The Weekly Review

by Chris Bowler

Customer-centric Roles in SaaS

When you're not a full time designer and developer, how do you get started working in the web industry? For many, the way to get a “foot in the door” is to start in a customer facing role. For many, the question to then answer is:

What next?

But before looking at the various options available to those in customer-centric roles, let’s cover some verbiage. What type of roles am I referring to here? Well, if you work on a customer service, success, or support team, I’m talking about you. Customer experience? That can be more of a design focused role or team, so let’s stick with the 3 S’s for now.

As I’ve mentioned before, there is a growing focus on customers, period. And although different companies approach the idea differently, there is a trend towards focusing on the entire experience a customer has with a business/brand. The people who work in service, success, and support are there to ensure the needs of those customers are met.

A career unto itself

The first option is to stay where you are. Although traditionally treated as a stepping stone to other paths, customer-centric roles can make a satisfying career.

Unfortunately, many companies also see these roles as basic and less vital to their overall success. As such, they treat the employees in these roles accordingly. Backchannel published a recent piece that highlighted this fact amongst the “Valley elite”:

As unicorn startups send customer service gigs to the hinterland, is Silicon Valley exporting its prosperity, or just dead-end jobs?

So if you want a career in a customer facing role, it’s important to recognize that finding the right company is the key to your job satisfaction. A low salary combined with being treated as a lesser contributor to the company’s success is not usually a recipe for happiness in the workplace.

But if you can find the right company and enjoy solving people’s problems, a support or service role for the long term may be a great option.

And if you choose to make this a career, how should you focus your time? I would argue that even those who take great delight in solving people’s problems need to find proactive activities to focus on over the long haul. Answering questions over Twitter, email, and live chat all day long, every day is a recipe for burnout. So good teams give their support staff time away from the inboxes to work on other things.

Creating documentation, educational materials, or test projects can help you learn your product better and are some good ways support staff can spend their time. Some of the best SaaS support people I’ve seen were those who were good at support in general, but over time they developed a focus in one area of the product they supported and became the go-to expert in that “thing”.

How to move into other roles

I hear this question from people from time to time. If you start in a support or service role, how do you move on to something different?

Again, this often comes down to finding the right company. I prefer companies who do their best to hire from within and are willing to provide the environment and opportunity for team members to follow their desired career path. However, this is not always an easy task.

Despite being a great company, a primary reason for my leaving Campaign Monitor was because it became clear that there was a mentality of “once support, always support”. It was not easy to move on from the support team to other teams. When a new position was posted, the desire was to hire someone who was already performing that same role somewhere else, rather than groom someone who was already on the team.

That type of thinking is understandable, to a degree. A company cannot always afford to train people for a new position. And so if you're looking to shift from customer support or success, it’s good to give yourself the best chance by acquiring some of the skills required in your desired role.

Many technically strong customer support staff would love to transition to being developers. If that is the case, working on your own side projects is a great way to both get experience and showcase your skills. Contributing to open source projects is another. The same approach could be true for design, writing, or marketing.

The issue with this approach is that you have to carve time out of the rest of your life to achieve the new skillset. The same hustle that is required to be able to start your own lifestyle business may be required to switch roles in the SaaS world. If you're single or married with children, this switch may be easier to achieve. But for many people, time for side projects is in limited quantity. So if you choose to take this path, do so with wisdom and plenty of caution.

Otherwise, your hustle can lead to burnout as well.

You may have noticed I haven’t mentioned Customer Success as much as Support or Service. This is partly because it’s a role with a slightly different emphasis. I’d tie Success more closely with product management than anything else. It involves a lot of research, product strategy, and writing. And it’s the type of role that can vary greatly from one company to the next. How does one move from the reactive work to the proactive? Again, working in the right place will help. From there, show your willingness to identify opportunities to improve your customer’s journey.

Writing: have a blog

And that is my other point of focus. I’m a firm believer that any type of role on a SaaS team benefits from writing. It helps every person clarify and hone their opinions, as well as improve their ability in their specific role (designers, developers, and everyone else). But this is most especially true for product managers, customer success managers, and marketing types.

Where as a designer can have a portfolio showing their work, and a developer can share their GitHub profile, the rest of us can showcase our skills and expertise with our own blog. Getting words “to paper” is the best portfolio you have.

And so I’d put reading and writing high on the list of priorities if I was looking to switch from customer support to customer success or product management. Start a blog, join the right community, and start sharing your knowledge.


Working in the SaaS industry can be very enjoyable. Challenging, but enjoyable. Finding the role you enjoy the most can take some time, but persist. It’s worth it!

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