A Rose by any Other Name

A few weeks ago, I got the opportunity to chat with our customers and friends at Referral Rock, about all things referral marketing, customer success, and putting people first.

It was enlightening, and while I’m a little awkward and massively introverted, I loved learning about the company and hearing about how our software helps them—although this is usually secondary to learning all about what makes them tick.

It’s often the case, during these interviews, that I’ll get a different take on a topic I’m personally quite interested in. And while deep in conversation with CEO Joshua Ho and Mica Longanecker, Head of Sales and Customer Success, Josh made a comment about customer success that stuck with me.

He said that customer success was not “necessarily new, industries have been doing this forever it was just previously called Client Management.”

I don’t know why, but it was a lightbulb moment for me—though having opened that door, it’s a pretty obvious connection to make when you think about it. We’ve all heard of the term client management or spoken to account managers, but up until that point, I hadn’t really made the connection between those departments and what we now refer to as customer success.

It got me thinking, could it be that customer success is just a rebranding of an existing department or is there something deeper to it?

The Proactive Debate

In setting out to research the difference between client management or account managers, and customer success managers, you have to wade through a syrupy mess of contrary opinions and definitions.

But one of the most common recurring differentiators people use to separate account management and customer success is the idea of reactivity and proactivity.

The argument goes that account management is a reactive role, with many suggesting AMs only engage with a customer to solve billing queries, upsell, or perform some other basic account task that is more heavily leaning toward a positive outcome for the business.

Customer Success, on the other hand, is deemed to be in some way more pro-active. Their role, so I’m informed, is more to improve the customer experience by anticipating issues and providing unprompted support in a bid to ensure, well, success.

This feels like an assumptive definition, though, with very little accounting for crossover variants in different organizations. I’ve known account managers from some organizations who are tasked with outreach. Their goal is to ensure customers are getting the most out of their product.

On the flip side, I’ve known customer success reps who simply wait for inbound tickets and respond accordingly. Sure, they might go the extra mile, but only on the rare occasion.

In my mind, this doesn’t seem like a strong enough indicator that the two are separate roles. In fact, it seems to suggest that what people see as a customer success manager is simply an account manager doing their job well.

Customer Service Managers (CSMs) are Invested in Customer Success

Another—perhaps too prevalent—argument is the idea that CSMs are more invested in success than any other role in a company. For me, this was tough to take seriously.

Sure, CSMs are inherently invested in the success of customers, but shouldn’t everyone be? Whether it’s your engineer team or your accountant, isn’t every single one of your team members rooting for your customers?

At their core, it’s not revelatory to suggest every business relies on the success of their customers, be it a one-time payment consumer retail and e-commerce business, or something subscription-based like SaaS. A successful customer for the retailer can result in referral and recommendation, while for a SaaS it can result in repeat business.

At the other end of the scale, unsuccessful customers can cause unending turmoil for the business as a whole and ultimately lead to layoffs. So whether it’s CSMs, accounts, or the office maintenance team, surely every single one should be invested in the success of your customers.

As I continued to try and find some semblance of sense, I encountered countless ways thought leaders attempted to separate out the apparently antiquated idea of account managers and their new, trendy counterpart, the CSM.

Some claim CSMs have more knowledge than account managers, though perhaps that would come down to the individual and the amount of support and education they receive. Others claim CSMs have more power than account managers, though I’d suggest that differs from organization to organization.

Smoke, Mirrors, and Desirable Designations

To be honest, all the effort to differentiate between account managers and CSMs felt like smoke and mirrors, but I couldn’t seem to figure out why. Perhaps it was an appearance thing, the idea that having an account manager is antiquated but having a CSM is the new trend.

Or perhaps it came down to connotations and a desire to be seen as different. As if having customer success managers somehow makes the business in question seem more innovative. Like it somehow equates to caring more about the customer and their experience.

Much as we love to hate on the preceding generations, much of the personalized service levels that are becoming the gold standard for “success” have been in play for decades.

Historically, businesses have been much more focused on the people behind the customer than they are right now. And perhaps we lost it because of an intense need to grow and globally dominant that we’re told is expected of businesses in this day and age to be considered successful.

Customer success is an important part of any business—regardless of terminology—but to approach it as if it’s a groundbreaking new part of a business strategy does a disservice to the history of customer service.

We speak of "Customer Success" and the “Customer Experience” like it’s something only our forward-thinking generation have thought up, or that’s only now possible because of our globally connected society. But isn’t the reality that the opposite is true? And really, haven't we just rebranded something that was already commonplace?