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Customer Success or Sales: Who owns SaaS Upsell, Cross Sell, and Renewal?

By Jay Nathan

Who owns upsell? This is a classic question that every SaaS company must answer at one point or another.

On one hand, Customer Success Managers interact with customers on a regular basis, have relationships, and understand the needs of users.

On the other hand, Sales understands what it takes to move an opportunity from inception to closure. And they are trained on the contracting process.

So what’s the right answer?

Frustratingly, it depends…

It depends on company stage, in-house skill sets, customer experience expectations, complexity of sale, and it depends on how aggressively we’re trying to grow through expansion.

However, as one of my VP, Sales friends says, “In the early days, just let the people with the right skill set handle it.”

The right skill set in this case is the ability to close a transaction.

In the early stages of growth, SaaS companies typically hire utility players into Customer Success. These folks handle a number of tasks such as customer onboarding, support, and relationship management. They are Swiss Army knives, but a skill they usually aren’t equipped with is closing deals.

On the other hand, Sales expertise emerges early in a growing SaaS company. If we already have closers in the building, why not go ahead and let them drive the transactions? One of my favorite CFOs used to say, “Let Sales handle Sales, and Service [Success] handle Service.”

Now, if upselling becomes a big distraction to new logo sales, first pat yourself on the back — expansion revenue is awesome — then, carve off an account management role that only focuses only on upsell and cross selling based on leads generated by Customer Success Managers.

Same goes for cross selling, but renewals are a different animal.

With renewals, consider specializing early. Many companies will create a role or assign an individual to manage the renewals process. If a renewal is accompanied by an upsell or cross sell, then by all means, kick it back to Sales and compensate them for closing both. However, if there’s no recurring revenue expansion opportunity associated with the renewal, we ought not distract sales with it.

Customer Success can handle the renewal process, after all they should be responsible for revenue retention. When the volume of renewals warrants it, go ahead and create a full time renewals manager role.

So, you can see I generally come down on the side of Sales owning transactions. However Customer Success has a key role to play in expanding adoption and product usage, and they should be up/cross sell lead generation beasts.

In the end, team alignment, roles and responsibilities will evolve as you grow.

However, this won’t change: When customers win, they are willing to do more business with us. And when they do more business with us, we all win.

Here are a few questions worth considering as you determine what your up/cross sell model is going to be:

  • What do we want CMSs to accomplish with customers, and how are they being compensated for that? Do incentives conflict with the role we want them to play?
  • Can we train Customer Success and Support to identify leads and engage Sales?
  • What must we absolutely have the Customer Success support on for upselling? Can the CSM be a “wingman” during the upsell process?
  • Will our customers lose trust in CSMs who try to upsell them?
Published April 4, 2017
About the Author

I've spent my career working in technology companies to build customer-centric teams, processes and technology platforms. In 2017, I founded Customer Imperative, a consulting firm that helps fast-growing B2B SaaS companies improve renewals, increase expansion sales and scale customer engagement. See full bio ›

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