The ongoing struggle to align marketing and sales is well documented and often discussed. However, for SaaS companies specifically, another key departmental alignment hasn’t gotten enough attention: sales and customer success.

These two teams are just as closely linked as sales and marketing, but are even less likely to cooperate fully. Unfortunately, this breakage can lead to unhappy customers, fewer upsells, and worst of all — higher churn rates.  

At Pulse 2016, Gainsight’s customer success conference, sales and customer success joined forces. At the Sales and Account Management Summit, sales and customer success leaders focused on aligning these two vital departments at SaaS companies.


We spoke to panelists to understand the common misconceptions and miscommunications standing in the way of sales and customer success harmony, and what your business can do to drive improvements. Find out how better aligning customer success and sales will not only improve customer experiences, but also increase revenue at every turn.

Selfish Sales Goals

The disconnect that often occurs between sales and customer success is at it’s root caused by differing definitions of success. The sales team’s goal is simple: hit the number. However, these goals can sometimes directly oppose customer success, according to Steve McKenzie, VP of Sales at InsightSquared.

“If you are encouraged to hit your number by any means possible, you may have reps throwing bad deals over the fence, which can cause friction between sales and customer success,” McKenzie noted.

If sales sold to the wrong customer, customer success is on their heels.

Paul Slakey

Whether that customer is promised impossible results or isn’t a good technical fit, sales reps may try to close the deal anyway. This can create tension between the two departments, Paul Slakey, VP of Client Services at BrightEdge, explained.

“If a sales rep has sold to the wrong customer, the customer success team is on their heels as soon as they start, and they may have a hard time meeting their metrics,” he said. “However, I have seen challenging situations like this turn out well, which highlights the value of customer success.”

While sales reps may work hard to close any deal they can, they’re actually hurting the business in the long term. Sales is wasting the time and resources of the CSM team on difficult customers who may eventually churn — putting the business at risk.

Cautious Customer Success

For customer success, the only real metric that matters is churn. Churn is a real and serious threat to the survival of a SaaS business, and CSMs are the first line of defense in keeping customers happy and engaged. This means that many CSMs have a tendency to be protective of their customers. However, customer success is also closely tied to sales revenue in SaaS, according to Sherrod Patching, VP of Customer Success at Leadspace.

“Like many SaaS companies, we have a sales team that is very involved in all our accounts because we have a land and expand model,” Patching said. “Net MRR is vital for us.”

Sales reps often rely on CSMs to notify them when there’s a an opportunity to upsell within that account, Patching explained. However, customer success doesn’t always have incentives to help push upsells, according to Kathleen Lord, SVP of Sales and Customer Success at Intacct.

“A lot of times with CSMs, it’s less risky to keep the account small,” she noted. “The smaller it is, the less it hits their bottom line if it doesn’t renew.”

Because of this, sales may be hurting themselves by ignoring the needs of CSMs. In addition to upsells, reps are also missing out on vital help from customer success to close deals. Happy customers can be a huge asset to sales reps, according to Carter Perez, the VP of Sales and Customer Success at Cogniance.

“Keeping the customer happy really sets up the referral ecosystem,” he explained. “The referenceability piece is huge. We work with customers who are now huge advocates for our company.”

Keeping the customer happy sets up the referral ecosystem.

Cater Perez

Bringing a happy customer on a call with a prospect could be the difference between Closed-Lost and Closed-Won. However, CSMs who are struggling with a huge number of unhappy customers can’t always offer that assistance. Without those references and upsells, reps could be missing out on easy revenue wins.

Working for a Common Good

Now that we understand the disconnect between sales and customer success, it’s time to do something about it. Rather than setting separate and competing priorities for the two teams, you have to align sales and customer success more closely. If the conflicts and sticking points between the two departments are overcome, the benefits to your business can be enormous. The first step is simple: align the goals of the two departments.

You need leaders who are completely aligned on the same number.

Kathleen Lord

“You need leaders who are completely aligned on the same number, with the same goals,” Lord noted. “If you have both sales and customer success focused on not just growth, but net renewals, you’ll see a huge improvement. There’s a lot of happy fuzzy metrics, but it really comes down to the net retention number.”

Once sales and customer success are both rewarded for upsells and renewals, it’s easier to align other parts of the process. Instead of a simple handoff at the end of the sales cycle, sales may also strategically sometimes bring customer success into the sales process before a deal is closed.

“The CSM will join the sales call and talk about what it will be like as a customer, should the prospect join us, and how the process will work,” Slakey said. “Selling the benefits of a CSM sets the stage for a positive experience.”

In addition to aligning goals and improving processes, the team leaders must also work together closely.

“You must have tighter collaboration between the leaders of those departments; not just the heads, but also managers,” McKenzie said. “Make sure there is regular communication and feedback — things like weekly meetings, feedback sessions on customers that churn, and feedback on new customers. The two teams must have a joint mandate to deliver a delightful customer experience from sales to customer success.”

Mike Provenzano, VP of Customer Success at InsightSquared, agreed. He said once the two teams start to work together more often, they’ll realize how much they actually have in common.

“My opinion is that some of the best customer success people are former salespeople,” Provenzano said. “Customer success is selling, but it’s more selling ideas than selling a product. We sell a product that requires a wholesale cultural change within an organization, and our CSMs are tasked with selling that cultural change. Customer success done right is far more similar to sales than most realize.”

Customer success done right is far more similar to sales than most realize.

Mike Provenzano

With aligned leadership, common goals, and clearer processes, your sales and customer success teams can get along. With a new and improved connection between the two teams, you’ll see more revenue, less churn, and an improved experience for customers through the sales pipeline and beyond.

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