The Journey from Customer Success to Product Manager

Nick Fields
Director of Product at ProductPlan

close up. successful business people shaking hands . concept of cooperation, product management career changes

There are many roles where your career path is clear. But, product management is a different story. People have transitioned to successful careers as product managers (PM) from every background. I know this experience firsthand and I’m thrilled to say, ProductPlan itself recently made a similar hire: from customer success to product manager. That new PM is me.

The Journey from Customer Success to Product Manager

If you’re in customer success and want to make a jump into product management, I’ll share some of the practical lessons I learned and tips on how you can make a similar move in your career.

Why ProductPlan Was the Ideal Place to Make the Transition from Customer Success to Product Management

Let me make one caveat up front. Your best chance of finding a direct path from customer success to product management is within a company that is customer-centric. I don’t mean an organization that includes the phrase “customer-centric” on its website, although that can’t hurt. I’m talking about a company that lives this philosophy. A company that treats solving customers’ goals as a top priority.

Why is this so important? A company that evaluates its customers’ success as a key metric for its own success will be more likely to understand the value a customer success manager can bring to the product team.

Fortunately for me, ProductPlan is such a company. (I’d even go so far as to call this team customer-obsessed if you promise to keep that between you and me.) A relentless focus on the customer has always been a core element of ProductPlan’s culture. Nobody here gets points for a feature or an upgrade because it looks cool. Every update we make to our roadmap software product first has to provide a satisfactory answer to the question: How will this improve the lives of our customers?

It’s this relentless focus on the customer that allowed my colleagues to see the potential in bringing a CSM over to the product side.

As the company’s first Customer Success Manager, I’ve spoken with at least as many ProductPlan customers as any other member of the team. ProductPlan is customer-focused and understood that this gave me a real insight into our customers’ needs and priorities.

With that in mind, let me share the best lessons I learned from making this move.

5 Lessons for Transitioning from Customer Success to Product Manager

5 Lessons Customer Success to Product Manager

1. Understand that product management is customer success

A great first step is understanding that these roles are not as different as many people think.

Yes, your job description and your day-to-day activities will change. But think about the purpose of both roles. Aren’t customer success managers and product managers after the same thing? Aren’t they both trying to help customers succeed with the help of the company’s products?

When you understand the similarities of both roles, you’ll feel much more comfortable taking the steps to make this career move. You’ll also be less likely to fall victim to imposter syndrome and give up. Most important of all, you’ll have the confidence to explain to your employer why your CSM experience could make you a valuable addition to the product team.

2. Try to make the move within the same company

A big part of my value to the product management department at ProductPlan was the fact that I had gained so much first-hand experience supporting users of ProductPlan’s product. Had I applied for a product manager role here as a CSM from another company, I wouldn’t have developed as much relevant expertise or value.

When you want to go from CSM to product manager, try to make the move within the same company.

Bonus tip: Another advantage I had working for ProductPlan was that this company has a long history of hiring from within. I’d also recommend you start by looking for a CSM role in a company known for hiring internally. These are the employers most likely to give you a chance to prove yourself in a new role.

3. You need to really care about your customers

As a customer success manager, my favorite part of the job was positively impacting a customer’s day. Usually by helping them solve a tough problem. I realized that a product job would allow me to have an even greater impact on our customers. That’s one of the things that appealed to me most about this role.

If you find a similar sense of satisfaction and accomplishment in helping customers, then product management might be for you as well. In fact, this is one way in which CSMs can make the best PMs. It’s important to remember that as a product manager, your focus should always be on serving your customers. The products you develop are a means to that end. Customer success professionals understand this as well as anybody.

If you’re motivated to move into product management because you’d like to stop working directly with customers, then you’re going to find your new role disappointing. Outstanding product management isn’t just about heads-down brainstorming with a tiny team and tinkering with prototypes. It’s also about speaking with as many customers and prospects as you can, so you can build products that make their lives better.

4. Voice your interest in product management

When I started at ProductPlan, our CS team consisted of… me. The company was so small, in fact, that I got the chance to help out in many departments—marketing, sales, and product. As the company grew and the teams all expanded, I knew there would eventually be an opportunity in product. I voiced my interest early.

Recognizing that I was a serious candidate, our Director of Product, Annie Dunham, began giving me product management tasks while I was still in customer success. By the time an opening arose on the product team, I was in a great position for it.

It might seem obvious, but don’t overlook the value of letting your product colleagues know that you’d be interested in contributing to their team. You’ll need to be patient. Eventually, you’ll find an opening.

5. Start honing your product management skills now

You’re already using many of the skills every day that you’ll need to be a great product manager.

But we can always improve our skills. Given that these skills are going to come in handy in your product management career, I’d highly recommend honing them right now:

Become a great listener

Pay close attention to what your customers are actually saying, not what you assume they’re saying because you’ve heard similar things before. Hear every customer out fully. Ask open-ended follow-up questions, draw out as much detail as you can.

Learn how to say no

Practice this by being a great listener. Give the other person a chance to fully express their request or idea or complaint, and then answer. Sometimes saying no can even mean saying “Yes, but not right now because of XYZ.” A lot of times, giving a customer or a colleague a chance to be heard is enough to satisfy them.

Get organized

Develop routines for your daily activities—work or personal. Whether you’re a CSM or a product manager, you’ll find the firehose of information never seems to slow down. You’ll want strategies and tactics to stay on top of the inflow of new data, rather than allow it to drown you. The sooner you start building these habits—making lists, breaking complex projects into actionable tasks, etc.—the more prepared and successful you’ll be when you start your first job as a product manager!

I highly recommend the Ultimate Guide to Product Management Resources for more help. ProductPlan has some other great interviews with other PMs who took non-traditional routes into the field, including:

If you have any thoughts on how to transition, leave them in the comments below.
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