Customer Support vs. Customer Success: What Are The Differences?

Anne Marie Traas
Anne Marie Traas
March 4, 2024
Customer Support vs. Customer Success: What Are The Differences?

In today’s dream-of-being-a-unicorn SaaS environment, the terms “customer support” and “customer success” are thrown around alot; often interchangeably. 

But what are they really?

For starters, while support and success are complementary, they aren’t the same.

The fundamental distinction between customer support and customer success boils down to their stance: reactive vs. proactive. 

Here’s the TL;dr: 

Both customer support and customer success teams are designed to improve customer satisfaction and increase customer retention, thus increasing revenue for your company. But customer support is usually reactive with a shorter-term focus, while customer success is usually proactive with a longer-term focus.

(Big emphasis on the “usually”, because there are always exceptions). 

Let’s take a closer look.

Customer Support: Reactive with a short-term focus

At its core, customer support is reactive. Your customer support team plays an essential role, answering questions and resolving customer issues to help customers stay engaged, be happy with your product, and be more successful. 

When a customer has a problem or needs to know how to do something, they get in touch with the support team. This might be through reaching out via chat, phone, or email — in which case, your support team reacts by providing help. Or it might be by visiting your knowledge base or interacting with your chatbot to find answers. 

That’s a slightly more proactive approach to customer support — your team has proactively created resources to help customers — but the customer is still taking the first step here to find help here. 

Most customer support interactions are short-term and transactional. A customer has an issue, your support team solves it, and your customer moves on.

In one sense, the support team’s relationship with the customer ends.

All that being said, if  your company is thinking about the entire customer experience, then your support team’s interaction is one touchpoint in the customer journey. Your support team can do a better job of helping customers when they understand each customer’s history with your products, recent support tickets, goals, and so on. should also be approaching things from a success perspective. Great customer service teams are also proactive in how they engage with customers: they offer additional information before it’s requested, point out opportunities for improvement, and more. 

In summary, your customer support team is reactive at the macro-level, while being proactive and as helpful as possible in each unique customer conversation.

Understanding the role of customer support

Customer support’s aim is to provide timely assistance for technical issues and user concerns through a myriad of channels, including chat, email, phones, social media, and a knowledge base.

Let’s look at a common interaction that would be handled by support: an issue of double billing. 

In this scenario, your customer, Michael Scott, notices he was billed twice for your monthly services. He starts by going to your knowledge base, where he learns where to see his billing activity in the account.

Michael pokes around but only sees one invoice for the previous month, yet his credit card statement clearly shows two charges for the same amount, two days apart. He immediately assumes the worst and shoots an email to the support team, ready to fight.

“You thieves charged me twice for the same service! You’re stealing from me. Refund both charges, now, or I’m taking my business elsewhere!”

The customer support agent sees this email, takes a beat, and does some research before responding. 

In this case, the agent looks into the account, and sees one charge, despite the clear double charge in the credit card statement attached to Michael’s email.

Problem solving mode kicks in. 

Fortunately, your company has created an internal knowledge base with Tettra. The support agent makes use of Tettra’s Q&A feature, asking the system how to find a duplicate charge. 

Tettra searches your internal documentation and is able to guide the agent through finding the duplicate charge in the billing system.

This helps the agent find the root issue: the same card is being used on two different accounts. 

The agent finds the account information for the second account, and sees that both account holders are with the same company, Dunder Mifflin. In all likelihood, this is just a miscommunication, where two different people at the company decided to use the same service unknowingly (which actually happens surprisingly often).

At this point the support agent can connect the two Dunder Mifflin employees, explain the situation, and the three can work together to decide the best path: two accounts or one?

For most customer support teams, this is where the customer interaction would end. Customer support teams are usually focused on goals based around efficiency, like first response time or average resolution time, so while they want to make sure customers are satisfied, they’re also trying not to extend conversations longer than needed. 

It’s a tough balancing act.

And while that’s how things usually work, in a CX-focused business, I suggest taking it one step further with a bit of proactive support.

Successful customer support agents can still be proactive 

In the example discussed above, the agent informs the Dunder Mifflin reps that the product is designed so they can both be part of the same account, listing all the benefits of using one account. 

They share links from their customer-facing knowledge base via email, with an aim to help the account holders better understand the perks of sharing an account. The support rep may even offer to have a customer success manager (CSM) give them a call to walk through the tool and explain how a joint account might better serve their goals. 

By doing this, the agent not only solves the customer’s issue in the short term, they help create momentum for the customer to successfully use the product and stick around.

It’s a reactive, short-term customer support team adopting a proactive, long-term customer success mindset.

And it’s a beautiful thing.

Customer success: proactive with a long-term focus

While customer support teams react to problems, the role of customer success teams is to help customers achieve their desired outcomes — whatever “success” means to them while using your product or service. In helping every customer be more successful, customer success teams foster long-term loyalty and additional growth opportunities among your user base.

Understanding your customer goals and aligning your services to meet them is central to building a customer success program. This involves strategic planning (how you build out your program) and personalized guidance (knowing your customers well) to ensure customers are maximizing the value they get from your product offerings.

Exploring the role of customer success teams

To better understand the role a customer success team plays, let’s build on the example from earlier.

In an ideal scenario, the billing issue discussed above wouldn’t have happened at all. Instead of the support team responding to an angry email, someone from the customer success team might have proactively noticed two new accounts belonging to the same company, each with one user.

Let’s say iIt’s the customer success manager’s first week with the company, so she knows from past experience that something should be done, but she isn’t sure on the exact SOP here. 

But you’re using Tettra, remember? 

So she’s able to quickly do a bit of research in your internal knowledge base to find out exactly how to proceed, without needing to wait on help from a supervisor or coworker.

Based on what she learns, she proactively reaches out to both individuals account holders, requesting a meeting to discuss their goals with your product. During that meeting, she learns that Dunder Mifflin is looking to improve team collaboration and streamline product delivery through using your company’s project management tool.

Because she identified the company’s goals, the CSM is then able to recommend the best features for Dunder Mifflin to start using. She offers up training sessions, and she follows up with personalized advice to ensure they use your product effectively.

During her conversations, she also learns that they’re a fairly large company, so she offers to manage account setup, including merging the two existing accounts and adding all their additional new users. Even though she hasn’t actually done any of this before, she’s confident she can manage, because she has great standard operating procedures to help her along the way.

After the initial onboarding call, she continuously communicates with Dunder Mifflin to ensure the goals they shared are being achieved. Taken together, all of this proactive work leads to improved customer retention and lower customer churn.

Customer success teams should “check up” instead of “checking in”

The situation I just described above is fairly common for a customer success manager. But the ongoing follow up portion of customer success is where a lot of companies go wrong. They bombard their customers with emails or calls that are simply not wanted by the customer. 

That’s often because they take a strategy of “checking in” with the customer — like you might check in with your mom or a friend you haven’t talked to in months. 

But here’s the issue: while you do want a friendly rapport with your customer, you aren’t their friend. They don’t want to hear from you unless you have value to provide. So instead of a generic “just checking in” email every month or two, CSMs should try doing a check-up.

You already know Dunder Mifflin’s goals because you discussed them at length during your initial call. So instead of reaching out to see how they think they’re doing, regularly check on their usage of your product from your side:

  • Do they regularly login and make use of the services they are paying for? 
  • Are they using all the features they should in order to meet their goals?
  • Can you identify growth opportunities or training gaps that might help them be more successful?

By doing this, you can provide meaningful value when you reach out. Here’s an example:

“Hey, did you know Pam seems twice as effective in the product as Angela? I’m concerned Angela might not be fully understanding how to use it properly and could benefit from some more personalized training. Would you like to set that up? Here’s a link to my calendar.”

Don’t be mere noise in your customers’ brains. If you have no value to offer to your customer, don’t reach out to them. 

CSMs play an important part in upselling and cross-selling

A common component of a CSM’s job description is identifying upsell and cross-sell opportunities. 

This doesn’t mean you’re cold-calling customers, though. Because you know your customers’ unique needs, you’re able to sell in a more consultative way, only suggesting new products or features when they actually further the customer’s success. 

For instance, maybe Angela has been less productive because she spends loads of time manually exporting data to create reports. After you email her manager, Michael, is able to provide you with this context. That opens up the opportunity for you to tell him how much time Angela would save if Dunder Mifflin jumped on a higher-tiered plan, which happens to include  automatic data exports and customized analytics. 

Because customer success teams regularly see expansion opportunities like these, their KPIs don’t just include metrics like retention. They often include a growth-oriented goal, like identifying X upsell opportunities in a given quarter.

However, I warn you to be cautious when giving your customer success team a sales target.

When success teams are given sales goals, it’s easy to become so focused on meeting numbers that the focus on the true intent of a customer success team is lost: fostering success and long-term loyalty. 

Assuming you’re using a subscription-based model, keeping a customer around for the long-term is much better for your business than pushing an upsell that isn’t needed just to hit a short-term sales target.

Collaboration between customer support and customer success = magic

While customer support and customer success serve two distinct purposes, they aren’t islands unto themselves. These two teams need to work closely alongside one another. In a perfect world, there can actually be a fair amount of overlap in their job responsibilities:

  • Customer support agents can learn how to ask good questions, identify growth opportunities, and providing training on your product
  • Customer success managers can learn how to troubleshoot issues with your product, answer FAQs, and set up customer accounts.

Use Tettra to access relevant info & help your customers be successful

If you’re not seeing a path towards making this your reality, there’s an easy solution: using your internal knowledge base to fill in the gaps. 

By leveraging Tettra as your internal knowledge base, anyone across your company — even beyond customer support and customer success — can easily access relevant information and help customers be more successful. 

Building a customer experience organization that drives growth for your business isn’t simple, but with Tettra, it’s way easier.

Start your free trial of Tettra today to get your customer support and customer success teams on the same page and start moving forward.