Customer support vs. customer service—exploring differences and overlap

Customer support vs. customer service—exploring differences and overlap

February 7, 2019
Customer support vs. customer service—exploring differences and overlap

Customer support typically reminds us of technical difficulties and the mysterious technology that helps keep our lives and businesses running. Customer service, on the other hand, may recall guidance toward a goal or an overall experience with a brand—be it help choosing a new software solution or narrowing down the options in a brick-and-mortar retail store.

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. The difference is nuanced, but it’s one that many companies overlook to their detriment. Because understanding the difference, as well as the overlap, enables your business to provide the best care that your customers deserve.

Jonathan Brummel, Senior Manager of Premier Support at Zendesk, says businesses would be remiss to put hard borders around customer support and customer service functions. Where a customer support team can fix a technical issue in the short term, 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. Removing the relationship-building “why” from the support process, Brummel says, doesn’t make sense.

In other words, one of the best ways to provide excellent customer support is honing an ability to provide excellent person-to-person, humanistic customer service. For example, maybe a customer reached out about a stolen credit card. Beyond addressing the technical matter at hand by identifying what information was compromised and then taking the steps to rectify that problem, a support team that shows empathy for a customer’s experience goes a long way in a stressful situation. Maybe that means following up on live chat or social media with a link to relevant tips and tricks from the knowledge base or company blog.

So, what is customer support?

Widely considered to include a range of services that help customers optimize their use of a product or service, customer support agents help customers with anything concerning installation, training, troubleshooting, maintenance, upgrading, or disposal of that product or 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, leaving traditional tech support teams open to focus on more interesting tasks that focus on partnership—presenting an opportunity to go beyond explaining why #REF! keeps popping up is someone’s spreadsheets. SaaS and the rise of ecommerce also contributed to the shift, as customer support grew into a prevalent part of the business that was, previously, only necessary in physical stores.

These support agents are experts in your product line. 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 is satisfied with the help they received. 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 in the future.

What is customer service, then?

Customer service is more of an umbrella term for all customer interactions aimed at enhancing experiences and improving relations with the company and its products—customer support is just one of those interactions.

All businesses have elements of customer service, but not all need to offer customer support. A restaurant, for example, provides customer service when you are seated, order your food, and upon payment. The waiter is probably not going to show you how to cut your steak though, or send you an email or ping on your favorite messaging app with ideas on how to do so.

Customer service agents need good reactive skills to help ensure customers are utilizing 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.

Go from troubleshooter to strategic partner

There is always a technical answer to a technical problem, and customer support agents are there to help provide answers 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 check a box 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 was on hand to help diagnose the problem, eventually explaining that not checking that box was the issue. In a world where support tickets are opened when a customer’s problem starts and closed when it is solved, a quick, efficient diagnosis made more sense. For a modern support operation, though, taking the additional time to demystify the experience for the customer, helping to set them up for success in the long term, 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.

Acknowledge the importance of soft skills in “technical” customer support

Technology should support humans instead of the other way around. It therefore stands to reason 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 the nuts and bolts of the product or service. Customer support teams are often excellent at tackling the technical issue at hand: identifying the problem, taking appropriate action by triaging or escalating to other support tiers, and finishing off by asking whether the customer needed help with anything else that day, but there is a lot of opportunity hidden underneath the surface that can only be uncovered by being in tune with a customer’s needs, Brummel says.

Bring customer service to customer support with empathy and “extreme rapport”

Empathy in a support organization goes a long way in clarifying the stuff hidden beneath the surface. When an agent might be 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 succumbing to a caricature of technical support, Brummel also suggests practicing “extreme rapport” to foster a sense of collaboration toward a common goal. Even the most technical know-how 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 acknowledges can be “an awkward place.” Customers, especially stressed customers, don’t always want to do what a support agent suggests, which means making a strong, reasoned case for why they should care. In many instances, the specter of a bigger problem down the road is why they should care and 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 constantly review KPIs to determine where they can or should evolve. Once upon a time, the number of tickets solved was a marker of success for a support team or individual. 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 experience and empire built by HGTV favorites Chip and Joanna Gaines—number of tickets solved or time to resolution, for example, aren’t brand-right or even accurate indicators of success. Knowing that their customer base is equally inclined to call in just 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.

Supporting your customer support teams

The nature of technical support demands a level of specialization in your products and services, which can lead to repetitive work over time. But forward-thinking 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 antidotes 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.

Customer support goals: Answer the why, not just the how

Brummel says that for those with a technical bent to their skill set, it’s easy to succeed in a traditional support role; 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, considering whether they felt heard, left confident about what to do next time, or started to understand why they should do it.

By acknowledging (and hiring for) soft skills, encouraging empathy and extreme rapport, evolving outcomes and KPIs, and being dedicated to supporting support agents in all of the above, a customer support team is better positioned to take a more customer-centric approach and provide long-range support beyond the issue of the day.

While the meaning of the terms “customer service” and “customer support” may have become blurred, it is still important to be aware of the difference between the two, investing in each to ensure high-quality customer experiences.

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