Apr 26, 2021

Fighting Friction Between Sales and Customer Success

Emilia D’Anzica,

By Emilia D’Anzica


It’s no secret: the Sales and Customer Success partnership is easy to botch. 


Just look at the incentives: one team is held accountable for closing deals and making promises, the other has to deliver on those promises. Problems between the two teams arise when Sales oversells the product or sets the wrong expectations with the customer, and Customer Success can’t deliver on it. 


And while it’s easy to blame the Sales team, the fault isn’t all theirs. When the Sales team is consistently overselling, it’s generally a sign of a weak Success leader. Let me explain...


In theory, the Customer Success leader should only need to identify the main points of friction between Sales and Success and then work with their peers in Sales to resolve them. In practice it’s difficult to know where to start. So here are some of the most common points of friction I’ve seen or learned about, and my advice on how to fix them. 

Point of friction #1: Sales and Success aren't aligned on the product's benefits and use cases

You’ve heard this one before: Sales is either overselling the product or pitching use cases that don’t exist (at least not yet). The customer comes in with the wrong expectations. 


The cause for this often comes down to differences in training. If Sales and CS have very different training programs, you’ll end up with two teams talking about the product in different ways. It ultimately creates a disjointed customer experience.  


Fix this problem by first getting alignment at the top around what the product delivers for customers. Then you can ensure the training programs are hitting on the same points, and you can regularly reiterate those benefits and use cases in meetings and team channels. 


The CS leader can also get the two teams talking about the product in the same way by asking their own team members to attend the weekly Sales meetings, and vice versa.

Point of friction #2: There's not a clear understanding of what it takes to onboard a customer

If Sales tells a customer it’ll take 30 days to get set up and it actually takes 60, you can imagine what the customer experience is like. Success needs to clearly share what is involved in implementing the product and onboarding the customer. 


Here’s what to be clear about: 

  • The roles required to get customers setup (technical people, project managers, etc.)
  • How long it typically takes for different product implementations, 
  • What level of effort the customer needs to put in to get fully set up,
  • And anything else that’s specific to your product that the Success team repeatedly sees customers be surprised about. 


Success should also prepare Sales to answer questions around Time to First Value, key milestones, and the types of roles the point of contact needs to bring in to have successful adoption of the product. 


You can create a slide deck or one-pager for Sales that includes this information, you can bring these points up in meetings, and you can listen to calls to make sure the Sales team is clear on what goes into onboarding a customer. Whatever you do, it’s important the CS leader does regular check-ins on this. It’s not one-and-done.

Point of friction #3: Customers aren't aware of the effort they need to put in to be successful with the product


In almost every company I’ve worked for I’ve put together a one-pager that defines what the CSM is responsible for and what the client is responsible for. It’s important to share this with Sales so they’re able to set clear expectations around how long it takes to implement the product, what type of help the customer can expect from your company, and what activities the customer needs to do on their own to be successful with the product. 


Here are some other questions to answer in that doc that’ll help everyone get clear on what it takes to be successful with the product:  

  • Is the product actually turnkey? Does there need to be a technical person involved? 
  • What can customers expect from their CSM?
  • What can the customer do for themselves to get up and running? Are there self-service resources?
  • What all does the customer need to do to be able to get what they want out of the product? 

Point of friction #4: Sales isn't setting customer expectations about how much CSM time customers get

Some customers are more time-consuming than others. Of course, Customer Success is responsible for segmenting the different experiences customers get which helps create some boundaries to help the team stay efficient. 


But they’re also responsible for making sure Sales is able to 1. understand how their deals map into the appropriate segments, and 2. communicate to the customer what type of support they will receive. 


Like the other “points of friction” I’ve named, this one takes regular communication to make sure Sales is in-tune with Customer Success’s engagement models. But one tactic I’d note that I’ve seen work is doing a session on this during SKO. Map out the engagement models and explain the levels of support provided for each, and share that in a presentation to the entire Sales org—and do it again at every Sales summit.

Point of friction #5: There's missing information about important people within accounts

By the time Success is introduced to a customer, Sales has probably built relationships with a handful of people within the organization that have helped them move the deal forward. Sales and Success need to communicate about who the executive sponsor is, and whether Sales has built relationships with the buyer, champions, or potential power users. 


I’ve seen examples where Sales sold to an executive sponsor, and the CSM never speaks to that sponsor or invites them to important kickoff or milestone meetings. Beyond posing risk to that account by not engaging with important contacts, you can also end up with a product delivery that wasn’t what the executive sponsor wanted when the product was purchased.


It’s critical for the Sales leader and Success leader to collaborate on creating a customer journey that requires the sponsor to be part of the experience after they sign the dotted line. It’s also critical that Sales and Customer Success have a way of tracking and keeping tabs on important contacts within accounts.

Point of friction #6: Success is brought in too late to the sales cycle

The industry is starting to normalize the practice of introducing Customer Success to the customer before the deal is closed. While there are different moments in the customer journey where it makes sense to bring on CS, there’s a range of benefits from bringing on CS earlier: 


It helps the customer understand what the experience will be like post-sale, which can boost their confidence in buying the product.


It helps the CS team member better understand the customer’s existing processes and technology, and their goals with the product, so the customer isn’t repeating themselves post-sale and can get value out of the product faster.


It also reduces the level of communication required between Sales and CS about an account. That’s especially helpful for teams experiencing #5 above.


With all of that said, here’s a note of caution for CS leaders: the practice of bringing in CSMs or sales engineers before the deal is done should be supplemental to the work Sales is doing to close the account. Your team should not be spending their time selling the product. So if you run into that issue, you’ll want to clearly define what Sales and CS are each responsible for and make sure Sales has the messaging they need to introduce the CS person and explain why they’re on the call. 

Parting words

Customer Success leaders should invest time in learning what areas in their partnership with Sales could be improved. Then, even small process changes—like joining sales meetings or creating an accessible one-pager—can make a big impact.  


Customer Success leaders should invest time in learning what areas in their partnership with Sales could be improved before building out the processes mentioned in #1 through #5. But the next step is to work with your Sales to incentivize the team to follow through. You can put in thoughtful processes, but if you're incentivizing the team to break those processes, nothing will stick.