Customer Success Manager vs. Account Manager: What’s the Difference?

By GUIDEcx
Sep 1, 2022

Whether it’s a customer pouring hot coffee on an unsuspecting and innocent barista or an airline customer being escorted off a plane for unruly behavior, customer service is a hot topic in the mid-COVID world. Frustrated customers are fed up and demand more when it comes to the buying experience. 

This is so important to customers that a study in 2021 found that 43 percent of customers would pay more for a friendly, welcoming experience. What does this tell us? Not only do customers expect better service, but they are willing to pay for it!

Understanding who is ultimately responsible for the customer experience in your organization is key and cannot be overlooked. To understand more of what this role might look like, let’s discuss the specific responsibilities of customer success managers and account managers, how they overlap and differ, and their relationships with the larger organization.

What Is the Role of a Customer Success Manager?

In 2019 more than 40% of organizations report having a CSM. This is significant growth for this role since the early days of the CSMs beginnings in 1996. What is a Customer Success Manager? More than anything, a customer success manager serves as an advocate for the client, clearly communicating to the in-house team what the client needs, where roadblocks exist, and what can benefit the client. This advocacy is key to building trust and a long-term relationship with a customer.

As you can imagine, there are many ways to meet this responsibility, and a customer success manager’s focus can vary depending upon the organization. They might be focused on adoption, Net Promoter Scores (NPS), customer satisfaction results, retention percentages, net revenue percentages, and/or growth. The specific focus heavily depends on the company culture and the leadership of the company.

Some key roles of a customer success manager might include the following:

  • Developing client relationships
  • Maintaining transparency in the onboarding process
  • Ensuring the client remains engaged in the process
  • Serving as the liaison between sales and customer success or support
  • Answering key questions or resolving issues for the client
  • Ensuring the client has all the tools necessary to complete their onboarding

What Is the Role of an Account Manager?

There are currently over 1 Million Account Managers employed in the US. This shows just how many AEs are working towards customer success. What is an Account Manager? Account management begins where customer success management (CSM) leaves off. Account managers (sometimes called account executives) focus on new customers while a separate team focuses on expansion. While account managers might not own the retention number, they may own the growth of the account. 

To this end, an account manager may have the following duties:

  • Regularly reach out to the client to ensure they are receiving the products and services promised to them
  • Look for opportunities to grow existing accounts, including upselling, cross-selling, and renewal
  • Update the in-house team on the client account management
  • Work with accounts to ensure all issues are resolved

Just as the customer success manager works with the client, so too does the account manager. What makes the jobs separate and distinct is the goals the organization provides to each role. Where a customer success manager’s role ends, an account manager’s role may begin. It is up to the organization to clearly define these roles and the initiatives for each role.

Can an Account Manager or Customer Success Manager Do Both Jobs?

According to Indeed, the main goal for a CSM is to help a customer get the most value from their purchase through completing their goals; while an Account Manager focuses on revenue. This begs the question if one person can do both jobs. Whether one person can do the job of both an account manager and a customer success manager depends on three things: the size of the organization, the complexity of the product or service offered, and the goals of the organization.

Size

In a small organization with a tight budget, these two roles may be combined into one job. In this situation, the CSM team will have to do more, including driving adoption, training, etc. However, as the company grows in size and budget, customer support forms its own department. Thus, account management can grow out of CSM. 

Complexity

The complexity of the product and service offered can also affect whether the organization will only need a customer success manager or whether they will expand into two teams that support each other. A simple, less-complex product may allow managers to service upward of 200 accounts at a time. However, a more complex product may be fielded out to managers at only 20 accounts at a time. Additionally, leadership will need to consider if the product should move through customer success first and then be transitioned to an account manager. 

Goals

The organization’s goal can help determine when to separate these two roles. If the organization is focused on adoption, NPS, and customer satisfaction results, they might consider the customer success manager role. If they are considering net revenue or account growth, they might consider an account manager role. Clearly defined goals will help both leadership and each team understand the important KPIs for success. (For five key metrics an organization might consider when measuring the success of either team, click here.)

How Can Leadership in an Organization Support the Customer Success Team?

As Shawn Stinson, Director of Customer Success at GUIDEcx, points out, “The question everyone is asking is, ‘How do we scale while creating an experience with the customer that accurately represents your brand in a way that drives growth and retention?’” He suggests there needs to be a balance between what customers need and what the internal team needs and understanding who can own that. “The main thing is that your CSM cannot become the catch-all for the organization.” That is, the customer success team needs clearly defined duties and responsibilities that everyone recognizes and understands. Outside of those defined duties, additional responsibilities should be assigned to other teams.

Stinson explains that the CSM leadership needs to formulate what their team does: what they will do and what they will not or cannot do; and then they need to evangelize that throughout the company. He suggests that by explaining, “This is our charter, our compensation models, and these are the things that we do to benefit the rest of the company,” leadership can help the organization identify responsibilities outside of the CSM team’s jurisdiction. 

When identifying responsibilities, a clear definition is best. Does the company want to focus on adoption, advocacy, sales, or retention? The more clear the direction, the more it gives the CSM leaders the ability to say, “We can deliver that,” or, “We cannot deliver that.” A true partnership where leadership understands the capabilities of their CSM and account managers is needed for the entire organization and the customers to succeed.

Without this clear definition and set goals and metrics, both teams are left wondering how to measure success. Remember the story of the airline steward who inflated the emergency landing slide as he slid out of the plane, shouting, “I quit”? It makes one wonder where the breakdown in customer success and employee support occurred. When leadership and the CSM and account management teams work together, everyone is happy, and everyone understands their roles and responsibilities.

How Can GUIDEcx Support Both Roles?

Customer success managers and account managers alike can benefit from GUIDEcx. The transparent process of GUIDEcx builds trust. When projects are on task and moving forward and everyone understands their roles and responsibilities, the customer feels secure. When roadblocks are identified or promises are not delivered, the organization has the opportunity to make improvements that drive change within the organization. GUIDEcx supports both roles in helping them create a positive customer experience for the customer.

If customer success managers are running onboarding projects, GUIDEcx’s platform helps them to be more efficient, manage their projects, report upward, and engage with customers. If the customer success manager or account manager is not involved in the onboarding process, GUIDEcx benefits them by capturing status update details of customer projects and making them readily available for the team to review at any time. This provides forecasting for completion dates, allowing customer success managers to budget and plan their time to know when important accounts are coming out of onboarding onto their plates. Now customer success managers can prepare themselves early to manage accounts successfully.

If account managers are 100 percent growth-minded, they can use the GUIDEcx platform to see how onboarding went, whether the client was engaged in the project, and what roadblocks came up during the project. That data helps them better understand what their potential relationship will look like with that customer. That understanding allows them to start positioning themselves and the product to grow the account as quickly as possible. Leveraging GUIDEcx, an account manager can apply pressure from the top down and start to build relationships with accounts that are moving more slowly.

Whether your organization chooses to start with a customer success manager or has already evolved into both customer success and account management, you need to consider both the employees and the clients that you serve. Remember, you only have one opportunity to make a first impression. No one wants their flight delayed eight hours, and no one wants a bad customer experience. Let GUIDEcx guide you through the customer onboarding process in a transparent way that builds trust among all team members and better serves the clients. 

To learn more about GUIDEcx, schedule a FREE demo today.

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