The boundary between Customer Success and Sales can seem foggy. When the boundary gets too foggy, these questions should be answered:
Defining the boundary between Customer Success and Sales often falls on managers who are too busy putting out fires to focus on longer-term strategy. This can place CSMs in the tough situation of defining their own roles, day after day.
Working in a cloudy organization is painful and frustrating. The first inclination is to blame something – sales promising too much, product failing to deliver, support taking too long to resolve tickets, etc. However, blame rarely leads anywhere productive. Once you set aside your frustration, the reality of the situation will emerge:
What if the reasons your CSMs spend most of their time firefighting aren’t product deficiency, support latency, poor account management, insufficient documentation, or any of the other things you love blaming inefficiency on?
This has been one of the most insightful thoughts of my career in Customer Success. Instead of looking outward for a solution, I challenge you to look at what is right in front of you – your team. It might become apparent your people are stuck in “what do I do next with the customer” mode. If that’s the case, here are a few concepts to help you bridge the gap between Sales and Customer Success so everybody can be on the same page about what to do next.
Early in my career, I worked for Xerox as a sales rep. I liked technology, I loved people, and I was really good at building relationships. On the surface, I had what it took to be a sales rep. Within six months, I quit. Months later I was asking myself, “What happened? How did I fail at something I was so sure I’d be good at?”
I didn’t know how to explain it at the time – but today, it’s crystal clear. I’m Built to Serve. There’s a world of difference between people who are Built to Serve and those who are Built to Sell.
If you are Built to Serve, you are naturally inclined to place a customer’s needs above your own.
If you are Built to Sell, you are very comfortable putting your needs—or your company’s needs—ahead of a customer’s.
Team members who are Built to Serve make great Customer Success Managers.
The best managers keep an eye on the strengths of their team members, and know how to make this stark delineation. If you mix and match Built to Serve and Built to Sell, you get a weird Frankenstein team that’s neither Success nor Sales. Unsurprisingly, you don’t sell very well, and your customers don’t feel all that successful. The resulting disparity in personality/role fit can be catastrophic for the morale of your team (which translates to turnover).
So, you why do you have unproductive and unhappy team members?
When your personality and work goals are out of alignment—let’s say, if a Built to Sell employee takes on a CSM role—they won’t achieve the single thing that most affects workplace happiness: feeling like they’re making progress.
After an exhaustive study of knowledge workers, Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School concluded that progress—not money or praise—is the most important aspect of achieving meaning in your work. As she writes, “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”
This is exactly what happened when I quit my job at Xerox after only a couple of months. I was excited about the job, but in order for me to make progress, I would have to go against my instincts to serve, rather than sell. This internal conflict is the reason I walked out the door.
What can be done to mitigate personality/role fit issues?
At one company, Sales takes care of upsells—across the street, that is the Success team’s department.
In addition, the fuzzy line becomes a moving target—because the two roles are in flux as the company scales. At early stage companies, Sales winds up taking on a bigger role in the customer lifecycle, but as companies grow and develop more resources, Success tends to take over some aspects of the job.
Even though the delineation fluctuates between industries—and even within the same company over time—it needs to be drawn stupidly clear, so that there is never any internal confusion regarding how these departments work together.
If, as a VP, you see confusion over who handles a client, or at what point sales passes the baton to Success, you need to step in with some advice. Success and Sales need to work together. If they don’t, you could accidentally:
That’s usually when the micromanagement, random meetings, and half-baked strategies start to emerge. There’s no shortage of things to measure at this point, which usually leads to metric overload and analysis fatigue. What’s the most effective thing to focus on when your job feels like shooting a shotgun from the hip? The answer is almost always efficiency.
As a leader, a big part of getting clarity around roles is aligning metrics. Should Sales be concerned about retention? Or is that just Success’ job? If everyone is moving towards one measurable goal, how do you align that to optimize performance?
One common practice we strongly advise against is paying CSMs a commission-based salary. It’s confusing and doesn’t provide incentives for long-term success. If you’ve hired people who are truly Built to Serve, they’ll want to do a good job and will help Sales along, just because they like to help.
As a VP, the best key metric isn’t the number of upsells or the retention rate—it’s efficiency. Efficiency means that both Sales and Customer Success are working in the respective areas where they can make the biggest impact.
For example, if you have CSMs doing sales-related activities alone, you may see your upsells increase, but you could miss how you’re leaving a ton of time and money on the table. Look at efficiency, and you might see that Sales is able to make more of those sales with less work. Evaluating the situation through that lens gets everyone on the same page.
When it comes to getting Success and Sales working together, efficiency is the most important thing, and everything else will follow. One of the most effective first steps to building a culture of efficiency is to get on the same page with your customers from top to bottom.
Having internal clarity is great, but it does nothing if the customer doesn’t know where the division between Sales and Success lies. You need to manage the customers’ expectations of who owns what in order to tap into the natural talents of each team member.
We hear this all the time from CSMs—they’ve made clear internal divisions, they’ve hired the right personalities for the right roles, but in a pinch, a CSM winds up doing sales work. Since they’re Built to Serve, CSMs are all too willing to help a customer out even when they should pass them along to the Sales department.
This is where having clear lines for the customer is really crucial. As one Customer Success Manager, told us, “It does help me being able to say to my clients that anything related to costing and contracts has to be dealt with by their Sales rep. It enables me as a CSM to focus on other tasks and be proactive.” Sales and CS can work together quite well to achieve efficiency.
As a Customer Success Director, I had an ace counterpart in the sales team. His role was to toe the line for the company and play the “bad cop,” while I took point on enabling customers’ long-term goals.
This relationship allowed the customer to feel like even when the company wasn’t on their side, someone still had their back. What’s more, they always knew exactly who to go to for their specific needs. Customers knew to go to Sales for contractual changes, but Customer Success when they really needed someone to pull strings for them.
When it was time to renew the contract for one of our largest customers, the Director of Sales’ hard-line approach allowed our company to negotiate tough terms, which I simply wouldn’t do —especially with someone I had built a close relationship with.
My sales partner had a conversation with the customer, and minutes later, my phone would ring. The customer was on the other end, livid: “That’s going to cost twice as much! We can’t do that! Who does this guy think he is?”
My role as “good cop” was to talk him down and help him walk through his thoughts. I asked,“What specifically set you off? What exactly do you not like about this deal and what are you looking for?” I then acted as a messenger and took this message back to the Director of Sales, which then informed the next round of negotiations. Throughout the whole process, the customer always felt like someone was on his side.
The deal ended up bringing in $200,000 in ARR —double the size of the original contract. Could I have renewed the contract myself? Probably.
But I never would have been close to the deal size that my sales partner walked out the door with. And without Success as a backchannel that both sides could talk to, the process could have gotten very ugly, with sales coming on way too strong. Both sides were necessary.
We were able to pull it off by putting each of the 3 principles above into practice: I maximized my skills as a Built to Serve person, the Director of Sales maximized his as a built to sell person. We were totally clear about how we were working together, and the customer knew exactly who to come to and for what. In doing so, we were able to leverage each others’ strengths and win big.
Sales and Success are really different—they have different personalities, different objectives, different methods—but they absolutely have to work hand in hand for your company (and customers) to succeed. Like peanut butter and jelly, they’re much better together.
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