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Account Management vs. Customer Success

What’s the difference between account management and customer success?

On paper, these two roles may seem similar. But the execution and focus for each vary greatly. Each will have a different impact on customer experience and the company’s growth. So what should you focus on? Do you try to incorporate both or just one?

Because the idea of customer success is relatively new, understanding the difference between the two areas is crucial as companies migrate to a new way of thinking.

What Is Account Management?

Account managers are customers’ primary point of contact and focus on renewals, upsells, cross-sells, and getting the most out of a customer contract. They are typically part of or work very closely with the sales team. When a contract is up for renewal or when a regular check-in is due, account managers are the people contacting customers and making the push to extend the contract.

The bulk of an account manager’s work comes toward the end of the customer journey after customers have been using the product for a while. Account managers check in with their customers periodically to ensure things are working smoothly and push any potential upsells. Account managers can provide insights into why customers leave the company and issues with the contract renewal process to reduce churn and increase the longevity of future customers.

Much of what an account manager does is driven by numbers and quotas. Their roles include metrics like touchpoints, net retention, and growth. Their ultimate goal is to reduce churn, increase retention, and grow revenue.

What Is Customer Success?

Customer success managers (CSMs) own the customer journey starting when a customer first makes a purchase. They act as strategic advisors and partners to ensure the customer gets the most value possible from the product or service.

CSMs are responsible for onboarding new customers and educating them about the product. CSMs also act as an early warning system for relationships that could be in trouble and serve as the first line of defense and repair when things go wrong.

Customer success is proactive and forward-focused. Instead of looking at what customers have done in the past, CSMs anticipate needs to deliver the best relationship and provide long-term value. The customer success team provides insights about customers to the rest of the company to resolve issues before they grow into larger problems and proactively improve the experience for current and future customers.

Customer onboarding expert Donna Weber compares successful customer success managers to musical conductors. An orchestra conductor doesn’t play every instrument on their own but instead leads the musicians to create harmony. Likewise, CSMs balance the many aspects of the customer journey and the customer-facing teams to deliver a seamless customer journey.

Why Titles Matter

Some companies use the terms account manager and customer success manager interchangeably, but the titles are crucial to setting the tone for the person’s interactions with customers.

The difference in titles comes down to the psychology of trust. People naturally don’t trust people who are out to sell them. Increasingly, customers are looking for a strategic advisor more than a salesperson. Who they interact with sets the tone for the relationship and shows the company’s focus on either sales or customer success.

Account management and customer success also put employees on two different career paths. Companies owe it to their employees to use the proper job titles and clarify each role’s responsibilities, scope, and career trajectory.

The Differences Between Account Management and Customer Success

Although there is some overlap between account management and customer success, the two functions are different in their scope and how they interact with clients.

Overall Goals

The ultimate goal of an account manager is to make sales and increase retention. The goal of a customer success manager is to help customers reach their goals.

Both account managers and CSMs rely on data and metrics. The difference is how those metrics impact their customer outreach. Account managers are often driven by hitting quotas, such as reducing churn or saving accounts. CSMs are more focused on metrics like NPS, CSAT, and loyalty that track how customers view the brand and their journey.

Reactionary Versus Proactive

Account managers tend to react to how customers have interacted with the brand in the past to push to extend or increase their contract. On the flip side, CSMs are proactive and seek out data and insights to identify opportunities and risks to help customers get the most value out of the product. Account managers tend to focus on lagging indicators. CSMs focus on leading indicators and understanding customers to work towards something better.

Account managers tend to be very tactical in saving accounts, but customer success managers are more strategic as they partner with customers to reach future goals.

Integration in the Company

The customer success team acts as the bridge between customers and the rest of the company. The most successful teams create loops to share customer feedback with the engineering, product, sales, and marketing teams that offer valuable insights and continually improve the customer journey. Account management teams tend to work within the sales function. They provide insights on when and why customers leave, but their collaboration tends to be more limited.

Career Trajectory

Account management and customer success also differ in the employees’ roles and career paths, as evidenced by common job descriptions.

An account manager with two years of experience is the primary point of contact for developing business relationships with current customers. They identify and up-sell customers in their assigned area and offer customer service. Account managers are tasked with renewing existing contracts, ensuring customer loyalty, and identifying opportunities to increase customer profitability and drive company revenue. Account managers are responsible for maintaining positive customer relationships and hitting the metrics and quotas from management.

Common skills required for account managers include sales skills, strong communication skills, the ability to remain calm and resolve problems, and the ability to aggressively meet goals.

A CSM with two years of experience is responsible for developing a positive customer experience, fostering relationships, and supporting brand loyalty. Customer success managers onboard and educate customers. They promote customer retention and an overall positive experience with the brand. CSMs work with other departments to analyze customer data and support the company’s goals. A customer success manager is familiar with the technical side of products and services to troubleshoot problems and offer tips on how to best use features.

Common skills required for CSMs include strong communication skills, experience in customer service, organization, and data analysis.

Account management and customer success can both have a tremendous impact on customers and companies. Deciding how you approach both of these roles will help to define how you want to interact with your customers and help define, for employees, where to focus their efforts. Moving towards a customer-centric mindset that proactively partners with customers can help brands create successful customer-focused teams.

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Greg Lloyd

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