Customer success vs. sales-assist

Are customer success and sales-assist actually different roles in a hybrid go-to-market motion?

Allison Pickens
March 13, 2023
Customer success vs. sales-assist

When Allison Pickens joined Gainsight — a pioneer in the customer success software category — in 2014, customer success was still a new concept.

Many organizations already understood the importance of customer support, a reactive model to triage issues within the product. Yet very few had spent time thinking about proactively nurturing customers’ adoption of the product.

Today, customer success (CS), the practice of ensuring your existing customers are achieving their desired outcome with your product and having a terrific experience along the way, has become an established critical function at most SaaS businesses. The reason it’s become crucial is that effective CS is directly linked to strong net retention rates and customer advocacy for the vendor. 

And now there’s another shift happening in customer success. I talked with Allison about what CS means in light of product-led growth, the rise of the Product-Led Sales (PLS) approach —  a bottom-up GTM model that leverages existing product users as the main funnel for the sales team — and the developing sales-assist role. 

Modern customer success weaves throughout the PLS motion

Alexa: Having spent so many years thinking about customer success and really building it from the ground up, where do you see CS in product-led growth (PLG) companies today?

Allison: The product-led growth business model has changed the definition of who a customer is, for two reasons. 

First, the scope of what defines a customer has widened, because at a product-led growth organization we have different “phases” of customers. Customers may be in a time-bound free trial, a free tier in which they aren’t paying anything yet, or a lower-priced tier. Over time they may upgrade to paying, or formalize a corporate-level contract with us.

Second, the initial customer in a PLG model is typically an individual user, sometimes a team, as opposed to an “account.” In the top-down model, an account is usually an organization with many stakeholders and users. In a traditional revenue model, vendors sell to a senior stakeholder, concerning themselves with the individual users only after the fact. In the PLG model, we work with users first.

Because of these changes in the definition of “customer,” the sales process changes as well. PLG companies need to (1) convert users from free to paid via credit card, and then (2) convert paying users into an enterprise contract. The first conversion is typically owned by marketing. Sales owns the second conversion, and that type of sales has become known as Product-Led Sales (PLS). 

Alexa: Where in the funnel does CS live? How should PLG companies think about the converging roles of sales and CS?

Allison: Product-Led Sales requires a new type of customer success initiative that comes in earlier in the customer journey. We want to help individual users adopt the product, find ways to help individual users refer their teammates, and get introductions to leaders or influencers within the organization who can encourage and enable adoption across groups of users. 

In some cases, the lifetime value of a typical customer may justify us hiring customer success managers — or similar people with other titles (product specialists, onboarding managers, sales-assist, etc.) — to do these activities. For example, it was economical for Superhuman to invest in onboarding specialists that hand-held initial users through a tutorial on keyboard shortcuts: the high monthly price and stickiness of those fully onboarded users justified the cost.

But in other situations, it may not be economical to insert people into the customer journey. It may not even be desirable from the user’s standpoint. Developer tools companies in particular know that their users don’t typically want to talk to them; users would rather learn the product via a thoughtful UI walk-through, look at the documentation, view templates or examples that other developers have produced, or otherwise learn from your community. Providing these resources is a form of customer success. One developer-focused company I spoke with recently triggers an automated email from a customer success manager (CSM) after the user’s sign-up, offering advice and pointing the user to helpful content. But live interaction is offered only as an option, not a standard part of the relationship. 

These activities — with or without a human — pave the way for the creation of PQLs, or product-qualified leads, which are defined by accounts with high user-level adoption that the sales rep can convert to corporate-level contracts. Overall, in a PLG model, customer success helps create the real stories of value realization that sales can then reference when pitching the corporate-level contract. 

Once the sales team formalizes a corporate-level contract, the customer will require the type of CSM that typically works in a top-down model. At this point, customer success should help to identify goals with the customer, create a success plan for how they’re going to achieve value, facilitate user adoption, coordinate across stakeholders at the client, and otherwise do what’s required to ensure the customer achieves their desired outcome in a delightful way. The CSM will also coordinate with sales on renewals and expansion (sometimes owning the renewal itself, and sometimes co-owning an expansion target). 

The emergence of the sales-assist role

Polling on role names: sales-assist, customer experience, advocate, product specialist

Alexa: You mentioned sales-assist. The way I understand it is that the sales-assist role is similar to customer success, but popularized by PLG companies who do not have CS resources earlier in the funnel (i.e. before a sale was made). In other words, sales-assist is a pre-sales CS function.

Anecdotally, the name is catching on in the PLS community. We’re starting to see companies hiring for the sales-assist role, often as their first PLS hire. Members of the community are leveraging sales-assist or “product specialist” roles to nurture PQLs before they go to an AE or to unblock users throughout onboarding. Their main role is to help users see value in the product. Once the user becomes an enterprise customer we see CS step in for the post-sales expansion. 

But what’s interesting is that you’re saying this “new” role is actually just CS skills being exercised earlier in the funnel — so why shouldn’t it still be called customer success? 

Allison: It sounds like companies are retraining sales teams, or maybe adding sales-assist roles, to do some "customer success-like" activities (free trial conversions, adoption support, etc.) earlier in the user journey. Why not instead leverage the massive community of CS professionals who already exist and put them in place earlier in the Product-Led Sales motion? 

This role would slot into the use cases where it makes sense to add a human touch to an otherwise automated self-serve process. 

Consider products that require team-wide participation to truly understand the value. In this use case, a sales-assist role — or, as I might propose, a CS professional — would step in to orchestrate this virality from one user to one team to many teams, eventually nurturing the account to the point where it’s ready for sales to step in and have an enterprise plan conversation. CSMs can also be particularly effective in user journeys that require complex product setup and/or integration processes.

But even in areas where you don’t need to add a human touch, self-serve automations within the PLS motion should still be grounded in CS principles. While product or marketing roles are typically responsible for building out these automations, because of the hands-off nature of the workflow, these teams need to be prepared to “think like customer success” today to help users find value and move toward adoption.  

So, is sales-assist just another way to say pre-sales customer success?

Alexa: Let’s address the elephant in the room: are sales-assist and customer success two terms for the same role? And if you were advising a PLG company that's thinking about adding sales, would you suggest having one CS role across the lifecycle of a customer (pre-sales and post-sales)? Or, would you advocate for multiple roles throughout the lifecycle, CS being one of them but not the only one?

Allison: Let’s look at the sales-assist people who act as product specialists. They’re injected in the process to help if users get stuck in the free trial or become ready to deepen their engagement with the product. They act as shepherds in the user journey; as qualifiers looking to uncover more significant sales opportunities. Their responsibility is first and foremost to add value or help users, not to sell.

To me, this specific sales-assist action sounds a lot like pre-sales customer success. 

There’s already a huge population of people with a strong skill set, a sense of identity, and an affiliation with the title “customer success.” And I know that if I were a customer, I’d rather talk to someone who identifies as a customer success person, because it's clear their job is to help me, not sell to me. I wonder if sales-assist was an early title for this role because it reported to the head of sales, and they needed a way to distinguish this team from the traditional CSM team. (I’d love to learn more about the origin!) But personally, I’m a bit baffled by the title, because it doesn’t quite capture what these people do.

No matter exactly what you choose to call them or where exactly they exist in the customer journey, my advice is to add humans at the right points in the product workflow who know the product and are skilled in empathy, grit, active listening, expectation setting, and problem resolution.

You may want to call these people different things at different stages of the user journey. After all, the CS persona that is best leveraged for free trial support and conversion is very different from the CS persona that is best leveraged to expand an enterprise account. However, at the core of these personas is someone with customer success skills who profoundly understands the customer, their problems, and how the product can be manipulated to solve those problems. 

One final tip: How sales and customer success can work together

Alexa: If nothing else, one thing is clear: customer success and sales-assist are crucial in Product-Led Sales. How do you think about CS and sales partnering, sharing responsibilities, and otherwise working together to drive revenue in a PLS approach? 

Allison: My tip is to orient each of these teams in a way where they can focus on what they’re best at. This means your sales teams may want to re-orient earlier in the funnel than they’ve previously been so they can find new business in an existing pool of free or individual users. Then customer success can focus on the pre- and post-sales expansion and upsell opportunities that align with their aptitude for concentrating on customer outcomes and proactively supporting the virality of a product within an organization.

How will you customize your customer success approach?  

Whether you choose to build out a sales-assist team, reposition where some of your top sales and customer success talent lives in the funnel, or create a custom combination of both approaches — what ultimately matters is that each team is empowered to meet customers where they are in a modern product-led growth environment.

Allison Pickens
Former COO of Gainsight, current solo GP, and independent board director at dbt Labs
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