Nowadays, all SaaS companies are really CX organizations.
That means every customer's interaction with your organization—whether on your blog, with a sales rep, or inside your product—impacts their overall experience. Each employee in a customer experience (CX) organization supports the customer journey. That includes sales, marketing, and product, but goes double for customer success and customer support.
Customer success and customer support are critical functions. As companies grow and scale, it’s important to understand these 2 functions, how they differ, and their impact on larger business goals.
Before we go any further, let’s look at success and support and what makes them different.
What is customer support?
Different companies tend to define support and success…well, differently.
One of the primary functions of customer support is providing assistance to customers on an as-needed and as-requested basis.
“A lot of time, you can think of customer support as the help desk,” said Ricky Perez, Director of Customer Support at Appcues. “They’re there to answer specific questions or resolve technical issues as they arise.
The support function can cover a lot of ground, depending on the company, product, and customer. Some of these many functions can include:
- Answering customer questions about new features
- Fixing problems or bugs that inevitably arise with complicated software products
- Helping customer success by providing technical knowledge
Generally, the support team tends to be a reactive function, dealing with a higher volume of “smaller” issues that can be resolved relatively quickly. Their approach is usually transactional, solving customer issues before moving on to the next.
What is customer success?
Customer success, on the other hand, places greater emphasis on customer relationships. “Customer Success is tasked with ensuring that customers are happy,” said Perez. “They’re there to be the customer’s go-to resource for any question, and ensure they are getting the maximum value from the product.”
Customer Success Managers (CSMs) guide new users throughout their experience with your software, starting with onboarding and (potentially) continuing for as long as the customer remains a customer.
Think of a CSM as a sort of concierge, or trusted resource for the customer. They know who the customer is and understand how and why they use the product. This allows them to provide specific guidance and advice to help them achieve their goals.
5 differences between customer success and customer support
Now, let’s dive into the more specific differences between customer support and customer success. Understanding these differences—and why they matter—will help you empower your teams to strengthen your product experiences and ensure happy customers.
Difference #1: KPIs & metrics
When support and success teams have distinct and well-defined roles, it’s natural for those 2 teams to drive separate success metrics. Even if not, parsing those metrics for each shouldn’t be like finishing first on Rainbow Road (i.e., hard.)
Customer support, for example, has relatively concrete metrics. Some of the most common include:
Having happy customers is always a good thing. For Customer support, customer satisfaction scores (CSAT), Net Promoter Scores (NPS), and other forms of customer feedback after a completed ticket are the ultimate gauges of satisfaction.
One of the most important things customers are concerned about is time. If your customer support team is resolving issues with a fast response time, you’re going to have happy customers.
One of the best kinds of customer support? Proactively educating customers to resolve issues before they happen. Customer support teams do this by developing support content (e.g., blogs, videos, tutorials) that addresses common hiccups so customers don’t need to ask for help at all.
Self-service frees up your Customer Support team to focus on more difficult issues. You can measure the success of your support documentation and ticket deflection rate by calculating the ratio of users that submit a support ticket even after checking out your support docs or knowledge center.
Customer success teams, on the other hand, often focus on the “bigger” metrics. The specific metrics will vary according to the company and product, but some of the most common include:
- Customer retention: The number of customers you retain over a period of time compared to the total number of customers from the same period.
- Customer churn: The number of lost customers over a period of time.
- Customer lifetime value: The average value of a relationship for the extension of the customer lifecycle.
Importantly, these metrics all tie back to the customer’s overall satisfaction and their perceived value. The technical issues handled by Customer Support will come and go, but if a company’s customer success strategy isn’t helping customers get the most out of the product, they will eventually leave.
Difference #2: proactive vs. reactive
It’s hard to anticipate most of the customer problems and technical issues that will pop up on a daily basis. That’s why Customer Support is inherently a reactive endeavor. Support specialists have to react quickly and problem-solve on the fly.
But there are exceptions to this. When certain problems or technical issues are constants for nearly every customer, your support engineering or product teams have an opportunity to rectify the problem in order to prevent those problems in the first place.
Customer Success, on the other hand, is a more proactive approach. These teams are tasked with anticipating large customer needs and providing guidance and solutions before they become a problem. This can only be done by having a deep understanding of a customer’s goals, how they use the product, and what their larger jobs-to-be-done are.
But the proactive nature of the CSM role is about more than measuring customer health for each account. Because of their proximity to customer data and needs, CSMs are often tasked with impacting customer lifetime value via strategic upsells or cross-sells.
Difference #3: strategic vs. supportive
The Customer Support function exists to support the customer. In other words, they’re there to help with bugs, blockers, and other specific issues related to the job customers are trying to accomplish with your product.
On the other hand, CSMs are tasked with thinking long-term and understanding the customers’ larger objectives. They provide the guidance and advice to help them use the product to reach those goals. Customer Success is also important for customer retention and advocacy—both of which are critical components to the company’s overall success.
Difference #4: transactional vs. relationship-oriented
Software can be buggy. When things break—or just don’t make sense—your customers will look to the support desk for help. When they do, it’s more of a transactional situation. Customers contact Customer Support with a problem, the problem gets resolved, and that’s the end.
But Customer Success is a comparatively relationship-driven function.
“Customer Success is kind of like a tax preparation service,” Ricky Perez says.
For many, using an online tax filing service is more than enough. But high net-worth individuals, business owners, or others with complicated tax situations need specialists to reduce their tax liability.
“People hire tax specialists because they know their objectives and will work with them throughout the year to minimize their tax burden. It’s the same with a CSM,” Perez says. “CSMs know the software in and out and they know how customers use it, so they can give you all the best practices.”
Difference #5: professional skills
Technical skills are a value-add for both support and success—but maybe more so in support roles. Support specialists and engineers need to be comfortable looking at code. They should be able to recognize if something is not coded properly and either fix it or inform the product engineers if it’s a larger problem. This is why it’s not uncommon for Customer Support to be an entry point for people who want to get into product engineering or design.
Technical knowledge is helpful for Customer Success, but people skills are essential. Since it’s a more relationship-driven function, they should be able to listen to customers and gain their trust as an advisor or guide. This includes being able to understand the customers’ businesses and industries, so they can ensure they are using the product to maximum effect.
“CSMs are typically the ones who ask a lot of questions to more deeply understand what customers need,” says Okello Carter, Director of Customer Success at Appcues.
Jessica Haas, VP of Customer Experience at Appcues, added that CSMs need to be persistent. “They need to be dogged about getting answers, getting solutions, and advocating for their customers,” she said.
Though they have their differences, one trait that Customer Support and Customer Success pros undoubtedly share is a service mindset. Genuinely wanting to help people is key in any customer-facing role. After all: technical skills can be taught, but a desire to help is more related to personality.
Optimizing customer support and customer success
Although success and support are different functions, there’s no reason for them to be siloed. For many orgs, a healthy amount of overlap between the two is normal.
Looking for more? Check out our ultimate guide to user onboarding for a more detailed explanation of the importance of the initial customer journey, as well as best practices.