A Special Source of Product Managers: Transfers from Customer Success

Finding great, proven PMs is hard. There’s no school that teaches you to be a PM, and most companies have relatively few product managers as a proportion of their total headcount. The pool of vetted and experienced talent is thin.

If you want to scale a product team quickly, one of the best ways to move fast is to convert talent from other vocations. As a hyped up role in a hyped up industry, there’s an ever increasing pool of candidates trying to break into tech product management from other roles. One of my favorite sources for SaaS product managers is your own post-sales team – particularly recruiting PMs from customer success.

Why it works

Customer success managers can onboard very quickly. When a product manager joins a team, there are two especially important areas where they need to ramp up:

  • New PMs must learn about their customers goals and business models, rapidly building deep empathy for customer needs.
  • New PMs must learn how the product that they manage actually solves these needs and delivers value. How are customers using your product, and why? This is often a nuanced and complex question, particularly for enterprise businesses with a wide variety of personas and workflows.

Customer success managers deeply understand these problem spaces because they’ve been helping customers navigate them for years. As a result, they’re often able to deliver insights and valuable input to development teams almost immediately. Delivering value fast is exactly how to win the hearts of engineering and design partners.

When considering internal candidates, you get to draw from years of experience when assessing someone’s business sense, creativity, and scrappiness. These “soft” product skills are almost impossible to gauge in a short interview, but you can look for them among existing coworkers:

  • Who has submitted the most helpful feedback on your product; who really “gets it?”
  • Who has a reputation for devising clever workarounds with your product?
  • Who helped to build MVPs or solutions on top of your APIs?
  • Who do you go to when there’s a really tricky customer problem that requires solutioning?

As a bonus, people who are successful in client-facing roles tend to be fairly organized and good communicators. If someone is already a successful CSM, you don’t need to vet that they’ll be able to talk to customers.

One final kicker – since they typically come from non-technical backgrounds, I find that converted customer success managers are less likely to get trapped down rabbit holes of solutioning (a common failure mode for engineers turned PMs). Many converted CSMs naturally strike a balance between focusing on business direction and goal-setting while giving partner teams like Design and Engineering the space that they need to ideate solutions and excel.

Warnings

There are a few areas where CS => Product hires need special care to be successful.

The first and most obvious is the lack of formal product training – the collection of skills from roadmapping, prioritization, or writing PRDs that comprise a product manager’s day-to-day. Most PMs learn these skills on the job, so unlike vocations such as Engineering or Design, lack of formal experience isn’t a total blocker. But you should never fall below a 1:1 ratio of team members with significant PM experience and people who are transitioning from other roles (2:1 is much better, to be safe). Having a strong set of processes and templates for your organization helps as well.

Coding experience is very helpful to be a successful PM, particularly at senior levels and for technical products, and CSMs tend to have little to none. The best CSM transfers have “battlefield” engineering skills and you should only transition people who have coached customers to use your product’s most technical features.

Also make sure that your team has other PMs who are strong technically. If less than 30-50% of your PMs lack basic coding skills, you run the risk of the entire function losing credibility (I’d define basic skills as a few years’ experience as an engineer, the ability to hack a barebones MVP, or a CS degree). Similar to having experienced PMs, make sure you have technical PMs on staff before hiring in PMs with no coding experience.

Finally, transitioning from client-facing work to product work requires a significant mindset shift. Anything other than 100% on-time perfection is generally unacceptable for CSMs, because their output impacts the customer experience. But PMs almost always have a bit too much on their plates and judiciously delaying, triaging, or distributing non-essential work with partner teams is vital.

Additionally, client-facing work is inherently reactive. PMs who’ve converted from client-facing roles need to make sure that they understand the long time horizons and broad mandate of product management – their job is to serve the wider customer base over years, rather than the needs of a few loud clients now. This is a bit of an adjustment and finding the right balance often requires steady coaching from more experienced hands, particularly in enterprise SaaS.