Recently there was a good thread started in a LinkedIn group.  Someone asked about the relationship between sales and customer success and if customer success reps should sell or not.  I think this is a great question and I thought I’d share some of my ideas here.  I’m very curious to know what you think, so feel free to share in the comments below.

The most obvious answer to this is it depends on resources.  If you’re constrained then you may very well have CSMs involved in sales, upsells, renewals, support, and possibly a slew of other things.  So, for the sake of this article, let’s assume you have the resources needed to set up your ideal CSM / Sales model.

In the ideal model I personally believe you should consider having 2 different groups of CSMs. One group spends their time on upsells, renewals, etc.  Another group would be dedicated to onboarding, engagement, and ongoing customer success.   The primary driver for this is that in a SaaS model it’s critical your customers are successful and maintain a good relationship with you.  This is how you build a healthy customer base that is primed for upsales and renewals.

The next obvious question is ‘why is the above model the best one for creating successful and long-term customers?’  Why couldn’t a CSM that is also responsible for upsells, cross sells, and renewals be just as effective, if not more effective, at creating long term successful customers?  The answer is a simple one – your CSMs need to become trusted advisors.  If your CSMs are driven to hit a quota then they no longer have your customer’s best interest in mind.  This fundamental shift in their mind set and motivation will be picked up by a customer causing them to question what your CSMs tell them (i.e. are they recommending this product because it will really help me or is it to hit quota).

So, if you don’t measure CSMs on a quota, what should you measure them on?  The most direct metric is churn.  If they do a good job showing customers value, they wont churn!  For a customer success manager you should use customer churn as the metric, not revenue churn, or again they’ll be focused on bringing in the most revenue, not creating the best customers.

Another metric you can use is an engagement or success score.  Basically you measure each customer based on usage and other important metrics.  The higher the score, the more successful they are.  For this model to work, you need to show proof that a higher engagement score equates to an increased LTV.  If that relationship holds true then you know with certainty that as your CSMs improve that metric, your bottom line is also improving.   Additionally, in this model, the CSM’s incentives are aligned with the customer’s.

At this point you might begin to wonder about the other group of CSMs, the ones responsible for generating more revenue from customers.  If they aren’t the trusted advisors, how will they get in front of customers and upsell them?  Plus, if there are two different CSMs working with the customer, wont it get confusing for the customer?  Those are potential risks, but I think we can overcome them.

Let’s start with how the second group of CSMs (let’s call them Account Managers for the rest of this article) can generate upsells when they aren’t the trusted advisors.  There are a couple of ways they can do this.

The first is by leveraging user behavior.  If you have a customer success metric and monitor user behavior, it’s pretty easy to identify engaged customers that could use more of your product.  You can also identify unengaged customers to get in front of and prevent churn.  So it’s not too difficult to identify potential upsells and at-risk customers.

Another strategy is to make sure your CSMs regularly communicate with AMs.  As customers develop needs another product or feature can solve, they should inform the AMs.  At the same time, a CSM needs to warm up the customer to the upsell or cross sell.  As their trusted advisor, they can show customers new features and talk to them about how it will benefit them, giving the AM an easy sell.   The AM can then negotiate price and terms.

Lastly, in addition to having them communicate with each other, you need to make sure AMs and CSMs work as a team.  If a CSM doesn’t help set customers up, AMs will never close additional deals.  If AMs don’t strategize with CSMs, then they can push features or products before a CSM is ready, confusing and frustrating the customer.  The trick is how you make the teams work together.

One strategy to promote teamwork is to use incentives.  For example, if both teams own a churn number, then they’ll be incented to work together to keep that number down.  If AMs use churn and CSMs use a customer success metric, then you can combine them, making one a bonus for other.  For example, as a CSM, if the AMs I work with hit their churn goal, then I could get some kind of bonus and vice versa.

Another strategy to this is finding internal champions.  Find a few senior or tenured CSMs and AMs and have them lead by example, sharing their success stories and be seen working together.  You can also promote this by putting the teams together and creating a common goal – such as a friendly competition between AMs and CSMs that work on the enterprise group with those who work on the small business group.

Hopefully you’ve seen by now that there are many ways to make sure AMs are fully capable of hitting their quota, even though they aren’t the trusted advisors.  This leaves one last challenge, which is how to prevent customer confusion with two contacts.

The simple solution to this is to make sure they have one primary contact.  Typically I would recommend you make the Account Manager the primary contact.  So after the sale they would run the initial call and introduce the CSM then.  The CSM would then work with the customer on set-up and initial use cases.  Once done, the CSM would tell the AM how it went, let them know if there are upsell opportunities, and other notes.  Then, the AM would monitor the customer, and be there if a customer had more questions or needed help.  At any point, the AM can reintroduce the CSM, or even a different one if you have specializations, and have them work with the customer on an issue, and once done, pass the details to the AM.

The above model does a couple of things.  First, by setting expectations on the first call, it makes it clear to the customer who the primary contact is.  Secondly, by not giving them unlimited time w/ a CSM, it allows you to charge for their services, which can be important as it can cover the cost of having a bunch of CSMs.  Additionally, the AM knows everything about the customer as all the info flows back into them.  Lastly, the AM controls the relationship with the customer, leaving the CSM to specialize on making customers successful so AMs can specialize on additional revenue and churn.

It is for all the above reasons that I believe, in an ideal world, you should not have CSMs selling and carrying a quota.  Instead, split it up and let people specialize.  One  last point to make is I’ve worked with a ton of CSMs, and they hate selling, but they love making customers successful and happy… so why would you want to introduce a model that has people who hate selling doing any kind of up or cross selling?