Customer Success vs. Account Management: Why Both Matter

Mercer Smith | May 27, 2021

When considering customer success and account management, it’s valuable to consider them as complementary teams rather than interchangeable groups or, worse, competitors.

While it’s true that both customer success and account management move your customers through their life cycles, they are focused on distinct aspects of the customer experience, and they have different strategies for supporting and guiding customers.

So rather than approach it as customer success vs. account management, it may be better to understand how both can work together to provide an overall excellent customer experience.

In this blog post, we’ll break down both customer success and account management, and you’ll hopefully walk away understanding the benefits of each and the ideal situations when using both is best.

What is customer success?

There are a few things that differentiate customer success from account management. These are also the aspects of this function that make it so valuable and essential for your customers.

As head of the customer success team, customer success managers (CSMs) are the arbiters of best practices for customers. It is their job to serve as guides for new users as they come in and move through their lifecycle.

Equal parts educators and therapists, your CSMs listen to your customers and recommend next steps on their journeys.

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Key components of customer success

Here’s what you can expect from a customer success team:

  • Segmenting customers: Different customers may receive different versions of customer success. For instance, lower-tier or free customers may get low-touch or tech-touch customer success. In contrast, enterprise customers may get a dedicated CSM or a dedicated phone line to reach out to your team.
  • Setting expectations: Your customer success team is responsible for setting the stage for your incoming customers. It’s up to them to let your customers know what they can expect from your product, what to expect from support, and even guidance on their goal-setting strategies.
  • Flexibility: Customer success team members need to be highly flexible and able to pivot on a dime. As they’re getting to know customers, your CSMs need to change or adjust their strategies based on what works or doesn’t work with their customers.
  • Helping customers measure value: The most important indicator of success for this function is if your customers regularly hit the goals they set at the start of their journey. It’s up to your CSMs to provide information about how the plans are moving forward and how close customers are to reaching their perceived value.
  • Communication: CSMs should be excellent communicators. Not only are they responsible for communicating and coordinating with your customers, they are also responsible for surfacing information to your internal teams. There are few individuals within your company that talk as candidly with your customers as your CSMs — they are a great source of data for your product and engineering teams.
  • Education and empowerment: Your customer success team is responsible for teaching your customers how to use your product. Not only that, but through that education, they can expand customer usage without forcing customers. By educating customers on critical features relevant to their needs, your team empowers them to move forward in their journey while also boosting product usage metrics.
  • Working yourself out of the picture: The best-case scenario for a customer success team is that, eventually, your customers are proficient enough that they don’t need you anymore. Customers who have been using the customer success team regularly over a longer period should eventually wean themselves off and move toward a more minimal contact model.

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Different methodologies for customer success

Customer success teams can take on a few different structures, depending on the type of product or service that their company offers. While some companies may take a more traditional strategy centered around renewals and churn metrics, there are a few other alternatives that you may want to consider:

  • Different teams servicing commercial and enterprise customers — best for companies with extreme differentials between product tiers.
  • Two separate teams for onboarding and lifecycle management — best for companies with a heavy lift at the start of usage.
  • A separate implementation team outside of the customer success team — best for highly technical products.
  • Churn-focused vs. expansion-focused customer success — best for companies without account management structures.
  • Customer success as a means for escalated customer support.
  • Customer success as a driver for customer loyalty.

It may be that one-size-fits-all doesn’t work for your team structure. Pick and choose from strategies that make the most sense for your customers.

What is account management?

Account management is a post-sales role, much like customer success, and it focuses on nurturing customer relationships. That said, account managers have two primary objectives: They need to retain business and grow each account’s potential.

Beyond that, account managers (AMs) don’t often get deeply involved in customers’ day-to-day experiences or in understanding their needs or goals with the product. Instead, they are available when the customer reaches out for help, and they speak primarily to product features.

Key components of account management

Account management is measured based on the success of the team’s portfolio. There are a few key components that dictate that success:

  • Upselling: Account managers need to be skilled at upselling. They need to know what a customer might be debating and describe the added value they will get by purchasing an additional tier or product feature. This is an adaptable and responsive skill because it involves actively influencing a customer’s mind mid-purchase.
  • Expansion: Like upselling, expansion is a skill that AMs use during the renewal period to guide customers to a more extensive feature set or a higher-tier plan. Expansion requires understanding the customer’s use case and speaking to individual features that may excite or incentivize them.
  • Identify key accounts: AMs should have metrics and dashboards to help them identify key customer accounts ahead of time. Instead of waiting for a customer success or support team member to bring a customer to their attention, your AMs should find and begin working with accounts far before the renewal period.
  • Developing relationships: Your AMs need to be excellent at building trust and developing relationships, both internally and externally. Because they often only build relationships with customers when it comes time for expansion, they need to be skilled at determining where the levers are for trust. They need to have the faith of other internal teams as well — CSMs must trust that AMs have the customers’ best intentions at heart.
  • Mastering product: Your AMs don’t have a ton of history with customer accounts before coming into the equation. So, rather than understanding the customer’s perspective, they should speak to and answer any questions about the product. AMs need to be masters of the product and understand any potential side or edge cases that may come up in discussion.

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Key differences between customer success and account management

With a deeper understanding of customer success vs. account management, the immediate differences may become more evident. While both teams focus on moving customers along in their journeys, they take different approaches and are responsible for various growth aspects.

Here are a few other key differences between customer success and account management:

1. Area of focus

Customer success focuses heavily on understanding the customers and their needs, all from the customer perspective. They want to grow the customer because it will ultimately be the best outcome for the customer.

Account managers are focused on the company. While they want to expand the customer, it is mostly in service of the company’s bottom line.

2. Timelines

Customer success gets involved right when the user becomes a customer, and they are involved every step of the way.

Account management is mainly active during renewal times and then takes more of a back seat during the rest of the customer lifecycle.

3. Reactivity vs. proactivity

The engagement models between the two teams are very different. CSMs are often proactive in contacting customers and educating them before they run into trouble.

AMs are primarily reactive. They will help customers when they reach out with needs, but they won’t take a proactive approach to educate their contacts.

4. Metrics

Customer success teams can look at several different metrics to measure success, but they often rely on more customer-focused measurements like product adoption or customer effort score.

Your account management team is responsible for soliciting renewals and working against churn. Those are the metrics that you’ll likely use to indicate whether they are successful or need to improve their performance.

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5. Financial impact

Your customer success team has a much more indirect impact when it comes to your bottom-line financials. If they do a good job, your customers will be more loyal and will likely purchase more; they don’t have an immediate, direct impact on financials.

Your account management team, however, is directly responsible for upgrades and upselling, which the company will immediately see reflected in its financials.

6. Knowledge type

Customer success team members need to have deep, interpersonal knowledge of their customers. While they can also be technical, it is more important that they understand how to work directly with customers and meet their needs.

Account management, on the other hand, will need to be more technically knowledgeable. To upsell more effectively, they need to be able to speak to product solutions and how they work for customers.

Implementing both teams

While it might be tempting to try to make customer success vs. account management an either/or argument, the truth is that you will likely need both.

By having both customer success and account management teams, you allow both groups to focus on what they do best.

Let your customer success team build long-term relationships without the pressure of wondering if the customer will upgrade or not. Without the additional pressure, they are better able to help your customers achieve success. When it’s the right time, your account management team can enter in to handle renewals, upselling, and expansion, without the pressure of building long-term rapport and relationships.

It doesn’t need to be either/or with customer success and account management. Instead, it should be both.

Mercer Smith

Mercer is the VP of Customer Success at Venafi, a yoga fanatic, and strives to make the world a little bit happier one customer at a time. You can find her at mercenator.com and on Twitter.