A painless guide to Sales and Customer roles at your company

Simple explainers of sales and customer roles, for people who aren’t in sales or customer.

Mar 28, 2024

Mar 28, 2024

If you’ve made it to this guide, you work at a B2B SaaS company and face one of these common crisis scenarios:

  1. You have to work with another department on a cross-functional project like a product launch, but you aren’t sure who to involve yet.

  2. You are in customer, marketing, or sales role and just need something to send your coworker or family to explain what you do all day.

  3. You have no understanding of your coworker’s job, waited too long to ask, and now you need the internet to help you avoid an awkward conversation.

This guide will help.

Two types: pre-sale and post-sale

Pre-sale roles focus on activities that happen before a potential customer subscribes to your product. This includes finding and qualifying leads, demoing the product, and closing deals with new customers.

Examples: Account Executive (AE), Sales Development Representative (SDR), Sales Engineer (SE), and certain marketing roles like Product Marketing Manager (PMM)

Post-sale roles come into play after a customer subscribes to your product. These roles focus on supporting customer relationships, ongoing expansion, and retention.

Examples: Customer Success Manager (CSM), Account Manager (AM), Renewals Manager, and Onboarding Specialist.

“Why is everyone a manager?”

You will notice a few things in this guide:

  • There are an obnoxious number of acronyms in this part of the business. The jargon makes it feel more complicated and unapproachable than it actually is. Stay strong, you got this.

  • Your company’s approach will look different. This guide is an introduction, and we’re going for understanding not complete accuracy. Companies will adjust the approach based on the markets they serve, and as they grow. Roles described in this guide exist in B2B SaaS, even if titles and job boundaries vary.

  • Many of these titles include “Manager”, but not because they manage people — it describes the responsibility or part of business they own. Most people with manager in their title here do not actually have direct reports. It is not title inflation, just industry norm.

Different roles for different revenue

The team structures will make more sense if you understand the different types of revenue in a subscription business. Here’s a quick, math-free summary:

  • New Business: Brand new customer.

  • Expansion (”Upgrades”): Existing customer buys more stuff, expanding their existing contract.

    • Cross-sell: they buy another product (e.g., Atlassian customers buying Jira, then adding Confluence).

    • Upsell: They buy more of the products they already have (e.g., adding more user licenses).

  • Renewals. In B2B SaaS, customers renew their subscription regularly (monthly, annually, etc). As a company grows, it may create further specialized roles to support customer renewals.

    • Renewals work differently. If you have a customer paying $20K per year, and they renew their contract for the same amount, it does not count as expansion revenue again because the overall number hasn’t changed.

    • Churn (from “Downgrades” and “Cancellation”): When the amount of money a customer pays goes down at their next renewal. This can happen if they renew with fewer products or licenses than they had the previous year, or if they decide to stop being a customer entirely.

If you’d like to go deeper into revenue concepts like ARR, Paddle and Equals have great content.

What does the Sales team do?

Sales teams typically focus on pre-sale activities. They organize around a mix of:

  1. Complexity (size) of the customer (Small Medium Business → Mid-Market →Enterprise)

  2. Industry of the customer (e.g., Tech, Healthcare)

  3. Geography of the customer. This can be small scale regions like “US Northeast” up to groups of countries like LATAM, APAC, and EMEA for global businesses.

Account Executive (AE)

The Account Executive is who most people think of when they hear “tech sales rep”.

AEs close deals. They take qualified leads, demo the product, negotiate terms, and ensure a smooth handoff to customer success. A successful Account Executive is good at building momentum, understanding pain points, and moving deals forward to a decision.

A common misconception is that sales means convincing people to buy something, even if they don’t need it. In reality, B2B sales is about finding people who have a problem you can solve, helping them decide if your company is the best equipped to solve it for them, and finding commercial terms to make it happen.

Sales Development Representative (SDR)

Also known as: Business Development Representatives (BDR)

SDRs prospect for business, qualifying leads before passing them off to Account Executives. They find new leads through email outreach, LinkedIn messages, and calls. They do not make sales directly, but are an essential part of the sales process.

If your company’s website has forms to “Request a demo”, an SDR will typically be the first contact. If the prospect is “qualified” (good fit for potential opportunity), they pass the lead along to an account executive.

People do not stay SDR’s for very long, and that’s by design. It is an entry level role and typically a stepping stone to become an Account Executive within 12-18 months.

Sales Engineer (SE)

Also known as: Solutions Engineer

Sales Engineers provide technical expertise during the sales process, often as the AE’s copilot. They are not engineers in the same way R+D thinks about them, but actually really technical sales folks. They answer technical questions, do customized demos, and show how the product can solve specific problems. They work alongside the AE to discover and address technical risks within the deal, including both product requirements and security questionnaires for Enterprise customers.

They are successful when customers onboard without bumping into technical roadblocks, and prospects understand requirements to integrate your product.

Highly technical products might have a post-sale version of this role (“Technical Account Manager”) which combines CSM + SE skillsets.

Sales Enablement Manager

The Sales Enablement Manager gives the sales team the necessary tools, content, and information to sell effectively. They do not work with customers directly. They may develop training programs, create sales collateral, or implement sales technology to boost efficiency and success.

Enablement refers to internal materials that support different parts of business, sales enablement being the most common. Product enablement, for example, includes content that helps people understand or explain the product more successfully. Sales enablement includes product enablement, but also things like competitive analysis (e.g., ”Battle Cards”).

How does product marketing help?

Product Marketing Manager (PMM)

PMMs are the bridge between the product and the customer. They understand the product deeply and how to position its value to the market. When you release new features, they will work with product and enablement teams to develop the story and make sure everyone understands the value. They work across teams to create product enablement, and supporting materials.

What does the Customer team do?

Customer teams focus on post-sale activities, supporting the ongoing customer experience.

Customer Success Manager (CSM)

CSMs make sure customers stay happy and get value from the product. CSMs have “books” of customers they directly manage, often as the primary point of contact for their customers. They build relationships with these customers, answer questions, and help solve problems.

When you ship a new feature, CSMs help customers discover and adopt it successfully. They advise on best practice and help customers reach their goals with your product. Internally, they act as the “voice of customer” and share feedback to influence product strategy.

A successful CSM has high customer retention and expansion from continued product adoption.

There are several approaches for CSM team design, so expect to see differences between companies. CSMs are distinct from customer support reps, who still handles tickets and inbound customer troubleshooting.

Account Manager (AM)

The Account Manager manages the business relationship with the customer. They upsell or cross-sell products, negotiate contracts, and handle renewals. They may partner with a CSM counterpart who handles adoption and the day to day relationship. In some companies, this role may not exist — instead the CSM role may include revenue responsibilities, or the CSM partners with an AE for expansion deals.

Account Managers are generally aligned to revenue, while Customer Success may be a mix of tactical and revenue responsibilities.

Renewals Manager

Renewals Managers handle the renewal process for existing customers. They negotiate renewal contracts and help retain customers. They may partner with a CSM/AM or own smaller account directly.

Renewals managers make sense for situations like:

  1. The renewal process is complicated

  2. The CSM or AM handles expansion, but not renewals

  3. You have a segment of smaller spend customers who do not have a CSM assigned, but you still need someone responsible for going owning the renewal process and verifying even accounts with credit card payments go smoothly.

Onboarding Specialist

Onboarding Specialists are the first stop for new customers. They provide training, answer questions, and offer support during the initial setup period, ensuring a smooth transition for the customer. They may work alongside the CSM during onboarding, or own the relationship completely until they pass the onboarded customer to the CSM.

CSM’s likely own onboarding at companies without this role.

Customer Support

Customer Support assists customers in resolving technical issues related to the product. They are product experts and most likely know the quirks better than anyone else in the company, including the product team itself.

They provide technical guidance, troubleshoot problems, and work closely with the R+D team to report bugs and improve the product based on customer feedback. They may organize by “Tier” or “Level” to describe which types of issues they work on — higher tier = more complex.

Wrap up

If you feel out of your depth among acronyms and pipelines and attribution metrics, you aren’t alone. Learning how to work across these teams is one of the most challenging skills to build in a growing organization. You don’t have to know how they do their work, but even understanding the basics of each role will make you more effective at getting stuff done within your company.

Your teammates will appreciate the effort.

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