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The difference between Customer Success Managers and Account Managers

Although they’re sometimes seen as one and the same, my latest discussion with other customer success professionals proves they’re not — and here’s why.

The very initial comparison is that CSMs are proactive in their approach versus AMs and their reactive approach. CSMs have always been seen as the trusted advisor within the company with a holistic view of the customers, while AMs manage escalations and renewals. Almost everyone agreed CSMs should not carry a quota.

One VP of Client Services comments, “It is unfortunate that many organizations I have spoken with are simply relabeling account managers without making the needed mind set and organizational changes to make it about the customer being successful rather than just the bottom line.

CSMs should be more concerned with Customer Lifetime Value because successful sales to an installed base are only possible when the customer is ready and prepared for the next steps. There were many folks who strongly felt Customer Success and Account Management should be kept separate. Measuring their performance separately meant defining metrics that showed influence on client retention (e.g. adoption, referenceability) for Customer Success, and then things like renewals and upsells for Account Managers.

Another point that I really liked was the difference in the core skill set required for the job. 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).

Another member mentioned that upper management needs to support that the CSM role is not to manage individual tickets but to monitor them and keep pulse of how the customer is doing. One challenge many companies are facing is how to keep their Customer Success team out of day-to-day support.

At the end of day, most interactions with the customer are virtual, but CSMs are there to bring a face to the customer relationship and be the glue that connects the company to the customer.

Click here to view the original discussion.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to everyone who participated in the discussion online – Josey, Andy, Raj, Graciela, Bill, Jean-Marc, Scott M, Jonathan, Anne, John, Cyrille, Dave, Carly, Scott C, David, Steven, and Marcia!

Ellis Luk

I'm the marketing and communications manager at Totango - but you can call me Chief Content Officer. When I'm not writing, you can find me obsessing over memes, debating grammatical usage or getting distracted by the latest Tumblr gif blogs. Customer love starts with a friendly hello!

  • Brandon Beall

    I love this article. One question I have is if CSMs do not have a quota, is there a salesperson that’s present that would upsell clients? CSMs act as consultants but then who keeps the lights on?

    • Ellis Luk

      Hey Brandon – from my discussions with other CS folks, it seems that after identifying the right upsell opportunity, they usually pass the ball back over to sales. That said, although the majority say no quota, there are still some who get additional compensation based on revenue from the existing user base.

      I heard once before that your customers aren’t paying for the product but rather the result of the product. It think keeping the lights on is a company-wide effort…or you can find some VCs who can lend a helping hand 😉

  • Brandon Beall

    I love this article. One question I have is if CSMs do not have a quota, is there a salesperson that’s present that would upsell clients? CSMs act as consultants but then who keeps the lights on?

    • Ellis Luk

      Hey Brandon – from my discussions with other CS folks, it seems that after identifying the right upsell opportunity, they usually pass the ball back over to sales. That said, although the majority say no quota, there are still some who get additional compensation based on revenue from the existing user base.

      I heard once before that your customers aren’t paying for the product but rather the result of the product. It think keeping the lights on is a company-wide effort…or you can find some VCs who can lend a helping hand 😉

  • This is a fascinating debate, isn’t it? From a practical standpoint, it’s easier for executives to think of employees as either revenue producing or cost incurring–when CSMs have a quota, they’re the former, and if not, they’re the latter. It’s tougher to financially justify the non-quota CSM model. Increasing expenses to create more successful customers is a non-starter UNLESS it can be tied to the company’s own financial gain. The reason is simple. Executives are rewarded for THEIR revenue and cost performance, not THEIR CUSTOMER’s revenue and cost performance. Those advocating for CSMs as a purely service role have a higher burden of proof to show the ROI. On the flip side, it is possible for CSMs to perform their “trusted consultant” role AND uncover sales opportunities to hand off to AMs. This is more easily justified and all it takes is the right role definition, training, metrics, and management reinforcement to make it work.

    • Ellis Luk

      Yep, at the end of the day, it sounds like a tightly-knit and cohesive team will make these back and forth flows flow much smoother. After all, no matter how many touchpoints you have with the customer, they still see you as ONE entity.

  • This is a fascinating debate, isn’t it? From a practical standpoint, it’s easier for executives to think of employees as either revenue producing or cost incurring–when CSMs have a quota, they’re the former, and if not, they’re the latter. It’s tougher to financially justify the non-quota CSM model. Increasing expenses to create more successful customers is a non-starter UNLESS it can be tied to the company’s own financial gain. The reason is simple. Executives are rewarded for THEIR revenue and cost performance, not THEIR CUSTOMER’s revenue and cost performance. Those advocating for CSMs as a purely service role have a higher burden of proof to show the ROI. On the flip side, it is possible for CSMs to perform their “trusted consultant” role AND uncover sales opportunities to hand off to AMs. This is more easily justified and all it takes is the right role definition, training, metrics, and management reinforcement to make it work.

    • Ellis Luk

      Yep, at the end of the day, it sounds like a tightly-knit and cohesive team will make these back and forth flows flow much smoother. After all, no matter how many touchpoints you have with the customer, they still see you as ONE entity.

  • danibel

    I liked your post – till I got to the cliche “At the end of the day.” At the end of the day the sun goes down. At the end of the day I go to bed. At the end of the day is just another way to say “ultimately” or ‘finally.”

  • danibel

    I liked your post – till I got to the cliche “At the end of the day.” At the end of the day the sun goes down. At the end of the day I go to bed. At the end of the day is just another way to say “ultimately” or ‘finally.”

  • Dale Lampson

    Within the software sector, I think another dimension to the CSM vs. AM is the license model. Particularly in SaaS / Cloud firms with multiple product components, well-defined SCM roles are super helpful both to the customer and the vendor.

    Smart CSMs focus on soft consulting–the type that nudges the customer to expand use of what they’ve already purchased. The payback is much larger than from the traditional services sales/delivery model. Equally important, a CSM can help the customer find value in product features not yet purchased, and help the AM an sales teams avoid over/under selling.

    Thankfully, we’re moving away from the vendor cram-down sales model to incremental sales being driven by expanding value awareness. CSMs are key to long-term CLV vs. 90-day success goals.

  • Dale Lampson

    Within the software sector, I think another dimension to the CSM vs. AM is the license model. Particularly in SaaS / Cloud firms with multiple product components, well-defined SCM roles are super helpful both to the customer and the vendor.

    Smart CSMs focus on soft consulting–the type that nudges the customer to expand use of what they’ve already purchased. The payback is much larger than from the traditional services sales/delivery model. Equally important, a CSM can help the customer find value in product features not yet purchased, and help the AM an sales teams avoid over/under selling.

    Thankfully, we’re moving away from the vendor cram-down sales model to incremental sales being driven by expanding value awareness. CSMs are key to long-term CLV vs. 90-day success goals.

  • Pingback: The Rise of the Customer Success Manager - Navigo Blog()

  • Hative

    The aim forte organization is the getting benefit for the long time. There with in organization different departments have different interest level. This may be the aim for marketing topee but management need for on word coming for same client. The aim leads for function.

  • Chris Welsh

    I like the comment about how to keep the CSM out of the day to day support. I agree totally with this statement but this is difficult. Sometimes this is unavoidable. Sometimes you need to build up the credibility capital to earn the right to be proactive in your approach. This is a slippery slope. It is hard to defer to customer service if the customer know you can help.

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