Customer Success vs Sales – a False Dichotomy

I have come across so many organisations that are scaling up asking themselves if they should invest or focus on/in customer success or Sales?

While this is understandable and can be centered more around budgets than strategy, there are some very real reasons for this shift in focus, from one to the other, but it can create a false dichotomy. Customer Success is often thought about in contrast to Sales, and vice-versa, when in reality, to make it all work, and work with lasting impact on customer value, company revenue, and retention, the answer isn’t so simple.

Covid-19 has also had a massive impact on business strategy and contingency planning, and this has made it more important than ever to get it right.

Let me take you back to the very beginning.

Back at the start of selling, there were only Sales. Well, maybe some other stuff came before that, but Sales definitely go back a long way. This worked extremely well. The vendor sold a customer a product. The customer paid their money upfront. It was the customer’s job to use it and get value. And if they had issues, they called the vendor for “technical support.”

Oh, let’s not forget that the vendor also made it almost impossible to find an easy way for them to swap vendors. As the customer, we all had just accepted that this was the way.

As we all now know, as with any story you can never rest on that past success – customers demanded more and more, and the SaaS model arrived that quickly ended that party. Customers were no longer stuck. You would pay as you went, and if you weren’t getting value, you could and did, often leave.

Businesses quickly realised that their new SaaS clients weren’t as in love with them as they thought. To address this challenge we have seen businesses create Customer Success teams out of an urgent, reactive need, to make sure clients were adopting the products and getting value to stay, and by value, I mean value as defined by that one customer.

Value is vastly different from customer to customer, industry to industry, uncovering and delivering against that value is what separates great Customer Success teams and mediocrity. The truth is, many early Customer Success teams were created just to plug the proverbial “leaky bucket.” Born as a reactive team to address concerns raised by customers, and nearly always feel overwhelmed and underappreciated.

Nevermore so during COVID-19, where the pandemic quickly exposed any businesses with less than ideal cash reserves. Customer Success and Sales roles are exploding, as businesses realise they need to protect their revenue from competition more than ever before.

Over time, the charter for many Customer Success teams became two-fold:

  1. To drive desired outcomes and experiences for clients
  2. To drive clients to renew, expand and advocate

The False Dichotomy in SaaS

And this is where the false dichotomy comes up. In my experience, nearly all go to market teams, while in customer discussions — whether in-person, at conferences or on online forums — often present Customer Success in contrast to Sales:

  • “Should we invest in Customer Success or Sales?”
  • “Companies focus too much on Sales and not enough on Customer Success.”
  • “We have to make sure our Customer Success people don’t turn into Salespeople.”
  • “Our salespeople are spending too much time on managing existing customers”

These concerns come from an understandable, and relatable place. Because I have seen companies all too often invest so little in the post-sale customer journey and focus more on the transactional phases (acquisition and renewal), there was always a need to shift that focus and invest toward the new Customer Success function, to bring balance and coverage to the growing customer base, and the higher amounts of revenue coming in.

But I have two problems with this way of thinking:

  1. It’s a bit dismissive to Sales, which is a really complex and critical role. Sales have lived and died too often as the most measurable and accountable role in almost every company.
  2. More importantly, it misses the very clear reality that Customer Success actually drives Sales. Yes – I did just intimate that Customer Success is in sales.

Customer Success = Sales*

The reality is, that the concept of Customer Success, recognises that clients make decisions on whether to renew or churn their commitment with you long before the renewal date. I consistently work with customers who have been trying to “drive the renewal”, just 90 or 60 days before the expiration!

This is a perfect example of too little, too late, and while a great product will carry you so far, its always just a matter of time before this approach leaves you, and more importantly, your customer coming up short on value.

Customer Success involves proactively investing time upfront–in onboarding, early adoption, and value realization—to drive the sale (Renewal, Upsell, etc.) later on. It’s about patient selling. It is not transactional — but then again, neither is good sales work. Customer Success is simply investing the time earlier in the client’s journey, so you get the payoff later.

When sales and CS work in tandem, proactively with customer value at the centre of their motivation and strategy, their customers win big. They win big.

*Customer Succes = Time-shifted Sales

For this to work, Customer Success requires more commercial acumen

In addition, if you break down the skills of the best Sales professionals, you’ll find attributes like curiosity, business and commercial acumen, relationship building, customer outcome-driven, ability to manage multiple stakeholders, and challenger mindset while also aligning solutions to value.

Don’t those sound like great skills for CSMs too?

Customer Success and Sales aren’t opposites. They are in a relay race, working towards the same goal, working on different time horizons, together.

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