What’s the Difference Between Key Account Management and Customer Success?

Key account management. Customer service. Customer success. Sales. Although these terms are used in many business by key account managers and customer success teams alike, both types of professionals have strong opinions about how their strategies differ.

Experts from each side talk about being proactive, extending the relationship past the sale, involving different levels of the organization, and developing partnerships. But how do we actually distinguish between the two?

Here are some ways to tell the difference between account management and customer success strategies.

Key Account Management (KAM) Strategies

Key account managers prioritize their accounts based on revenue and concentrate on building a direct partnership with the client. Developing stable, long-term customer relationships, these managers cultivate their partnerships over a period of years rather than months.

  • Key account management emphasizes high touch in contrast to high tech. Lynette Ryals recommends that organizations develop KAM champions that are specifically trained to interact directly with key customers. (See her article in Harvard Business Review.)
  • Key account managers place priority on client engagement throughout the process. Ryals argues that KAM is an organizational change rather than a sales technique. It involves the entire customer buying cycle, starting from the awareness stage and extending beyond the point of sale. She states, “KAM is a commitment to work differently with certain priority customers.”
  • Key account managers adjust their level of client engagement, throughout the customer buying cycle and beyond. The process involves life-cycle management, so the way the key account manager interacts with the customer varies at different points. For example, as Ryals mentions, the account may require heavier engagement or sponsorship from the C-suite at certain times. Ryals advocates visits to key customers from C-suite executives who have been assigned their account.

Customer Success Strategies

Customer success strategies originally emerged as a way to develop and implement SaaS platforms according to customer specifications. They focus on getting the platform to function the best way possible according to customer needs—before, during, and after the sale. For example, success  teams excel in finding the most satisfying solutions for customers that need consultative help.

  • Customer success strategies are low touch and high tech. Because they concentrate on developing the SaaS platform and solving any technical problems the customer may be having, customer success strategies address product-centered issues like scalability, and deal with topics such as big data and machine learning. In fact, in Alex McClafferty’s 2015 Forbes article, one of his interviewees states that a common product-related question that the customer success team might need to ask a client is, “What motivates you to use our product?”
  • Customer success strategies place priority on platform solutions. Like key account management strategies, customer service strategies change as the needs of the customer change. However, the emphasis is always on ensuring that the SaaS platform continues to function the way the customer needs it to.
  • Customer success teams extend their attention to the product and its solutions, beyond the initial sale. Customer success strategists focus on how to get the best solutions, functions, and performance out of the platform, based upon the customer’s expectations, and those expectations may change over time. The goal is to increase revenue even after the initial sale.

In short, both strategies involve multiple departments, adapt their approach at different points of the life cycle of the relationship between the customer and a business’s product or service, and require organizational involvement. However, account managers emphasize engagement with the client on a high-touch basis, while customer success strategies emphasize product solutions. Using many of the same resources, from organizational support to customer service techniques, both strategies involve a partnership with the client and seek to improve revenues over time.


CEO at Kapta
Alex Raymond is the CEO of Kapta.