I’ve worked with many organizations who have just begun building their customer success teams and are about to hire their first customer success manager (CSM).
There’s often a bit of confusion as to what a CSM does, and how that role meshes with other roles within the organization. Obviously the CSM is a post-sales role (although the boundary between customer success and sales isn’t always so clear), but I’m often asked where account managers (AMs) fit into the equation.
If it seems like there are a lot more jobs tasked with generating and maintaining revenue these days, that’s absolutely true. “Every revenue-related function has gotten more specialized over the last few years,” says Jason Lemkin of SaaStr. We’re more careful about the revenue-affecting roles because cash flow and retention are so important to SaaS organizations.
While CSMs and AMs both play a post-sales role, they have completely different functions. Sadly, many organizations are simply relabeling account managers as customer success managers in order to capitalize on the trendy title.
At best, this approach is a minor inconvenience for your customers. At worst, it’s a complete disaster when customers (who expected a CSM with a holistic view and a willingness to help them grow) find themselves stuck with a representative who is only concerned about solving existing problems.
What is the difference between customer success managers and account managers? The difference between the two teams is actually pretty simple.
While CSMs and AMs both play a post-sales role, they have completely different functions.
CSMs wants to support the goals of the customer. They want growth in whatever terms the customer defines. They want the customer to find an abundance of value with the product and renew their subscription at every renewal period.
The account manager supports the goals of the organization. They want the customer to be free of technical glitches so they continue paying for the product. They want support tickets escalated to the right people for the same reason. They want the customer to upgrade to the next pricing tier so the company can farm as much money as possible.
In some cases, customer success is tasked with securing upgrades and expansions, but I don’t usually recommend that approach. The CSM is the face of the company as far as the customer is concerned. You don’t want the face to be someone who’s always pushing sales.
But wait! Isn’t retention the organization’s goal? Why are CSMs in charge of that?
Because retention is achieved by serving the customer. A happy customer who realizes sustained value with the product never considers churning. Most customer success teams are measured by retention and customer satisfaction scores.
Since they have different purposes, CSMs and AMs work differently.
“An account manager is reactive and only provides support whenever you ask for it, which poses a problem if you there are any issues you’re not aware of,” says Josue Ledesma at Trustpilot. “On the other hand, a CSM provides a proactive approach to your relationship, anticipating potential issues or providing unprompted support simply to improve your experience and further your success.”
CSMs address broader customer goals, like “We want to respond to security vulnerabilities faster.” That isn’t a problem that can solved with a flick of a switch. It has to be scrutinized, deliberated, and turned into a business process. It might take a quarter. It might take a year.
When an AM gets an email from a client or has a support ticket in front of them, they usually want to respond within the business day. CSMs affect customers by delivering projects that take fiscal quarters to put together and complete.
Customer success software Totango says it perfectly:
“Customer success managers possess great consultative skills, normally have deep sector/domain knowledge, detailed product knowledge, and usually make it a point to truly understand the ecosystem of their customers (i.e. knowing what role their service plays within the customer’s company).”
Account managers are more generalists. They understand the product and the organization more than the customer. That doesn’t mean they aren’t as valuable. It just means they have a different role to play. Remember, their purpose is to support the organization’s goals.
CSMs need to be strategists that tackle complex problems over long periods of time. They need to empathetic, super-communicators who identify problems and create solutions that scale.
Read more about customer success skills here: The 5 Critical Strengths Your Customer Success Team Needs.
While it’s true that the existence of CSMs diminish the role of AMs to some extent, you still need both. You don’t want your CSMs getting bogged down in the day-to-day minutia of handling client problems.
You need to give your CSMs some relief so they can spend their time working on the big picture. They need to be solving organization-level problems, not helping a customer login or demonstrating how to use features.
If you force your CSMs to play a big-picture and small-picture role, you’ll handicap their work and burn them out. I’ve seen plenty of CSMs who are expected to manage all customer interactions end up burning out and either leaving the organization or leaving customer success entirely.
Siloing is dangerous for a modern SaaS organization. It chokes your growth, hamstrings your product development, and inflates your churn.
SaaS growth is determined by retention. Even if you make sales at a sluggish rate, your growth will accelerate if you retain those customers.
To manage this, you need every team playing to their strengths, working together, serving customers and fighting churn, but especially any roles that services the customer post sale like customer success and account management.