August 22, 2014
Dave Blake

Can Customer Success Managers & Sales Reps be BFFs?

Can Customer Success Managers & Sales Reps be BFFs?

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I often hear a common debate about the roles and responsibilities of sales reps vs. customer success managers and who really “owns” the account. In many leading SaaS companies, “Sales is King”, period. But does that mean that customer success managers (CSMs) are subservient to their sales counterparts? Or, can they co-exist and collaborate in a way that both benefit and, more importantly, the customer benefits? I believe they can. In fact, I believe the smartest sales reps are those who leverage their CSMs significantly, and the best CSMs are those who partner effectively with sales and show leadership in managing, retaining and growing their shared accounts.

Friction Between Sales and Customer Success

Typically, friction is caused by an overbearing and untrusting sales rep and a customer success manager who is a poor communicator and who lacks initiative in managing his accounts.

You’ve seen this type of sales rep – the one who micro-manages the relationships and all activities related to both his prospects and existing customers. He doesn’t allow anyone to reach out to the customer without his permission and surely wouldn’t allow anyone to visit the customer without him being there. He censures those who overstep his established boundaries and frequently reminds the account team that he “owns” the account and everything should flow through him. The CSM is a common target of his virtual hand slaps and is relegated to tactical responsibilities in the account, feeling like he is the sales rep’s admin.

Why does the sales rep treat the CSM that way? Because the CSM hasn’t earned the credibility and confidence of his sales counterpart(s). The CSM doesn’t communicate effectively with sales about the status of the account, including key updates, concerns, opportunities, and relationships. The sales rep is often blindsided by bad news or customer escalations. The CSM is passive in his management of the account and doesn’t demonstrate confidence in managing the account in a strategic way. The CSM isn’t driving new leads to the sales rep and tends to drag the sales rep into every issue that surfaces, distracting the sales rep from his primary quest of hitting quota (and going on a fancy trip for President’s Club).

Sales Rep & CSM Uthopia

There is hope for sales rep and CSM utopia and here are some ways it’s achieved. The CSM understands her critical role of ensuring the customer is getting value and ROI throughout the entire customer lifecycle and proactively drives that effort. The CSM communicates with her sales counterpart frequently (even daily) to share updates and strategize about their shared account. The CSM raises red flags early about issues or concerns, but doesn’t drag the sales rep into the issues. Instead, she takes the bull by the horns and drives the issues to closure with all appropriate internal stakeholders and with the customer, and keeps the sales rep regularly updated throughout the entire process. The CSM actively looks for and drives opportunities for expansion within the account and sends the leads to the sales rep, becoming the sales rep’s primary lead generation source for new deals and helping the sales rep hit his quota. At Omniture, we had a phrase to describe a CSM like this – “Omni-cred” – meaning they had developed “street-cred” with their sales counterparts and sales leadership.

What about the sales rep? As I said, I believe the smartest sales reps are those who leverage their account team, and specifically their CSM counterparts, most effectively. They understand that by partnering and collaborating closely with the CSMs they can spend more time focused on what they do best, closing deals (and hitting their quota). These sales reps respect, trust and rely on their CSMs to manage the day-to-day relationship with their customers without feeling marginalized or threatened. They welcome and appreciate the CSMs taking the lead on escalations and issues so they don’t get their hands dirty or get distracted from closing deals. They lead out with regular account planning and coordination meetings with the CSM and the rest of the account team to ensure alignment around driving value, growing and retaining their accounts. They encourage, recognize and reward the CSMs for sending new leads for up-sell and cross-sell within their shared accounts. At Omniture, our top sales rep was a model of this type of collaboration. He actively partnered with the CSMs assigned to his customers and benefited greatly from the collaboration. He used to send handwritten thank you notes and sizable gift cards to his CSM counterparts each year, recognizing them for helping him succeed. This sales rep blew past his quota and made President’s Club every year.

Customers Win

Now that we have a CSM and sales rep collaborating as BFFs, how does the customer benefit? Customers benefit by having two champions tag-teaming tirelessly on their behalf. Customers clearly understand the roles and responsibilities of the CSM and sales rep, working with the CSM for daily needs and the sales rep for commercial needs. They have confidence that both are looking after their best interest and leverage the CSM/sales team to drive their business forward. The direct benefit of teamwork and collaboration (rather than friction and disconnect) changes the relationship from vendor/client to a true partnership.

If you are a customer success manager, build your “street-cred” with your sales counterparts. If you are a sales rep, leverage your CSM and truly partner with her to retain and grow your accounts. If you are a sales or customer success leader, foster a collaborative partnership with your counterparts and your customers will benefit as well.

Can sales reps and CSMs be BFFs? Absolutely! In fact, it’s imperative.

How are you driving this type of collaboration within your company?

Check out our resources below for more customer success best practices and insights for how your organization can approach customer success with the customer at the center:


5 Ways to Surprise & Delight Your Customers

Customer Success as a Culture: Sales Leaders Edition

Customer Success as a Culture: Customer Success Leaders Edition

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