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How customer support and customer service work hand-in-hand

By Tara Ramroop, Senior Manager, Content Marketing

Published February 7, 2019
Last modified July 14, 2020

Customer support and customer service are often mentioned in the same context, but they are different things. Read on to learn the differences between customer support vs. customer service, and how they work hand-in-hand to support a business.

What is customer support?

Customer support are the people who provide help when customers have trouble with a company's products or services. Troubleshooting is a big part of the job, but customer support agents also help customers with installation, training, maintenance, upgrading service, or ending service.

These teams are often the modern incarnation of internal technical support that most companies used to employ. The rise of software as a service (SaaS) made remote installation and operation of software much easier, opening tech support teams to focus more on partnership and customer relationships. The rise of e-commerce further contributed to the shift, as customer support grew into a prevalent part of a business that was, previously, only necessary in physical stores.

Support agents are experts in your product. They should be capable of diverse and proactive technical support while maintaining the patience and people skills to guide frustrated customers toward a solution. A customer support interaction starts when the customer reaches out on their preferred channel with a problem, and the interaction should not end until that customer achieves a resolution. Customer support interactions aren’t a great time to push products and services—no one wants a hard sell in the middle of a stressful issue—but good customer service might open the door to those types of conversations.

What is customer service?

Customer service is an umbrella term for all interactions that enhance customer experience and help improve their relationship with the company. Customer support is just one type of interaction.

All businesses provide customer service, but not all need to offer customer support. A restaurant, for example, provides customer service when you are seated, as you order your food, and upon payment. The waiter is probably not going to show you how to cut your steak, though.

Customer service agents need good reactive skills to help ensure customers are using the company's products in the most efficient manner, but they should be mindful of how to provide downstream value. Cultivating a positive business relationship means maximizing value for the user as well as the provider. So while good customer service may entail promptly connecting customers to a technical support representative, it could also mean answering queries on social media or live chat, helping to onboard new customers, or following up with a return customer to see if they’re interested in upgrading or expanding into new products or services.

Aren't customer support and customer service the same thing?

Some experts—and even Google—have a hard time distinguishing between customer support vs customer service. Jonathan Brummel, senior manager of premier support at Zendesk, puts it this way: A customer support team can fix a technical issue in the short term, but providing good customer service helps build relationships and establish a true partnership in the long term. If customer support is the how, such as the nuts and bolts of troubleshooting an issue, customer service is the why—why it’s recommended to set up your cloud account in a certain way or why today’s issue could balloon into a bigger issue in time if certain steps aren’t taken. Adding the “why” into the support process improves the experience for customers, and it helps agents grow.

One of the best ways to provide excellent customer support is honing an ability to provide excellent, human customer service. For example, maybe a customer reached out about a stolen credit card. Beyond identifying what information was compromised and then taking steps to solve that problem, going the extra mile can go a long way. That might mean following up on live chat or social media with a link to relevant tips and tricks from the knowledge base or company blog.

Go from troubleshooter to strategic partner

There is always a technical answer to a technical problem, and customer support agents are there to help when those issues arise. But the type of help being offered, when, how, and to whom, can be what sets a support team apart.

Let’s say you are a customer and were supposed to put a checkbox on a form at the DMV, the doctor’s office, or your tax-preparation software. You didn’t, something didn’t work out as expected, and you contacted customer support. A skilled, helpful agent helped diagnose the problem, explaining that not checking that box was the issue. Years ago, when a support ticket was opened when a problem started and closed when it was solved, a quick diagnosis made more sense. For a modern support operation, taking the time to set customers up for success is necessary follow-through. Maybe that means asking why they didn’t check the box, or taking the time to explain the important actions that are touched off when they do.

Reward soft skills in “technical” customer support

Technology should support humans instead of the other way around. That means that a human touch is necessary for solving humans’ problems with their technology of choice. Still, that isn’t always how it plays out in real life. As one public-sector employee put it, explaining the challenges of providing good customer support in government agencies:

“A lot of things we valued in technical leadership focused on technical skill sets, not on skill sets necessarily driving toward customer experience and some of the soft skills of leadership.”

Brummel agrees that support leaders across industries tend to hire first for the necessary technical skills and promote those who’ve mastered them. But he encourages fellow support leaders to be open-minded about the soft skills that go beyond technical. There is plenty of opportunity during a support interaction to connect with customers and demonstrate empathy for their needs, Brummel says.

Bring empathy and “extreme rapport” to every support interaction

Empathy in a support organization helps agents read between the lines of a situation. Even when an agent is on their 700th call or chat of the week over the same issue, empathy reminds them what it’s like to be the customer whose entire day—and possibly an entire department or line of business—hangs in the balance. Maybe they’re just getting started at their company or with your product, or maybe it was simply just an off day; support agents don’t always know, but it helps to hold space for whatever it might be.

“We have some of the most technical talent in the company but are dealing with extreme emotions, which can go from 0-75 just like that,” Brummel says.

Instead of becoming a cartoon of technical support, Brummel also suggests practicing “extreme rapport” to foster a sense of collaboration toward a common goal. Even the most technical knowhow and intimate knowledge of a product won’t help a customer in need if it isn’t balanced with rapport. This sometimes requires getting into what Brummel calls “an awkward place.” Customers, especially stressed customers, don’t always want to do what a support agent suggests, which means making a strong, reasonable case for why they should care. In many instances, the threat of a bigger problem down the road is why they should care. Nothing says “strategic partner” like someone who helps identify a problem before it balloons into a bigger issue.

Evolve customer support outcomes and KPIs

Some tried-and-true key performance indicators (KPIs) for evaluating customer support include CSAT, net promoter scores (NPS), and churn rates. But it's helpful to regularly review KPIs to determine where they can evolve. In the early days of support software, the number of tickets solved was a metric for support success. But as traditional “support” functions become more integrated with other channels and business processes, organizations are changing how they measure success. This also affects the ways in which support teams support their customers.

At Magnolia—the retail and experience empire built by HGTV favorites Chip and Joanna Gaines—number of tickets solved or time to resolution are not brand-right or even accurate indicators of success. Knowing that their customer base is equally likely to call in for a chat or to ask about an online purchase, the support team is empowered to take their time with customers on the phone, and even allowed a budget to entertain customers or send them flowers.

Support your customer support teams

The nature of technical support demands a level of specialization in the products and services, which can lead to repetitive work over time. Strategic support leaders balance the necessity of specialization with assigning new and different projects across the team, helping guard against the “heart-hardening” Brummel says happens when agents are bored and siloed into their product specialty or function.

There are many solutions for boredom, including empowering support agents to take ownership of certain tasks, training others, or giving them time on live channels regularly each week. With such a grab bag of issues and personalities to encounter on a phone call or in a chat window, a stint in 1:1 live service can provide a new perspective for even seasoned veterans of a support team.

Another approach is coaching support agents to enter all support situations without being attached to an outcome. While customer support can’t guarantee that the issue will be fixed right then and there, agents can promise they’ll be collaborative and communicative the whole way through.

Answer the why, not just the how

Brummel says that it’s easy to succeed in a traditional support role for those with more technical skills; it’s much more difficult to understand yourself and other people. Customer support will always demand intimate product and process knowledge, but adding a dash of customer service might prompt agents to focus on the customer and develop the other skills necessary to help them.

By rewarding soft skills, encouraging empathy and extreme rapport, reviewing outcomes and KPIs, and supporting agents in all of the above, a customer support team can take a more customer-centric approach and provide long-term support beyond the issue of the day.

While the lines between "customer service" and "customer support" may have become blurred, it is important to use both to deliver high-quality customer experiences.

Implement a world-class customer-service solution

The best customer service solution takes the whole journey—including customer support—into account.