Exploring the Differences Between a Customer Success Manager and Account Manager

October 2, 2019

Teresa Becker

Customer Success Strategist

We often hear the roles of Customer Success Manager (CSM) and Account Manager (AM) used interchangeably. But is there actually a difference between the roles? Are their objectives and processes the same?  While yes, at the end of the day both roles work directly with customers to ensure success, the ways that they carry out the responsibility are notably very different. The ultimate difference between a Customer Services Manager and an Account Manager is both in their area of concentration and how each target their customers. 

Let’s talk about Account Managers first. These individuals have long been specialists outside of new business sales teams. An Account Manager (or AM for short) goes after existing customers with the goal of renewing, cross-selling, and upselling the company’s product. The role is present in many businesses, but its goals are based on sales quotas, rather than an intimate knowledge of the metrics tied to a customer’s position in the marketplace.

Customer Success Managers (or CSMs as we’ll call them), however, are somewhat of a newer breed. Their appearance and recent popularity emerged as the software-as-a-service (SaaS) has shaped a distinct customer lifecycle. In the SaaS model, how companies interact with customers has changed along with the nature of doing business. This new landscape has required new strategies in generating customer loyalty, satisfaction and retention — even as the customer goals and metrics evolve. This is why the role of the CSM has become so paramount. 

Defining the Role of a CSM

A CSM has a wide range of responsibilities, but is entirely focused not only on renewing, upselling or cross-selling as an Account Manager, but on each customer’s ultimate success using a product or service. As a general guideline of the duties of a Customer Service Manager, JobHero’s definition is helpful: 

“A Customer Success Manager is responsible for developing customer relationships that promote retention and loyalty. Their job is to work closely with customers to ensure they are satisfied with the services they receive and to improve upon areas of dissatisfaction. Customer success departments are relatively new and are used mainly in technical companies, specifically in software. Customer Success Managers often provide technical support to customers with the goal to keep customers satisfied with the business’s products.”

Comparing the duties of a CSM with that of the more traditional AM might seem to be a distinction without a difference, so to speak. In the end, they both have a common goal: to keep revenue flowing to the company. Afterall, satisfied, successful clients and customers will spend more money.

However, it’s all about the new market challenges. AMs rely on the bottom line revenue generation from customer renewals, cross-sells, and upsells. At the end of the day, for AMs, it’s all about the numbers, which means that the role can be more reactive in nature when the account is about to expire.

The CSM, on the other hand, interacts with the customer throughout the lifecycle. They are on the scene to assist their customers with:

  • Product setup and assisting the customer in using the software or product
  • Training their employees or familiarizing their clients with using the new product
  • Expanding the product’s use to help the customer realize its full potential

The CSM tends to have a long-term involvement that focuses on long-term customer success rather than just the numbers. 

The 3 Primary Duties of the CSM

Another description goes deeper into the day-to-day activities of the Customer Success Manager. The job of a CSM is “to work closely with customers to ensure they are satisfied with the services they receive and to improve upon areas of dissatisfaction.”

With this ultimate goal in mind, what are the primary day-to-day duties of a CSM? ClientSuccess’ very own Sam Feil describes it best: 

1. Customer Success Builds Relationships

Authentic relationships are essential for subscription-based companies to be successful; therefore, building strong relationships of trust is a huge part in the role of a CSM. Just like real relationships, the best ones are those built on honest and open communication, a clear understanding or direction of purpose, and being unified in that purpose. Customer success starts and ends with the relationship.

2. Customer Success Solves Problems

Openview Venture Partners has noted, “customer success is unique to each customer’s experience in the context of your product,” so naturally it is important for the success manager to develop and validate a solid, long-term understanding of how each customer defines “success”. 

CSMs must establish themselves as the customer advocate and problem-solver, and should be (or become) the “quarterback of the customer relationship”. Truly understanding each customer’s goals and definition of success helps push them into the red zone and make touchdowns.

3. Customer Success Validates the Success of Others

When it comes to SaaS, keeping clients engaged and actively progressing through their “lifecycle” is often a challenge. For this reason, it’s important to come prepared for each engagement; successful customer management requires desire and action. CSMs help clients make and keep commitments, remain focused, achieve goals, and become successful. This is purposed to ensure each client is able to validate their key business objectives (KBOs). At the end of the day, we want our clients to be the internal heroes and champions of their company.

CSMs have an important supervisory role in both hiring and training the staff. As “resident experts” in their field, they frequently have the final word in onboarding new customer success staff.

More Resources, Fewer Customers

Another important difference between a CSM and an AM is the breadth of resources CSMs have at their disposal, which is critical as they interact with customers more extensively.

That interaction in product expansion, problem troubleshooting, etc. requires a wider set of skills as well as a need to access more company resources. Likewise, that focus necessarily results in a smaller number of customers for a CSM to manage.

Although customer success and account management have similar goals, their methods and metrics are quite different:

  • CSMs are more like consultants. They act in an advisory and analytical capacity.
  • AMs rely on others and must refer problems and complaints to other team experts.
  • CSMs must have a deep understanding of their customer’s audience and specific market challenges.
  • AMs must remain separate from CSMs. By definition, they focus on the health of the customer rather than how the customer is performing in terms of revenue.

Ready for more? 

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