A discussion about the similarities and differences between account managers and customer success managers, and the difficulties of expecting AMs to perform both sales and customer success related roles within the same customer account


The Increasing Similarities between AMs and CSMs

I was talking recently to an old friend and ex colleague of mine who works in the technology sales profession, selling SAM (software asset management) solutions to large business customers. We were discussing the rise of customer success management as a profession, and his exact words to me were:

“…I’m immersed in an industry where Account Managers seem to be morphing into Success Managers…”

I thought that this was very interesting, and highly indicative of the way that not just the existing SaaS industry but the entire software industry and indeed potentially all industry whether technology oriented or not is heading.

Without a doubt, account managers are being asked by their companies to turn into customer success managers, or at least to adopt some of the concepts and best practices from the world of customer success management into their existing sales and account management role.


Defining the Account Manager’s Role

So what precisely is the difference between an account manager and a customer success manager, and does it make sense to have just one person as AM and/or CSM rather than two people – one for each role? After all, from the perspective of the CFO (Chief Finance Officer) it costs twice as much in recruitment, training, salaries, equipment, expenses, etc) to employ both an AM and a CSM as it does to employ one person who takes on both roles.

If you go online and google “what does an account manager do?” or similar, you’ll likely find descriptions of the account manager’s role that sound very – almost entirely in fact – like a description of the customer success manager’s role. For example:

An account manager is a professional who manages the strategy and business relationship with their customers. After an account has been “won” by the company or agency in question, the account manager is responsible for helping the client reach their goals and ensuring a continued, positive, and profitable relationship. Account managers should understand their client’s long- and short-term needs, and leverage their company’s internal resources (strategy, customer service, creative, etc.) to help meet those goals. They serve as the client’s main point of contact, and will often provide recommendations or “upsells” to enhance their customer’s success.

Taken from https://www.ziprecruiter.com/e/What-Does-an-Account-Manager-Do 22nd May 2019

Now this sounds just great to me, and is almost a mirror image of what I would expect a description for a customer success manager’s role to look like. But, if you look at job descriptions of real job opportunities for account managers, you tend to see a much greater focus on selling. Here are one or two examples I found:

“…responsible for exceeding monthly/quarterly quota.”


“…responsible for revenue growth of the portfolio.”


“…specific targets for increasing the total payment volume with the client.”


“…hunting and uncovering new sales leads and opportunities and managing through to successful close.”


“…strong sales skills including business justification, negotiation and closing.”


The AM and CSM Overlaps… and Differences

To my mind there is a very big overlap between the roles of account manager and customer success manager, and this is potentially a difficult issue for companies, since it makes no sense to be paying two people to perform similar roles, plus of course it’s potentially both confusing and even at times frustrating for customers, who tend to prefer the more straightforward approach of having a single point of contact to go to for all their needs.

On the other hand there is also a big difference between the two roles, because account managers will generally carry a revenue target either for each account separately or in total across all accounts they manage. They will be expected to spend a lot of their time hunting for new opportunities, pitching ideas and presenting sales proposals, and a substantial part of their overall remuneration package will be based on commissions and/or bonuses for hitting revenue targets – something that customers will be very well aware of.

So although there’s definitely an overlap, the core difference is that the account manager generally has sales targets to meet, whereas the CSM does not, and so the AM will need to spend the majority of their time researching, discussing and presenting sales proposals, whereas the CSM will (or should) be focused on and remunerated on increasing value from existing solution purchases, giving rise to higher customer satisfaction levels and product/service adoption and utilization levels.


What About a Hybrid Role?

The problem in creating a hybrid role that straddles both hunting out new business and helping customers maximize value from existing purchases is partially one of time, but substantially one of trust. Done well, the CSM’s role is already very time consuming, and it may be difficult for them to take on additional duties around presenting and negotiating new sales as well as assisting with onboarding adopting and realizing value from previous sales. But the bigger factor is the relationships that the CSM needs to build with internal (to the customer) key stakeholders that will enable them to perform their role well.

It’s not that AMs don’t also need great relationships with customer stakeholders because of course they do. But the relationship is on a different footing. The customer is perfectly aware that the account manager’s job is at least partially to maximize sales opportunities with them, and they therefore adjust their expectations accordingly. The CSM on the other hand wants to be thought of as a trusted business adviser, not as a salesperson. Again I am not suggesting that it isn’t possible to be both a trusted adviser and a salesperson, but I am saying that it makes it far harder to be taken seriously as a “neutral” consultant offering best practice advice if the customer knows full well that you have sales targets to meet and that you receive commissions and/or bonuses for everything you sell to them.

In summary I believe it’s too much to ask to expect someone to be an expert CSM and a champion negotiator and closer of sales opportunities. Far better to dedicate the CSMs to non-sales related roles and remunerate them on a decent basic salary with any bonuses being overall team ones and based not on new sales but rather on targets for customer retention, product utilization and customer satisfaction. To my mind in most situations it would be better to do it this way, even if it means spreading your AMs and CSMs over more accounts. This enables CSMs to “get on” with the job of helping customers to be successful with their existing purchases far better than if they were also worrying about selling to those same customers as well.
However (and leaving aside renewals as a separate topic for another day), there is still a role in sales for CSMs, and that role is in spotting opportunities. Due to the potentially quite privileged position of trust that CSMs can build up with a customer’s key stakeholders over time, and the nature of some of the research, planning and implementation work around adoption and value realization that they do, the CSM may end up knowing all sorts of useful and interesting facts about the customer’s organization and its’ strengths, weaknesses, challenges and opportunities than even the customer’s account manager might know about.


The AM and CSM as a Harmonious Team

So the CSM and AM should work closely together as a team. The CSM should take the lead post-sales and the AM should take the lead pre-sales, but both should keep each other informed and up to date on what is happening within their own realms of responsibility, and both should pass sales leads and other “net new” ideas for helping the customer across to each other as much as possible. The CSM who spots an opportunity to help the customer through selling them another product or service may therefore decide to pass that information across to the customer’s AM to deal with, rather than attempting to deal with it themselves. By doing things this way, any potential overlaps or even clashes of interest are minimized and the decision for customer stakeholders as to which person (AM or CSM) to go to in order to discuss something should be simple to explain and clarify to them so that no confusion remains.


About the Author

Rick Adams is an independent author, trainer and consultant, specializing in helping technology companies deliver measurable business value for their customers. Adams has over 25 years’ experience of working in the IT industry, including owning his own startup software-as-a-service business which he sold in 2012 to focus on writing, training and consulting. Having delivering training and consultancy to many hundreds of businesses and thousands of technology professionals in over 30 countries across four continents, Adams is now based in the rural west coast of Ireland where he lives with his two dogs Zeus and Terri.

Adams’ recent work includes the development and delivery of a global certification program on customer success management for Cisco Systems Inc. He is currently working on a book titled Practical Customer Success Management: A best practice framework for managers and professionals which will be published by Routledge in the summer of 2019. His current interests includes helping individuals and companies develop best practices in customer success management and in business outcomes focused selling.

He can be contacted via LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/rickadams01/, via Twitter at https://twitter.com/RickAda84728077 or by email at rick.adams@practicalcsm.com.