Customer Success vs. Sales: Differences between two job functions

Comparing customer success against the sales function within an organization.

Defining the Sales role

It is essential first to understand what constitutes sales, with an emphasis on inbound sales. The term ‘sales’ is a commonly known word by both consumers and businesses. This section provides a working definition for the term as it is most relevant to the subject of customer success. Exploring a basic explanation of the word also provides clarity amidst the diverse personal meaning individuals associate with the term.

What is the Difference betweeen Customer Success and the Sales Role?

At its most basic, a sale involves a transaction between parties. This exchange can occur between a business and a customer or between two companies. Exchanges involve the buyer receiving a good, service, or asset for their money. In contrast, if there is no compensation received for money, the transaction is identified as a donation or gift. Processes of this nature necessarily establish a contract between the buyer and seller. These contractual agreements depend on a deal concerning the specific terms of the sale. A sale can include either tangible or intangible goods. For instance, in the case with many SaaS businesses, a sale can provide both the tangible software platform for a customer as well as the intangible subscription to account services, such as customer success and support teams.

Primary differences between customer success and sales.

  • Sales focus on transactions. Customer success focuses on client/customer growth.
  • Sales and customer success enter the customer lifecycle at different stages and maintain differing scopes of a timeline.

Transactions vs. Service

difference in responsibilities - customer success vs. sales

Sales departments and sales representatives execute a transaction with the customer. There may be multiple transactions at different stages in the customer lifecycle, but the nature and goal of each transaction are mostly the same. The goal is to produce revenue by initiating a purchase, upgrading a purchase, or renewing a purchase. Regardless of which operation is taking place, the purpose of sales is to complete the transaction with the customer. Once this task has been achieved, the efforts of sales are generally complete. Sales departments do engage in preparatory or developmental processes, but these are rarely done in direct relationship to the customer. Once a sales transaction is complete, it is rare for any further engagement to occur, such as responding to product issues or questions.

Whereas sales are identified as a more singular transaction, customer success methods could be understood as a collective of transactions. However, it is more clarifying to understand customer success in terms of service. The customer success teams focus on the nuances of serving long-term happiness and achievements for the customer. This is accomplished by thorough dialogue and research with the customer as well as exhaustive compilation and analysis of data. Customer success teams can use data to reduce or avoid churn, often identifying at-risk customers early and reaching out to resolve customer concerns before they become terminal issues. This data can provide information on the shared traits of customers that are churning, what habits or dynamics are related to a higher risk of churn, or what type of customers are better or more poorly suited to a business' product or service.

Identifying customers who are more and less complementary to a given product or service is a significant challenge faced by sales and customer success. Inbound sales efforts place effort on understanding a customer once they have engaged with the company. However, the goal remains to use the understanding to complete a sale rather than determine whether a sale is the best thing for the customer. Challenges for renewals, upsells, churn, and customer satisfaction becomes riskier when contracts are established with non-ideal customers. This relationship also places a strain on customer success efforts. Working with a client poorly suited to a product or service is considerably more challenging for the attempt to establish and achieve goals and success for the customer. Such challenges lean toward higher rates of churn and lower efficiency for customer success teams. This is where the data collected from customer success modalities can be of exceptional merit. Data can assist sales teams in better understanding and identifying more ideal customers in the initial engagement as well as upsell and renewal engagements.

Differences in Stages of the Customer Lifecycle and Timeline

customer success vs. sales and the customer lifecycle

As it may be assumed, based on the much more limited number of transactions with the customer, sales departments typically have a shorter-term range of engagements. Sales are mainly concerned with establishing a relationship with the customer or continuing the connection on the backend of the lifecycle. The relationship begins with the initial sales transaction, or it can be maintained through the upsell or renewal.

Customer success concerns itself with these efforts, but it is mostly focused on developing and nurturing relationships and maximizing lifetime customer value. For this reason, customer success has a longer-term scope of engagements than sales, including far more touchpoints with the customer. This can also be understood as sales concerning itself with new customers and success teams with current customers. In other words, the sales team initiates the early stage of the customer lifecycle. In contrast, customer success enters the lifecycle post-sale, proceeding to engage in a longer rather than temporary relationship with the customer.

Both sales and customer success responsibilities are vital to the growth and maintenance of revenue. Selling is critical for establishing the relationships that customer success management is designated to nourish. In the same way, data and feedback received through accomplished customer success methods can inform sales efforts. Sales indeed contribute more directly to the revenue of an organization. However, customer success teams assist in ensuring that revenue is generated by increasing the value of a customer relationship through the maintenance of long-term and loyal connections.

NEXT: How Customer Success Works »