What’s the line between Sales and Customer Success?


The scope of Customer Success is still very much in flux, and when I start working with a new organization I always make it a point to confirm what’s in scope, exactly, for Customer Success. Is there a best practice for drawing the line between Success and Sales activities, and if so what is it? We explore the conundrum in this post.

Some activities almost always belong in Customer Success

Customer Success organizations usually handle:

  • Onboarding, that is,  accompanying the customer through the first successful use case for the product or service. There can be a dedicated onboarding organization within the Customer Success team, or onboarding can be handled through a separate Professional Services organization, but Customer Success, when it exists, typically oversees that the onboarding process completes successfully and in time.
  • Ongoing relationship management, which can range from simply ensuring that key performance targets are met and executing against a playbook when they are not, to a full proactive  program.
  • Renewals, in the sense that Customer Success Managers (CSMs) ensure that the customer is ready to renew with no blockers. There often is a separate Renewals team that handles the paperwork but the responsibility of getting the customer ready is on the Customer Success side, not Sales.

And others belong in Sales

Sales organizations always handle new logo opportunities, where there is no existing relationship with a customer. For organizations that use a freemium model, the sale may occur at the end of a trial process, but again it’s typically the Sales team that closes the initial contract.

There’s a vast middle ground

For everything else (minus the three scenarios above), it depends.

  • New product presentations, where the customer is exposed to new versions or new product lines, are typically coordinated by the CS team but may draw upon sales engineers and other sales resources.
  • Organic expansion, that is, purchases made by existing customers as a result of growing usage, may be made in self-service, and if not they are often shepherded by CSMs. But some some organizations ask the CSMs to pass the opportunity on to the sales reps for closure. This allows a clean division of tasks between the success and sales teams–but can also create delays for the customer since these typically smaller opportunities may languish during the transition.
  • Add-on expansion, that is, purchases of new products made by existing customer contacts, are most often, but not always, handled by the sales team once the CSM identifies an opportunity.
  • New use case expansion, that is, purchases made by another division of an existing customer, are almost always handled by the sales team. They may be generated by a CSM but are equally likely to come from business development efforts.

With that, what can you do?

I’ve seen Customer Success organizations successfully function under many different regimes–but watch out for two essential caveats:

  • Customer and product fit. Make decisions that work for your product mix and customer base. For instance, if organic expansion can be easily metered and purchased, why involve a sales rep (or even a CSM)? If you sell a complex product that requires CSMs with unusual technical skills, it may be difficult to also require that they have selling skills, so the sales team will take on more of the “middle ground” tasks.
  • Clarity: Clearly define the scope of each organization, along with incentives and rewards. For instance, if you decide that CSMs will handle add-on expansion sales, define what constitutes an add-on sale as opposed to a new use-case sale, and provide a quick and efficient way to resolve any classification dispute.

Tell us how you are drawing the line between the two organizations in the comments. And if you need help defining your strategy, we can help.