What is the difference between customer success and account management?

Over the last few years, there has been a trend (particularly in SaaS) where account management is now being called “customer success”.

The latter is considered more modern. There are conferences. There are products. A whole customer success industry has sprung up and everyone now wants to call themselves a “customer success manager”.

But they are not the same.

You can’t just move from account management into customer success and apply the same approach. They are very different skillsets which are also distinct from customer or technical support.

So what is the difference? The clue is in the title.

Account management

This is about focusing on the “account” i.e. the financial metrics.

Account management is usually a sales function with the goal of increasing the account size.

The main job of an account manager is to understand the usage and how to increase it, selling additional licenses, seats or additional products that may be relevant to the account.

There is usually a reactive element to provide the customer with a direct contact if they have problems, but the account manager will typically route those to the right person.

The metrics are account expansion and sometimes new sales. Account managers are usually on commission or have bonuses to match their metrics.

Customer success

This is about focusing on “success” i.e. ensuring the customer fully adopts and deploys the product, then ensuring they continue to use it.

Most customer churn happens because the product was never fully deployed.

The customer success manager is supposed to build a trusted relationship with the customer to help them figure out the best way to use the product without the customer being concerned they are going to be charged more.

Working to understand what problems the customer is trying to solve with their purchase of the product is important. Training and directly walking the customer through everything will be a standard part of the job. This will be a lot of phone and conference calls, sometimes on-site too.

Proactivity is key here. The CSM must understand the usual usage patterns, know when they change and dig into support requests to ensure product problems are solved quickly. They’re also often the internal advocate for the customer across multiple teams and getting feedback to product management.

The metrics are retention (churn) and NPS. There isn’t any scope for commission but bonuses may be attached to those metrics on an aggregate basis for larger businesses.

What’s the same?

Communication. If you’re not on the phone or in conference calls with customers throughout the day, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Email is fine to a degree but whether you’re trying to sell a new product as an account manager or helping a customer with their deployment, nothing beats actually talking with a customer directly.

This is different from technical support which might be better delivered via email/ticket for complex engineering issues (although still often backed up with initial or followup calls).