Customer Success Managers and Account Managers. They're both two job titles that float around every business and both seem related, right? But it’s not just a case of rebranding; Customer Success Managers (CSMs) are not Account Managers re-packaged for technology industries like Software as a Service (SaaS).

Upon a closer look at their respective skill sets, goals, approaches and interactions with customers, Customer Success Managers and Account Managers couldn’t be more distinguished. They both operate on entirely different scales and have different objectives when it comes to the customer:

📈 CSMs are proactive, concerned with the customer’s own goals and growth
💰 Account Managers are revenue-led, with the end goal of turning profit

We aim to demystify any confusion surrounding these two distinct professions by examining the similarities and differences between these two complex roles. 🔮

In this article we’ll be focusing on:

  • The definition of both job roles 📖
  • The size of customers 👥
  • Product customization 🎨
  • Managing expectations ⚖️

What is customer success?

Customer success is definitely an industry in its infancy, albeit one that’s growing rapidly.

And like anything new, it can be tricky to concretely define; its presence may vary tremendously from company to company while its status is carved out and decided upon.

In fact, some of those in the industry might even tell you that it’s easier to describe what customer service isn’t. But this is the beauty of customer success, there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ – you tailor the structure of your customer success team to the rhythm of your business.

You can trace the evolution of customer success from the technology industry, specifically borne out of SaaS. Customer success has made a name for itself as a bastion of strong communication and collaboration between business and customer, helping the latter achieve their goals with your product and/or service, therefore, increasing the customer lifetime value (CLV). The future prosperity of SaaS organizations hinges on its ability to listen to its users, adapting their product to the needs of the customer. 👂

Traditionalists might equate customer success with customer service, customer support or account management. After all, all sectors are preoccupied with working closely with the customer. But don’t worry, this isn’t a brave new world to be feared, nor is customer service another name for three other jobs.

In truth, it’s not an entirely misplaced comparison.

After all, both account management and customer success are branches of customer relationship management (CRM). 🤝

What does a Customer Success Manager do?

A Customer Success Manager is the person who looks after the employer-customer relationship after the sales process. Their role is to ensure loyalty and a lengthy relationship, with the overarching aim for the customer to receive the most out of the product and/or service.

In an organization, the Customer Success Manager is responsible for developing and nurturing the customer’s value, using metrics like net promoter score (NPS), to monitor the state of their customer base and to lengthen the customer lifetime value (CLV). The CSM's overall ambition is to ultimately to prevent customer churn.

What is an Account Manager?

An Account Manager is a role within an organization dedicated to managing strong relationships with clients. After a customer’s onboarding with sales, the Account Manager will take over customer liaison until the end of the client’s professional partnership with the organization.

Roles and responsibilities of an account manager

An Account Manager generates revenue and builds a lasting, fruitful relationship with company clients. Normally, an Account Manager will only have a few accounts, perhaps just two or three, and works with a small pool of customers.

In a nutshell, an Account Manager is the personified link between the employer and customer. But don’t let an episode of Mad Men fool you – it’s not all long lunches filled with boozing and schmoozing in smoke-filled Manhattan hotel bars. There’s a genuine, cultivated strategy to liaising and listening to a client’s needs.

It goes without saying that having phenomenal people skills is the beating heart of Account Management. It’s a profession that demands an ability to problem solve and to work with a variety of different people,  so being able to clearly communicate is critical to success in this role; you need to be able to relay information elegantly between both employer and client.

Account Managers


Differences between Customer Success Managers and Account Managers

It’s enormously convenient to group businesses under one model, especially customer success. On a surface level, all organizations should be operating under the famous proactivity of customer success. In reality, this isn’t always possible.

Every organization operates under varying business models with different demands to answer to and objectives to reach. Acknowledging this fact plays a massive part in the function of customer relationship management between Customer Success Managers and Account Managers.

Scale of customers

The way a multinational corporation operates will not be the same as a small, independent business. Factoring size into the equation is imperative, as the size of the client base varies dramatically between a Customer Success Manager and an Account Manager.

An Account Manager will focus their attention on very few clients – maybe two or three, depending on the value of each account. For example, larger companies might have one single client who brings in $1m in revenue, or more. The prestige of this account (client) demands a close relationship with a specific person of contact to ensure that their needs are met. 💵

Customer Success Managers, on the other hand, can deal with hundreds of customers at any given time.

The size of your employee-to-customer ratio will drastically affect the level of personalization afforded. Customer success teams use tools like Intercom to imitate a close, personal relationship with the customer, but it’s quite literally en-masse. In no way does that observation aim to discredit the ethos behind customer success. Far from it. Customer Success Managers operate on a significantly larger scale than Account Management does.

Customization

A lot of why these two fields operate so differently is how they operate under vastly different business models. As customer success originated within the SaaS industry, their customers can be loosely described as “buy-off-the-shelf”. 👛

Take the model of subscription as an example: customers might pay to watch their favorite cable TV channels, or to read articles in the New York Times behind its online paywall. 📺

They all pay a fixed small sum per month or annum, and while there may be different plans or subscriptions to choose from, there is actually little room for radical customization or changes to the product.

The underwritten golden rule for customer success is to allow every customer to reach their goals with your product and/or service – we certainly aren’t negating that.

Large or small, SaaS organizations will operate under very similar models – and this model doesn’t necessarily bend-over-backwards to accommodate each individual customer. Frankly, it’s impossible to do so for everyone.

At surface level, one difference between Account Managers and a Customer Success Manager is their ability to say “no” to customers – don’t worry, we promise you it’s not just an excuse to be rude, far from it! Saying “no” to a customer can be a positive move, and one that will help CSMs and the company in the long-run. ⛔️

The weight of customer’s investment for Account Management can cause a great deal of compromising and changing goal posts between different departments. If you’re on commission or billing a client by the hour, of course they will want to ensure their ambition comes into fruition.

But what we’re really talking about is learning the skill to handle a customer’s expectations.  

Managing great expectations

Dickens wrote about them, CSMs live them.

If you really think about it, all it boils down to is common sense: when making promises to everyone, you’re not going to be able to fulfill these commitments to all of them. (You’d have to be super-human to pull that level of customer attention off.)

With this customer model, you’re inevitably going to have to let some people down. And the result? You could negatively impact your customer relationships and you don’t wanna get on their nerves!

Without a doubt, Customer Success Managers are constantly working towards an overarching objective: for customers’ to meet their goals. Consequently, CSMs can find themselves overstretching their prescribed job role.

It’s important to draw lines and politely redirect querying customers to the relevant department, such as sales. During our Customer Success Festival, Corinne Goldberg, the Head of Customer Success at Slack, explained that one of the defining characteristics of a CSM is their commitment to ensuring realistic expectations between customer and business.

The last thing CSMs want to do is disappoint their customers. After all, when customers are disengaged and neglected, you’ll become susceptible to increased churn rates, and while it is possible, re-engaging a churned customer isn’t easy.

Of course, everyone wants to be able to have their customers leave fully satisfied. But realistically, in a SaaS business model that isn’t feasible. In turn, by letting people down you compromise the quality of your service. If customers feel neglected this can spark a high churn rate — something you definitely want to avoid like the plague. Essentially, providing genuinely helpful feedback works both ways.

Account Managers on the other hand, might be categorized as “yes” people. If you’re paid by the hour by the customer, there can be an obligation to agree to every request made; this can often not only be disappointing for the client, but incredibly time consuming.

Proactive customer success managers


The different approaches of Customer Success Managers vs. Account Managers

A key difference between Account Managers and CSMs can be measured by their skill sets, and the way both industries feed into each other is highly contested.

Account management is very much a subset of a strategic CSM’s skills. Both fields function in similar ways, but this overlap in skill set comprising both roles aren’t equally shared. In fact  the reverse situation isn’t applicable; Customer Success Management isn’t a mirror of Account Management.

A Customer Success Manager is consistently trying to add value to their product and to the customer’s experience; a CSM might ask the customer how they can make improvements. Depending on the type of product or service, a Customer Success Manager may be able to monitor the customer’s user engagement and reach out to understand why something might not be working out. 📊

On the other hand, an Account Manager is driven by an expansive regime, focused on renewals and sales. This lens of revenue is a major difference between a CSM and an Account Manager’s prerogatives.

We interviewed Jyo Shukla, Senior Customer Success Manager at BitSight, who gave her insight into the key difference between CSMs and Account Managers. A key takeaway is that CSMs have a ‘proactive, trust-based, outcome-focused approach that fosters customer advocacy and leads to more meaningful expansions for the customer in the long run’. 📢

Jyo’s insight lends itself to the much bigger point: Account Managers have a distinct flair for sales, whereas Customer Success Managers have a nurturing mentality. For Jyo, CSMs are able to derive the best outcomes for a customer and help them have a more holistic experience.

All in all...

Where CSMs are preoccupied with dealing with bigger scale, Account Managers ultimately deal with bigger clients. Account management can be categorized as reactive in supporting its client-business relationship with a focus on contract renewals and upselling.

Customer success, on the other hand, is preoccupied with making sure the customer’s goals are their own goals. While both can happily co-exist, a CSM wouldn’t try and do an Account Manager’s job and up-sell; it would ruin the foundation of their relationship with the customer: trust.

A CSM takes a more proactive approach with day-to-day mutual engagement plans, with the aim of adding value to the customer. Customer success teams can operate on a variety of high-touch or low-touch relationships, depending on the customer base. On the other hand, account management will ordinarily have a high-touch strategy due to their smaller clientele.

Both branches of customer relationship management are very similar, but the glaring difference between them is intent and scale. While CSMs are more common in SaaS, and Account Managers are more traditional fixtures in business, the success of both of these roles is dependent on the style of your business and the individual demands of your customers.