The Transition From Customer Success to Product Management

If you had told me, a fresh 2008 graduate with a master’s degree in social work, that I’d eventually be working at a fast-growing tech startup as a product manager, I’d have laughed. To me, and probably to most people, they are two completely unrelated things. Coming from a small town in Georgia, I didn’t even know what “tech” entailed.

I started my career in social work as a case manager for the Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. As you can imagine, it was tough work. I had to stay level-headed through a variety of volatile situations. But despite this, I remained empathetic and compassionate to the people around me.

I pursued social work because I wanted to make a difference, but faced a lot of push-back and politics. Institution after institution stifled my passion to change people’s lives. I ended up just going through the motions. Eventually, I decided I had to make a career change.

Entering the Tech Industry

My career in tech started in customer success at inMotionNow, a project management software company. At that time, the customer success space was less defined, so I relied heavily on my team to guide me. What I did know was how to build relationships and earn trust. Those skills enabled me to troubleshoot common issues and solve problems for our customers. My natural empathy and compassion for others served as an incredible asset rather than a weakness.

I began to work at Pendo and thrived in customer success there, eventually securing a promotion to a leadership role over our SMB customer success team, with scalability and efficiency being a passion of mine. Then, our CEO asked if I was interested in moving to the product team. I took a few weeks to think about the offer, and the director of product management at the time, Christine Itwaru, recommended I read “Inspired” by Marty Cagan, which helped me understand the PM perspective. It felt like a natural alignment between my passion for our customers and our product. So, I decided to become a product manager.

I wouldn’t have agreed to make the move to product management anywhere other than Pendo. In particular, the Pendo product team’s desire to better understand and serve the CS persona really intrigued me.

The Reality of Being a Product Manager

In my new role, I quickly learned that some of my assumptions about product management were completely wrong. Product managers aren’t just throwing out ideas for the roadmap as I’d thought. The process of building features was far more collaborative and methodical than I’d expected.

When I was a customer success manager, I sometimes wondered why the product team built certain features while others didn’t make the cut. I reserved my empathy for other customer success managers because I didn’t have insight into the tough decisions PMs had to make, or what their day-to-day looked like. I only understood the demands of CS.

However, I now realize that product teams make the best decisions possible given the many constraints and requirements they have to balance. Product managers get feedback from a variety of sources and deal with a never-ending influx of feature requests. Everyone has an opinion on what the product should look like, meaning that PMs need to investigate and rule out so many options. The old me would have thought of a product team decision as unideal, but I also didn’t know the context behind it. Now, I understand that PMs are doing their best to delight customers.

How Customer Success Prepared Me for Product Management

When I pivoted into product management, I discovered that taking off the CS hat was harder than I thought. CSMs constantly think about how to solve customer problems, but product managers must make strategic decisions that affect the business.

Customer success managers work independently to solve issues. For my part, I could freely troubleshoot issues without relying on too many people. But the product manager role sits at the intersection of multiple departments. My previous experience in a leadership role in customer success helped me prepare for this aspect of the job. I knew how to come up with inspiring initiatives and how to empower people. I could influence people and encourage them to believe in those initiatives. And that is really the core of product management.

A New Perspective

As a customer success manager, I’ll admit that sometimes I’d be frustrated when the product team ignored certain feature requests and put resources behind others. But now I realize the lack of alignment between product management and customer success is a common issue in hypergrowth startups. Product managers get feedback from everyone — sales, customers, executives, engineers — so it’s impossible to prioritize and honor each request while keeping the overall vision in mind.

This goes to show that we can all do better. Customer success can learn from product managers, and vice versa. We all have the same end goal, and that’s to help the customer solve problems, win at their job, and be successful.