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The Customer Success and Sales Tug of War

The Sales Customer Success Dynamic

I have always been fascinated by the dynamic between Sales and Customer Success in SaaS businesses.  Here is how, I have sometimes, heard them describe each other.

Sales on Customer Success on Sales

Firstly from Customer Success Managers on Salespeople. “Sales Reps aren’t interested in customer success, they are only interested in the sale” or even worse “They are only interested in the commission”. Then from Salespeople about Customer Success. “Customer Success Managers over-complicate things, I couldn’t put them in front of my prospective customers, they would scare them off” or “They are too afraid to ask for the renewal”. It may be exaggerated in those two characterisations but it exposes the tension between Customer Success and Sales teams. It’s almost like they don’t understand each other.

The Truth about Sales

Here is what’s behind it. Salespeople are generally motivated by opportunity, by potential. They are commercially minded and have to be. They generally start a new job with a blank sheet of paper and have to convince potential customers to even start talking to them. Nevertheless, whilst they may hear the word no a thousand times, no one is more driven by a single yes.

The Truth about Customer Success

Customer Success and Professional Services professionals understand risk. They usually have project backgrounds and projects, like Jurassic Park, always start with the oohs and ahhs but can end in the running, the shouting and the screaming. Nevertheless, they get close to customers, onboard them, and do the hard job of making SaaS solutions work in practice. Naturally, they can think in terms of risks, issues and problems though usually with solutions, mitigations, and fixes in mind.

And that’s the tension, On the one hand, opportunity, on the other risk. And sometimes it can be a tug of war.

The Truth About the Dynamic

Customer Success Managers, in an ideal world, would bring in new customers when the timing and conditions are near-perfect and there is little or no risk. Salespeople are laser-focused on growth and new logos, without getting preoccupied by the potential issues, timing, or the organisations readiness.

But in reality it is a natural tension. In fact, one of the most natural and human tensions between the need for new opportunities and growth and the need for certainty and to protect what we already have. Social scientists call it explore or exploit. The tension between exploring the new or exploiting what we already have. It's the same human dynamic that drives us to experiment with new restaurants at the start of a holiday but to eat at a known, favourite on the last night.

Acknowledge the Explorer

A little understanding goes a long way so let me help with my meandering take. Good Salespeople ensure that the business grows and, as it does, receives value for the value it provides. Not quid pro quo, longer-term than that, but fair-value received for value delivered in a way that ensures the customer-supplier relationship is win-win. Sales, at it’s best, is leadership. Taking a customer on a new journey with their company, their solution and their team. It can be daunting for a customer buyer. Professional reputations depend on successful outcomes so a salesperson will be focused on

the prize. What can go well, not what can go wrong.

Accept the Exploiter

A good Customer Success Manager will get to know their customers' business very closely. They will ensure that the relationship is managed diligently and professionally. They will understand exactly how the SaaS solution is being used and exactly how the customer is achieving the outcome they need to. And if they don’t, there is nowhere to hide. A Customer Success Manager will be aware of the risks and will steer around them when they can and, when they can’t, they will know how to fix them. 

Don't fight a natural tension

So that’s it. Salespeople are focused on the opportunity because they need to be. Customer Success focused on risk and issues because they must be. It’s not going away so rely on each other. Assume the best of one other and cooperate on finding the middle ground.

Accept it as a natural tension. Don’t make it a tug of war.

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