Much of our work in the startup community revolves around pain points. We dig deep into a problem hoping to uncover its true source and figure out a resolution. If we’re lucky, we can create a product that solves the issue point-blank. But, even the best software requires a decent amount of upkeep. It’s a mentality Customer Success Managers know well.

CSMs spend much of their time getting to the root of a problem. The better they understand a customer’s pain points, the easier the conversation will be. At its core, working in customer success requires you to take on the stress of others and resolve it for them.

It’s no surprise that this “stress absorption” comes at a price. Customer Success Leaders have both the power and the responsibility to help manage stress on their teams. As I learned on our recent panel, though, it takes intentional work.

We hosted Laura Beavin-Yates, Ashna Patel, and Katharina Schmidt for Real Talk: How to Detect CS Team Stress -- And Manage It. They’ve all led teams of CSMs and are all too familiar with the effects of stress in the workplace. They were able to speak specifically to the stressors that CSMs deal with day to day, in addition to the ways they, as managers, have implemented practices to reduce stress.

Here are five takeaways from the panel I wanted to share. We covered everything from how to spot early warning signs of a stressed-out colleague to some calming activities you can try right now with your own team.

Learn how to spot red flags for stress

The good news is that CSMs are already pretty clued in to reading body language. Those adept at communication and socialization gravitate to the job. The key as a CS leader is to use this skill within your team just as often as you use it with clients.

The panelists pointed out a few cues that can signal stress:

  • Defensiveness
  • Silence
  • Effusiveness
  • Unfocused

Even over a Zoom call, we can spot these signs. When team members push back on directives, it may be a knee-jerk response to not having the time or resources to complete a task. Take note of silence on a call too—CSMs may be eager to end the call as their workload is piling up, or they could be simply burned out from so many meetings.

Effusiveness was an interesting one. Laura mentioned her stress manifests in over-excitement. It makes sense—after a stressful day of calls and meetings, you lose a bit of your filter and poise. Notice if your teammates are more reactive than usual. Especially as leaders, we could interpret this as engagement—but it may be overtiredness.

Take note of any physical or facial cues that allude to multitasking as well. Maybe they’re typing or looking elsewhere during a meeting. Even asking to repeat things could mean their mind is elsewhere. Multitasking during a meeting tells you two things: (1) your teammate is overwhelmed and (2) perhaps this meeting isn’t necessary.

Check in often with CSMs (as team members AND humans)

The best way to know if someone on your team is stressed is to actually know them. When you have a baseline relationship, you’ll notice when they’re behaving differently. And when they feel comfortable with you, it’ll be easier for them to ask you for help and guidance during stressful times.

Human connection is one of the best ways to alleviate stress—Zoom meetings and Slack chats included. Touch base with your teammates daily. Send a simple “Good morning! How are you?” each day to catch up and establish a relationship. Share your own stories to get the ball rolling: “Busy morning over here, the dog ate my son’s homework.” Whatever it is—don’t underestimate the power of bringing a little humanity into your workday.

When stress is work-related, recognize that, as a leader, you may be able to address the source of it. We can use our influence and position to open up extra time, space, and resources for our team members. More efficient workflows lead to more productive CSMs lead to better retention and upsells. Wins all around!

Enact team rituals that build connection and empathy

It turns out, venting to a coworker is one of the best ways to manage stress. Of course, there are limits. But creating a safe work environment where you trust your coworkers enough to complain about something is a pretty big deal.

Having an outlet to express frustration in the workplace makes the job more sustainable. Sharing your load with others, especially others who know exactly what you’re going through, can be the antidote for a stressful situation.

Laura explains, “I remind my team that they're part of a team. And yes, I know this was stressful, but we're here to build you up. It's not the end of the world and it's fine.”

As leaders, we can set aside meetings that are just for human talk—not work. Everyone will reap the benefits of connecting with colleagues to make communication down the line easier. And don’t assume this can’t happen over Zoom.

Our panelists have happy hours, host game nights, and ask fun icebreakers all over video chat.   Laura adds, “It was such a common thing when we were in person to go out and have a cocktail with your coworkers. And now it's a little bit harder to find that time. So we're trying to build in biweekly happy hours.”

Don’t let your own stress infect your team

Stress is contagious. Katharina explains it with an example, “You know those people that you just love to be around because their positivity is contagious? And then, there are people that suck the energy out of you? We’re emotionally and socially contagious to each other.”  

And so, there can be a dark side to all the team connection—the empathy CSMs are known for rears its head in the wrong direction and suddenly one stressed out team member turns into ten.

To combat this, take a step away when stress overcomes you. Go outside. Have a snack. Ashna straight up tells her teammates, “Shut down your computer, go take a walk. I don't want to hear from you for the next 30 minutes. I'm gonna be mad at you if I do.” Try to notice and stop stress in its earliest moments to prevent it spreading it to others.

Educate your team about the ABCs of stress management

Education is the simplest way to change behaviors. (I’ve already started to change my habits based on what I learned from this panel.) So let’s start with our own teams.

Katharina mentioned the ABCs of stress management:

  1. Awareness
  2. Breath
  3. Connection

We begin with awareness. Ask yourself: How am I feeling? Why? Is this my stress to deal with or am I taking on someone else’s? Are the stakes of this problem really as high as I think they are?

Then, take note of your breath. It’s a powerful indicator and manager of stress. How is your breath right now? Short and choppy could signal stress. Breathe deeply to calm your body down. It’s especially helpful after a meeting or before a tough conversation.

Connection is a powerful tool for de-stressing as well. Who can you reach out to to vent? Who can help you reassess priorities at work? Who can help you unwind and distract yourself with something fun? Figure out what would be most valuable in the moment to you—a friend, a coworker, or a family member can all help relieve stress.

Stress and Customer Success: How can I help?

2020 was a high-stress year, and 2021 hasn’t exactly been peaceful. Customer Success teams often bear the weight of their entire company’s stress, in addition to their customers’ stress, on top of their own personal stress. That’s probably why burnout seems especially fierce for CSMs compared to other jobs in tech.

We see you and we want to help.

UpdateAI’s mission is to make meetings better so you can do better things. We are building out our platform (www.update.ai) for CSMs just like you. I’m collecting stories, suggestions, and pain points to help me shape the product and I’d be grateful to hear yours.

Reach out to me at Josh@update.ai with any ideas for features that can help empower Customer Success Managers — or connect with me on LinkedIn.