Customer Success vs. Account Management: Understanding the differences

Juxtaposition: Customer success compared to account management to gain a clearer understanding of how they differ.

What is Account Management?

To understand how these two strategies contrast one another, it is important first to understand what constitutes account management. A history of the account management process shows that it is a close predecessor to success management. Many companies today are merging account management teams and customer success teams. In some cases, this transition is only nominal, which many professionals argue places undue risk on customer relations and retention efforts. When an account manager (AM) transitions into a customer success manager (CSM) in name only, without proper training and resources, a variety of issues can arise. Such issues will be spelled out through this section.

What is the Difference betweeen Customer Success and Account Management?

Detailing the processes and tasks of account management is best illuminated by identifying the role and responsibilities of the AM. This position serves two primary roles. Primarily, the AM is tasked with the responsibility of sales. In this capacity, an AM will focus on selling new services or products to the customer and upgrading the customer to higher-level tiers of services or products. Secondarily, responsibility for coordinating customer support is also involved in the AM’s duties. Customer Support can provide low-level technical support, problem-solving, or product guidance. Though the CSM can also overlap in these responsibilities, the CSM is equipped with further resources, training, and skills to assist and elevate the customer’s relationship with the business and its services.

What are the primary differences between customer success and account management?

  • Account management focuses on sales. Customer success focuses on relationships.
  • Account management has a more limited scope of responsibilities. Customer success has a broader scope of responsibilities.

Sales vs. Relationships

Both customer success and account management ultimately serve a company’s bottom line, but account management executes on this goal in a more direct way than customer success. The AM is tasked with generating revenue by contributing directly to sales, upsells, and resolving immediate issues to maintain customer retention. Whereas customer success contributes to revenue indirectly (though, at times, when an opportunity may arise, the CSM could be presented with an opportunity to contribute more directly with an upsell or retention effort). This contribution is embedded in the structure of the customer success philosophy and strategy. These principles and operations have been discussed in previous sections, including the CSM’s maintenance of customer satisfaction, resulting in retention and upgrades.

The AM knows less about the individual customer and more about how to respond to the needs of customers as they arise. For instance, an AM’s primary responsibilities are to renew at the end of a customer’s subscription period, upsell or cross-sell to the customer’s account, or respond to issues a customer may be facing. If the AM cannot resolve a specific issue, they are equipped with information on what department the customer can be transferred to for assistance. This is also to say that the AM is more familiar with the organization’s goals and interests than the customer’s goals and interests. In this fashion, account management stands in contrast to customer success management. A CSM manages the entirety of their own processes rather than referring a customer elsewhere in the company. The CSM also develops an intimate and dynamic understanding of the customer to further develop the customer’s loyalty and longevity with the company. For this reason, the CSM traditionally has more extensive training, skills, and resources available to execute on their responsibilities with their customers.

Differences in Scope of Responsibilities

what are account management responsibilities

There are myriad ways in which to simplify the primary purposes of account management and customer success. And each discipline’s purpose contributes to their scope of responsibilities. One way to identify the difference in purpose is to state that account management serves the organization’s goals while customer success serves the customer’s goals. The result is that account management dedicates its resources directly and almost exclusively toward making and re-making the sale. On the other hand, customer success functions with the perspective that sales and renewals will be the natural result of a customer who is satisfied by the support and guidance of the CSM.

Exploring these responsibilities in greater detail, the AM specializes in knowledge about a product, service, or the company. As a result, the AM is well-equipped to answer questions about how certain features work, how to upgrade or renew a subscription, or a variety of other logistical questions. These tasks do occur across a longer timeline of the customer lifecycle, but the AM’s responsibilities are most critical at the end of the customer lifecycle. Once a customer has been using a service or product for a while, the AM’s tasks are more relevant and urgent—where renewals and upgrades are critical to sustaining and growing revenue. In contrast, the CSM’s responsibilities begin on the first day of the customer lifecycle. The CSM will proactively reach out to a customer, establishing a relationship and clarifying the longer scope of their relationship to the customer. Customer success teams will provide knowledge not only on how to use the product and integrate into the customer’s workflow, they will also identify needs specific to each customer and establish an ongoing agreement with the customer about how to achieve their goals.

Despite having a broader scope of responsibilities than account management, there is one manner in which customer success teams need to be intentionally limited. Avoiding direct sales or upgrades in the customer success process is crucial to maintaining the credibility of the CSM relationship to their customer. For the CSM to be directly involved in sales efforts is to risk the CSM’s claim that the customer’s success is their primary goal. In this way, the CSM also does not split their focus, taking time away from understanding and guiding their customers.

Same Purpose, Different Roles

Of course, account management and customer success exist to serve the company’s revenue and growth. Though differing in approach and role, the two areas serve the efforts of the other. Offering a comparison to other career can assist in understanding the complementary but distinct roles of the AM and the CSM. The CSM can be compared to a public relations manager. Both positions exist with the primary role of maintaining a positive image of their organization. Whereas, an account manager is comparable to a project manager, since both rely on cooperation with other departments in the company to respond to a customer’s interests and issues.

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