to improve the relationship between Project Management and Customer Success?

I would just reiterate that you should always map your customer journey. That is not optional. 

Map your customer journey and define the specific deliverables that each team will be accountable for and must deliver. Identify the deal-breakers. Don’t make the process complicated. Map it out and have a brainstorming session if necessary. Make it simple. Define the roles, communicate them to the team, and then monitor as you evolve. 

But all of that starts with understanding your customer’s life cycle. And then, within that lifecycle, what does success look like for each team? What does this team have to do in order to have a successful outcome?


Medrio delivers integrated eClinical software designed specifically for pharmaceutical, biotech, medical device, diagnostics, and animal health markets. Our innovative electronic data capture (EDC), eSource, eConsent, and ePRO products empower our customers to reduce costs and timelines so that CROs can increase their trial volume and sponsors can bring products to regulatory submission faster.

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