The terms 'support' and 'success' are sometimes (wrongly) used interchangeably. They have a bunch of common ground too, but there are clear differences. In mature organizations, they're usually totally separate teams, with separate management, goals, tools, and so on.
Here's a quick no-fluff guide to understanding the differences.
The difference between customer support vs customer success
The main difference is that customer success is proactive, while customer support is reactive. Both teams exist to help & retain customers, and they’re the face of their companies.
Other differences include:
- Support is business-critical, while success exists to add value
- Success requires a deeper customer understanding & general industry expertise, while support tends to have broader product & technical knowledge.
- The KPIs & metrics are different, e.g. resolution time (support) vs. expansion MRR (success)
That’s the TL;DR. More detail on these shortly. Next, let’s clear up definitions.
What is customer support?
The role of customer support is primarily to provide timely assistance to customers who ask for it. That’s often in the form of online chats & tickets, but it can also be phone & face-to-face. Customer support’s responsibilities often also include maintaining a knowledge base, and reporting common questions back to product & sales teams.
What is customer success?
Customer success is a more proactive role. Their job is to figure out what ‘success’ means, and help customers achieve it. That usually includes elements of reaching out to customers.
Usually, their objectives are to retain customers, expand customers (increase their product/service usage), and onboard new customers.
7 key differentiators between customer support & customer success
1. Success is proactive, support is reactive
Probably the easiest difference to understand. Customer support mostly reacts to inbound enquiries when questions are asked, while customer success should proactively reach out and offer ideas/assistance.
2. Support is business critical, success is a value-add
Generally, most businesses cannot function without customer support, which makes it an integral team that touches every aspect of the customer journey.
Customer success, however, is generally tasked with adding value through expansions & retention. Many companies will start their journey without a customer success team, and add this function later.
3. Different metrics/KPIs are used for measurement & reporting
Support & success are measured differently. Common customer support metrics & KPIs include:
- First contact resolution rate
- Response times
- Volume of support tickets
- Replies sent
Common customer success metrics & KPIs include:
It’s worth noting that support & success often share many business metrics too. For example:
- Customer satisfaction score
- Customer health score
- NPS ratings
4. Different skills & expertise are required for each role
Generally, a customer success specialist needs to be more consultative, and understand the big picture more clearly than a customer support agent. They need to be able to build relationships with customers, empathize, understand their goals, and offer strategic assistance to help them succeed.
Customer support requires excellent product & technical knowledge, so they can zoom in on a specific problem ad-hoc and help the customer resolve it ASAP. Outside of that, support requires a fairly standard set of transferable skills: the ability to communicate well in writing, being helpful, friendly, and responsive.
I asked Roi Kiouri (Customer Success Lead @ Uplead) for her take on the skillset differences:
Customer Support is more focused on reactive issue resolution, hence the main skill required is fast problem-solving. Customer Success on the other hand, is all about bringing value and helping the customer achieve business objectives. This requires a strategizing and relationship building mindset.
5. Support interactions are more transactional vs. relational
Answering support tickets is generally transactional. It begins when the ticket is opened, and ends when the issue gets resolved.
For customer success, the ongoing customer relationship is a critical thing that is constantly being developed. Better the relationships = more expansion revenue, less churn, better feedback, and more advocacy.
Of course over time some customers will build relationships with support reps too, but as a general rule, success focuses more on long-term customer relationships.
6. Customer support is a more established field, making hiring easier
Customer support has been a well-established field for many years. There’s more people with relevant experience, and hiring managers have a better idea of what they’re looking for.
Success is a developing field, prevalent only in the last ~10 years or so. That means there are naturally fewer people (so far) that have experience in these roles, and with customer success platforms & other tools.
Lots of people entering the customer success space do so by transitioning from other industries.
7. Support also touches acquisition; success doesn’t
A customer support team is likely to answer questions from prospective customers, as well as customers. A basic question about pricing, for example, may come to a generic company inbox. In that case, it probably isn’t worth routing to sales, so a support agent can easily provide the answer.
That means there’s some role in customer acquisition, where support is responsible for the first impression given by your brand. Whereas success usually doesn’t have a role to play until the sales / success handover, ready for onboarding.
Similarities shared by success & support teams
You wouldn’t be reading up on the differences between success & support if they didn’t also have many similarities.
These teams, especially in smaller companies, regularly share resources, goals, and even team members. It’s not uncommon for a career to transition from one to the other, also.
Here’s some key similarities between customer support & customer success. Both:
- Are critical customer-facing positions, that can deliver customer insights to sales, marketing, and product teams
- Require good people skills & communication skills
- Impact upon churn, retention, expansion, and other revenue metrics
Success & support are both essential for growth
Any well-established startup or scale-up company will have both support & success teams. They share the common goal of delivering an excellent customer experience, which is critical for any business in any industry.
In 2023, with a rocky economic climate, they're arguably more important than ever. Founders & investors are looking closely at revenue retention; maximizing revenue from your existing customer base has never been more important.