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Keeping customers happy 101: support vs. success

Photo of Lucy Jasper
by Lucy Jasper
March 6, 2019

We all rise with better experiences.

When New York Times’ best-selling author and consultant Joseph Michelli came to improve luxury car leader Mercedes-Benz’s customer service culture, this was his core value.

“For me, it is all about helping every single person improve the quality of experiences they provide to consumers because we all rise with better experiences. This means less stress. We don’t have to work so hard to get our needs met…”

Michelli joined president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA, Stephen Cannon to ignite a dynamic service reinvention for the company.

They set a new standard: every encounter with the brand must be as extraordinary as the machine itself. Every customer experience must deliver joy. As outsourced customer support specialists, we’ve found that – no matter the company – most of the teams dedicated to customer joy are classed specifically as either “customer support” or “customer success.” But what’s the difference? And why does it matter?

With the help of expert Kirsty Traill of Hootsuite, we’re breaking it down: the definition of customer support vs. customer success, the key differences, and why it’s important for you and your company to know.

Customer Support: Defined

Both customer support and customer success teams work to the same overarching goals: deliver exceptional experiences, and help customers.

Depending upon your company’s services, the definition of just what a customer support team does may vary — and those needs continue to grow as customer expectations get higher, too!

Kirsty explains, “Customer support is reactive, so it’s the muscle that flexes when something comes into the business and we need to react to it with a shorter-term focus. It’s centered on resolving product issues and making sure that customers are satisfied with those resolutions.

Customer support is reactive, so it’s the muscle that flexes when something comes into the business and we need to react to it with a shorter-term focus.

It’s the ownership of troubleshooting break fixes, bugs, feature requests, working with product to fix issues, and then delivering things like the knowledge base and frequently asked questions so that the customers can self-serve.”

In a nutshell, the qualities of great customer support include:

  • Prompt, empathetic help in direct response to customer questions or problems
  • Responsive, efficient customer interaction based on particular customer needs
  • Deep understanding of a company’s product or service
  • Concern for the customer first, always

Great customer support teams collect data to help design products better or improve services, and provide customers with tools to find answers and solve problems. Basecamp’s Chase Clemons even defines customer support as a critical feature of a product; it makes the difference between you and a competitor, and it can’t be duplicated when done right.

Customer Success: Defined

If customer support focuses on fixing problems, customer success hones in on fostering high-quality relationships.

Customer success is about ensuring that customers see the value that they came to derive from your product.

While it may seem easy to tie customer success services into sales or even product development, these teams stand alone in building relationships and ensuring customer value.

As Kirsty states, “Customer success is about ensuring that customers see the value that they came to derive from your product. It’s proactive, it’s long-term focused, and it’s typically revenue generating. Customer success owns launch and onboarding customer engagement, ongoing success, and up- and cross-sell.”

The key qualities of customer success include:

  • Proactive, thoughtful help without a specific endpoint or conclusion in mind
  • Agents with a variety of skills and complex insights into customer needs
  • Sophisticated, actively evolving  metrics and analytics
  • A focus on customer happiness beyond making a sale or executing a fix
  • An eye to downstream impacts: retention, repeat business, and lifetime value

Customer Support vs. Customer Success: What’s the Difference?

While customer support and customer success teams share skill sets, responsibilities, and overarching goals, they tend to operate with distinctly different strategies and approaches.

Customer support teams tend to be reactive: they resolve issues related to a product or service or offer additional instruction or education when needed.

Customer success, on the other hand, plays for keeps with a proactive strategy: it can best be managed by numbers tied to longevity of satisfaction, such as return customers and repeat business or sustained customer retention.

At Hootsuite, Kirsty’s found that there’s a certain – and essential – difference. “I think there’s actually quite a distinction, but a lot of customer success managers, for example, end up working on support issues and don’t focus enough on customer engagement, success, and up-sell, which is why I think you really need to draw that line.

More mature companies have customer support and customer success as two distinct functions, which allows them to focus on deriving or delivering customer value, particularly where they want growth to come from their existing customers.

More mature companies have customer support and customer success as two distinct functions, which allows them to focus on deriving or delivering customer value, particularly where they want growth to come from their existing customers.”

Why Should You Define Customer Support and Customer Success?

It’s easy — and tempting — to just lump support and success teams together without distinction. After all, they’re both aiming at the same target: customer happiness.

A carefully strategized, two-pronged approach to customer happiness — as Kirsty so clearly breaks out — is a very real necessity, and should be defined with clear roles and responsibilities for the best impact.

You should be able to break out the key components of both customer support and success in relation to the capacity of your company’s business — or its goals — and each will stand alone.

They’re a classic team – like peanut butter and jelly – and the two together make for the perfect recipe for customer happiness.


About the author

Photo of Lucy Jasper

Lucy Jasper

Lucy works at Influx. When she isn’t waxing poetic (or figuring out how to use that particular phrase in a sentence), she is probably setting unattainable health goals or grocery shopping.