Account Management vs Customer Success: 4 Major Differences

November 26, 2019

Megan Macaluso

Category: Customer Experience, Customer Success as a Service, Customer Success Resources, Customer Success Strategy, Virtual Customer Success Management

As the gospel of Customer Success is spreading like wildfire in the corporate world, executives are realizing that they need to act fast to incorporate it into their organizational structure. But to their own detriment, some of these executives aren’t fully committing to the importance of Customer Success.

Instead, they’re simply “rebranding” their Account Managers as Customer Success Managers with little to no training or transition. Let us be very plain – this is not a good idea. Though both AMs and CSMs have a post-sales role, and AMs often make excellent CSMs with the proper change management and training, the two practices are certainly far from synonymous. Here’s what sets them apart.

1. Customer Success and Account Management Serve Different Purposes

The main purpose of an Account Manager is twofold. First, the Account Manager is the main point of contact for the company, so your customers don’t have to look up different numbers or explain the same problems over and over to multiple contacts within your organization.

More importantly, an Account Manager’s job is to ensure that the customer renews at the end of their subscription period, add upsells and cross-sells to the customer’s account, and generally ensure a consistent revenue for the company.

A Customer Success Manager, on the other hand, is focused primarily on the goals of the customer. Every customer has specific goals when they sign on with your company — increasing efficiency, saving money, scaling their operations — whatever it may be, the CSM’s job is to make sure that that your product helps them achieve it.

The two positions are based on two different, but convergent, philosophies. From the AM’s perspective, renewal is of vital importance in a SaaS business, so resources should be dedicated to making and re-making the sale. From the CSM’s perspective, Customer Success is paramount. If the customer is delighted, the renewals will come naturally.

2. Being Proactive vs. Being Reactive

In general, Account Managers are in a sort of “standby” position. If the customer needs help, is confused by a feature, or wants to upgrade, they’ll reach out to their Account Manager and ask for assistance. You might also have a policy of weekly, monthly, or quarterly check-ins between your customers and their AMs, but they’re primarily positioned to just ‘be there’ when the customer needs them.

A CSM, on the other hand, is there before the customer needs them, at every phase of the Customer Success lifecycle:

  • Onboarding: as soon as the purchase is made, your CSM will introduce themselves to the customer and begin the onboarding process. These steps look different for every company, but it will probably involve downloading and setting up software, connecting accounts, and going through educational materials. The CSM is there to guide them along the way.
  • Adoption: as the customer starts to utilize your product and get a sense for how much value it provides, their CSM is there to make sure they’re getting what they expected from the product. They’ll look at usage data and talk to the customer to get a sense of whether they’ve fully integrated the product into their lives and workflows.
  • Usage: in the usage phase, the CSM will keep an eye on your customer’s usage data to make sure they’re getting the most out of the product. Each company and product will have different relevant usage stats — number of machines a product is installed on, logins per day, workflows generated, accounts imported, pages visited, and the like — so you’ll have to determine for yourself which metrics are the most important.
  • Value Realization: in this phase, your product has met (and exceeded) the expectations that the customer had for it. This is the point where they’re most receptive to new products, cross-sells, and upsells. Even if your CSMs aren’t the ones directly in charge of making those sales, they’ll be instrumental in getting customers on board.
  • Advocacy: Delighted customers bring in new customers, both through direct word-of-mouth and through reviews, testimonials, case studies, and referral programs. Your CSMs can tap into your most successful customers to solicit the kind of user-generated content that will feed into the next phase of customer acquisition.

A CSM’s job is to foresee problems at every step of your customers’ time with your company, predicting roadblocks and removing them before they even occur.

3. CSMs and AMs Bring Different Skills to the Table

An Account Manager should have in-depth knowledge of your product or your company, but that may be at the expense of knowing less about your specific customers. If customers have questions about how certain features work, how to upgrade or renew their subscription, or other logistical questions, the AMs are the perfect resource.

A CSM has a different set of skills, including anticipating customer needs, giving advice that’s specific to the customer, their company, and their goals, and focusing on customer outcomes. CSMs are a relatively new position (the role has seen year-over-year growth of more than 80 percent over the last two years) so the skillset is still evolving. In general, though, it’s a more holistic and comprehensive approach to the customer.

4. The Interaction Timeline

It sounds like a lofty term, but it’s a pretty simple distinction. Account Managers spend the bulk of their time with a given customer near the end of the customer lifecycle, when they’ve already been using the product for awhile. At that point, an AM will make contact and start to act in a sales role, convincing them to renew and upgrade.

A CSM is involved in your customers’ lives from day one, making sure that they learn how to use the product, integrate it into their workflows, and get the most out of it. If a CSM is doing their job, then renewal should be a no-brainer when the time comes.

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CSMs and AMs — Two Sides of the Same Coin

You’ve probably noticed some overlap between the two roles, and that’s no accident. At the end of the day, these two roles are serving the same goal — to keep customers happy and keep renewals rolling in. The difference is in their approaches.

One thing to note: it usually doesn’t make sense for CSMs be in charge of soliciting renewals, except in small companies where you simply can’t justify two separate roles. For one thing, it will split their focus, taking away from the time that they have to spend helping your customers.

For another, it compromises their credibility. You want your CSMs to maintain their authority, giving customers advice about how to use your product, when to upgrade, and what’s genuinely best for the customer. If they’re also trying to solicit renewals, the customer might worry that they’re only making suggestions that will make you money.

In the end, you’ll likely need both AMs and CSMs to maximize your business’ potential. The two roles intertwine, interact, and complement each other, keeping your customers satisfied and your subscription numbers up. It’s a win-win!