The Crash Guide: How to Start Your Customer Success Career in 2020 With No Experience

November 2019
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What’s your first reaction when a friend calls you with a problem? Are you the person who jumps in to listen intently, empathizes, and helps them come up with a solution?

What about when you’re out in public–are you the life-of-the-party social butterfly who gets energized being around and connecting with other people? Or maybe you fancy yourself a teacher–someone who likes troubleshooting and coaching others through an issue to help them learn.

Well, if either of those sounds familiar, customer success might be a great career path for you. Of course, those aren’t the only traits that make for great customer service. At its core, customer success is about building relationships with people and helping them enjoy a better experience. If that resonates with you, read on.

How to Start Your Customer Success Career in 2020 With No Experience (Ultimate Guide)

So . . . what is customer success, anyway?

If you enjoy helping people, solving problems, and working in a team environment, then customer success may be just the place for you to launch your career.

You might be wondering, “What in the world is customer success?” Isn’t that just fancy startup lingo for customer service?

Maybe. But a key difference that makes customer success one of the most interesting places to launch a career is it's focused on proactively helping customers enjoy a better experience with a business.

It’s about helping people–and solving problems before they even arise.

If you’re like me, the first time you heard the phrase “customer success”, maybe your imagination conjured up an image of a big call center room filled with cubicles and people wearing headsets. But this image is wrong.

Sure, call centers still exist. But today’s customer support organization looks a lot different than it did decades ago. In today’s best places to work, customer-facing roles utilize the latest technologies to deliver a better experience for their customers. This is especially the case for early stage startups and fast-growing companies.

A key difference is that customer service in companies like this are proactive instead of reactive. And service teams are responsible for one of the most important aspects of any thriving business: customer relationships.

What career paths are there in customer success?

If you search a jobs board, you’ll probably find customer success by a lot of different names.

You’ll find a range of job titles like Customer Success Representative, Customer Service Representative, Customer Support, Customer Care, Customer Advocate...

...and the list goes on.

But behind all these different job titles, one thing remains consistent: customer service is in the business of fostering relationships–both with customers and team members.

And if you’re just starting out your career or feel uncertain about where to start, this resource page is all about why customer success provides an exceptional jumping-off point for any career and how to get hired in a customer success role.

So let’s take a look at some of the common career paths in customer success, ranging from popular first customer service jobs all the way to the c-suite.
A graphic with columns on entry-level marketing positions, common roles for entry-level marketers (social media, content marketer, direct-marketing, email marketing, product marketing, marketing analytics, marketing operations, growth, brand marketing, account-based marketing, influencer marketing, field marketing, print and media, advertising, digital marketing, digital advertising, marketing analyst, lifecycle marketing, public relations, digital media, communications, partnerships), title variations for entry-level marketers (marketer, associate, coordinator, specialist), average years of experience for entry-level marketers (0-3+), and average income for entry-level marketers ($46k). Also includes marketing manager common roles and marketing director common roles, marketing manager title variations (specialist, manager, lead, senior) and marketing director title variations (director, head of, lead), marketing manager average years of experience (3-7+) and marketing director years of experience (5-10+), and average income for marketing managers ($65k) and average income for marketing directors ($87k) from Payscale. There is a breakdown of marketing vice president positions–common roles for marketing VPs (marketing, brand development, digital marketing, growth, product marketing, publicity/public relations, communications), marketing vice president title variations (head of, lead, VP of), marketing vice president average years of experience (10+),  and average income for marketing vice presidents ($145k). Also included in the last column is marketing c-suite positions–common marketing c-suite jobs (marketing, growth, revenue, strategy, brand, content), title variations for marketing c-suite jobs, average years of experience for c-suite marketing jobs (10-20+), and average income for c-suite marketing jobs ($171k).

How much money can you make in customer success?

If you’ve checked out average entry-level pay for customer success roles, you might be thinking to yourself, Why on earth would I want to do that? Sure, some positions at some companies really don’t start out making bank.

But if you look closely at the income potential over time, you might notice customer success offers both a quick and significant earning trajectory.

One note on compensation in customer success: many organizations offer a combination of base salary and commission or bonus targets based on upselling or retention metrics.

In other words, don’t always take the estimated income at face value, because many organizations offer an additional opportunity to earn based on performance.

And while we’re on the topic, here’s a breakdown of some of the most common income ranges by experience level, courtesy of Payscale.
A graph of average income for entry, manager, director, VP, and c-suite marketing jobs, courtesy of Payscale.
See more details on the Payscale reports for entry, manager, director, vice president, and c-suite customer success salaries.

How can I get started in customer success?

If you’ve made it this far, then you might be thinking to yourself, Sure, all this information is great. But how would I even get started?

Well, that’s a great question.

First, a great exercise might be to take an inventory of the different skills and experiences you have to-date. If you look closely enough, chances are you might find a number of different life experiences that already translate and map well onto the profile of what makes a great entry-level customer success candidate.

In fact, our team has even done our homework on what makes a great customer success candidate by working with hundreds of different companies and hiring managers across the United States. Some of the common themes we’ve noticed included soft descriptions like self-starter, high emotional intelligence, and a caregiver’s mentality.

Sure, those might sound great in theory, but what do those types of traits look like in application?

Here are some example experiences that are often overlooked by candidates–and we think these types of experiences offer excellent context for a role in customer success.

• Working in the food services industry–like waiting tables, bartending, the drive-thru at Chick-Fil-A
• Working in hospitality–like at a hotel, resort, or in catering
• A background in teaching, especially in high school or elementary
• Working in a hospital as a caregiver, or in any kind of direct-to-patient relationship (even as an assistant or office manager in a health clinic)
• Any type of experience where you regularly had to answer phone calls and speak to strangers
• Any kind of sales experience (especially door-to-door, even if it was something as small as doing a fundraiser for your summer baseball or softball team)
• Working as a bank teller
• Any kind of experience working in retail
• Working in tech support (like at an Apple retail store, or AT&T, or Best Buy’s Geek Squad)

That’s not a comprehensive list–nor are there perfect correlations between those roles and what makes a great customer success candidate. But if you’re wondering how to get started, ask yourself, "Do I have any kind of prior experience where I’ve been able to offer service to other people?"

If the answer is yes, then start by thinking about the framing of your experience. How can you tell a good story about what you learned through that customer service experience, and how it might apply to serving the customers of a business you’re interested in?

If the answer is no, well, that’s okay, too–no one starts with experience.

So, how can you manufacture some experience–and fast?

The best way to do that, in my opinion, is by actually getting in front of people and helping them solve their problems. Maybe offer to go volunteer at a local nursing home or hospital. Go find a grocery store that needs some part-time help. Document the process of helping your grandparents use new technology. Or go pick up some part-time shifts at a local restaurant. These should be somewhat reasonable options.

But even if you can’t score one of those, here are some other options I’d recommend:

• Choose a handful of companies you admire, then go research customer reviews online. Take note of what customers are saying–both what they like and don’t like.
• Demo those companies’ products–and try to put yourself in the shoes of their potential customers. How might this be better?
Go buy stuff, or at least practice “shopping”. Visit a local mall or restaurant. Take note of the way staff interact with you and with other customers. What did they do that made you feel welcome? What did they do that you didn’t like? Think hard about those kinds of things.
• Go reach out to someone on LinkedIn who has a title like “Customer Success” or to the manager at a store where you had a good experience. Offer to buy them coffee in exchange for fifteen minutes of their time answering a few questions about a day in the life of their role.
• After you’ve done one or several of those things, go write up a short blog post series about some of the things you learned–and publish it.

These are all just some suggestions to help you get the wheels turning.

The important thing to think about is how you can prove to a hiring manager you can deliver amazing service to their customers.

And whether you have legitimate industry or on-the-job experience or not, focus on creating a story around the real-world experiences you do have.

If you’re still feel uncertain about where to start, well, we created this resource page just for you. So read on to find out more about why customer success provides an exceptional jumping-off point for any career and how to get hired in a customer success role.

Customer success is a low-risk path with massive career upside.

Unlike many career paths, customer success leans into developing a broad (vs. only highly-specialized) skillset. This dynamic role touches almost every department and impacts the business in a critical way by overseeing the experience of its customers. In that sense, a role in customer success offers broad exposure to all the ins and outs of a business, its products and services, its industry, and most importantly, the people who make up its customer base.

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What skills do you need for a career in customer success?

Because customer success is a highly-interactive role, skills like empathy, attentiveness, patience, and emotional intelligence are all extremely valuable. When customers call, they want to reach a human–and someone who can help them solve their problems–fast.

So customer success offers a really good jumping-off point to develop a wide variety of soft and hard skills.

Some exceptional customer success skills include:

• Communication skills
• Problem-solving skills
• Hospitableness
• Critical thinking
• Personability
• General software proficiency (tech-savvy)
• Task management and familiarity with task-management software
• Knowledge of the customer journey
• Knowledge of the company’s billing, payments, and refund policies
• Product and industry knowledge
• CRM (Customer Relationship Management) familiarity
• Email proficiency
• Microsoft Excel and/or Google Sheets
• Familiarity with calendar-management software
• Familiarity with support ticketing software
• Familiarity with customer feedback software
• Written and verbal communication
• Time and calendar management
• Conflict resolution
• The ability to problem-solve without complete information
• The ability to offer technical support
• The ability to sell (especially up-sell)

What are the most common softwares and tools used in customer success?

To dive deeper into what that a career in customer success looks like in tangible terms, we’ve highlighted some of the most popular softwares and tools customer success teams at startups use to manage customer relationships on a day-to-day basis.

Click on the categories to see more!
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What are the best resources for learning more about what a career in customer success is like?

If you’re looking to level-up or just get started in customer success, then good news: we’ve done our best to compile a collection of resources to help point you in the right direction.

There are so many great books, blogs, thought leaders, and even several good online communities that are worth checking out. Below, we’ve outlined some of our personal favorites, as well as some of the best resources from around the web.

P.S. If you’re looking to connect directly with others in the customer success world, here’s a short list of online customer success communities you might enjoy:

OUTCOMES by Success Hacker
r/Customer Success on Reddit
Quora: Customer Success
Saastr Community

P.P.S. Here’s another great resource from MockQuestions, where they’ve highlighted a collection of, well, mock questions, for customer service-related job interviews.

The Customer Success Podcasts to Start Your Career

Okay, okay, so not all of the podcasts we listed below are directly customer-success focused. We also included several podcasts we think are really useful for learning more about the startup and technology landscape at large–understanding the market can be helpful if you land a job in customer success in tech. Also, some of these offer really good insights about how to build a better business, and delighting customers is a huge part of that.

The Customer Success Podcast, Gainsight
Churn It Up, Aly Mahan
The Official Saastr Podcast, Harry Stebbings
The CX Leader Podcast, Steve Walker
Human Duct Tape Show, Jeanne Bliss
This Week in Startups, Jason Calacanis
How I Built This, Guy Raz
Masters of Scale, Reid Hoffman
a16z Podcast, Andreeson Horowitz

The Best Customer Success Books to Start Your Career

Maybe better than any other career category, customer success is a fantastic genre for reading–and don’t worry, they’re not all stuffy business books, either. In fact, some of our team’s favorite customer success books don’t really feel like customer success books on the surface. The best ones demonstrate this through stories.

So a lot of our list of some of the best reads in the customer success category are made up of awesome biographies and memoirs from people who’ve built organizations with legendary customer satisfaction. (Ahem, of course, we did throw in a few business-y type books, too, because some of these share pretty good insights on how to build awesome companies and teams.)

So without further ado, check out our Essential Reading List for Every Customer Success Professional in 2020. Here it is.

Delivering Happiness, Tony Hsiegh
Made in America, Sam Walton
The E-Myth Revisited, Michael Gerber
Start With Why, Simon Sinek
Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek
Contagious, Jonah Berger
Setting the Table, Danny Meyer
The Everything Store, Brad Stone
The Virgin Way, Richard Branson
Pour Your Heart Into It, Howard Schultz
Without Reservations, J.W. “Bill” Marriott, Jr.
The Spirit to Serve, J.W. “Bill” Marriott, Jr.
Chocolates on the Pillow Aren’t Enough, Jonathan M. Tish
Grinding It Out, Ray Kroc
How To Win Friends & Influence People, Dale Carnegie
Good to Great, Jim Collins
Built to Last, Jim Collins
Principles, Ray Dalio
Made to Stick, Chip Heath and Dan Heath
The Southwest Airlines Way, Jody Hoffer Gittell

The Best Customer Success Leaders to Follow as You Start Your Career

Not everyone that’s a phenomenal voice on how to do customer service well necessarily has “customer success” in their title–which is a great reminder that customer success is a job shared by everybody in every part of an organization.

To highlight some people we think do it best, we’ve put together this short list of thought leaders, ranging from companies and investors to customer success leaders, CEOs, and more. Each bring unique points of view to the table–often with great insights that apply to doing customer service better.

• Jason Lemkin (Twitter and Quora)
• Dushka Zapata (Quora and LinkedIn)
• David Skok (blog)
• Todd Eby (Twitter and Medium)
• Tomasz Tunguz (blog)
• Gainsight (Twitter and blog)
• Mark Kilens (Twitter)
• Mike Volpe (Twitter)
• Nick Mehta (Twitter and LinkedIn)
• Julie Devaney Hogan (Twitter)
• Sahil Lavingia (Twitter)
• Jason Fried (blog and Twitter)
• Justin Jackson (blog and Twitter)
• Stewart Butterfield (Twitter)
• Patrick Campbell (LinkedIn)
• Wade Foster (LinkedIn)
• Seth Godin (blog and Twitter)

The Best Companies to Work Full-Time in Customer Success

In today’s world, you don’t have to look very far to notice the popular trend of companies loudly posting on social media and all over their websites about how they’re “customer first” organizations. But if everybody is saying it, what does it actually mean? Well, instead of telling, we thought it might be helpful to show–by highlighting a few companies we think do customer success well.
Companies and Why We Like 'Em
Apple – Someone will always make you feel seen and heard within about a minute of walking into a store. You get to play with their products and someone’s always nearby to answer a question, talk about why something is great, or get you what you need as fast as they can–while still making you feel welcome and like you can stick around for as long as you want.

Chick-fil-A – If they ever mess anything up or if you have to wait longer, they give you a coupon and a genuine apology. They also adequately mix their cookies and cream milkshakes because they care about their jobs. Not to mention the consistency from associates–like how everyone responds with, “My pleasure,” anytime you say thank you.

Notion – Notion is a profitable tech startup in SF. They’re building a unique sort of product, and their no-shoe-wearing office culture is reminiscent of the founders’ days rebuilding the entire product from scratch in Japan. Working on their Community & Support team could be a remarkable experience.

ProfitWell – They’re tackling a tough problem. Not only have they created a product that works, but they’ve made it beautiful and easy to use. Plus, through their product, content, and support, they’re great at educating their customers on how to do business better.

Robinhood – Their app and product experience is quietly better all the time.

Slack – Anytime Slack’s app goes down, they consistently respond proactively–their “downtime” refund emails are a great way of enforcing and proving they value the customer experience.

Typeform – We’re big fans of Typeform here at Crash–we use them for our very own Discover quiz, as well as the contact form when hiring managers want to reach out to Crashers. Help them “make things a little more human” by sending a tailored Crash pitch to their Customer Support Advocate role—it could land you in San Francisco or Barcelona! They even have a remote option as well. That’s how you know it's a good company.

Zapier – Zapier’s brand and offering is all about making it easier for people to work better–one of the small but awesome ways they’ve built customer service into their offering is using automatic notifications to alert you any time there’s a real (or even just a suspected issue) with a Zap.

Zappos – Zappos proves their focus on customers in so many ways–one small example is their 365-day + free-return-shipping refund policy. On the wilder end, they even once ordered a pizza for a customer who called their support line.

What are some of the best customer success stories you've ever heard?

So, what does amazing customer service look like in real life and how can you start earning experience even before you’re hired?

Well, it turns out great customer service can happen almost anywhere–and it’s not as difficult as you might think to prove you’ve got the right stuff for the job.

To illustrate how customer service is something anyone, at any level, can do, we’ve compiled some of our favorite roundups of awesome customer service stories from around the web, as well as real-world stories about how to win a job in customer success with zero experience.

7 Inspirational Customer Service Stories – from the Customers That Stick blog comes a roundup of ordinary people offering extraordinary service.

5 Customer Service Stories to Cheer You Up – LiveChat, a company that builds customer success software, featured a collection of great examples of how several companies went above and beyond to delight their customers.

The Best Customer Service Stories of 2018 – Each year, Stella Connect–a maker of customer engagement software–curates some of the best customer service stories from around the web. This one features ten great examples.

How Hunter Won His Job in Customer Success With Zero Experience – This is a great story of an eighteen-year-old who got noticed by the founders of a startup with his creativity–and ultimately hired, even though he didn't meet the traditional qualifications of the posting.
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