I've worked in and led customer success and customer support teams over the course of my career, and people in the industry use both terms -- sometimes interchangeably. Sometimes they draw sharp divisions between these two business functions.
The two are linked but different disciplines -- and they require different mindsets and playbooks to win.
In this blog post, I'll review customer success vs. customer support -- what's the difference between the two terms, how to measure success in the two disciplines, and how to grow and structure these two teams in your organization.
Customer Success vs. Customer Support: What's the Difference?
Ideally, your organization should group these two functions together -- because they're both about providing service to the customer and helping them derive value from your team, your company, and your product. But there are a few key areas where these functions differ -- let's review them:
Customer support is about the reactive fulfillment of customer needs -- a customer needs something, so the goal of customer support is to give them that. Customer success focuses on the proactive guidance of customer goals -- a customer has goals, and we're going to, arm in arm, get there, together.
Customer support interactions are transactional -- they have a beginning and an end. Customer success also can have transactional interactions, but it has no terminal point -- the relationship continues as long as the customer is a customer.
Customer support metrics aim to measure the quality and speed of the support interaction itself (via measurement of the SLA, CES, NPS, CSAT). These support metrics don't usually measure what comes before or after the customer interaction. Customer success metrics are all about downstream business impact -- on customer retention, repeat purchase rate, customer lifetime value, or other critical long-term business metrics.
Customer support is a 25+ years-old field, and there is a mountain of knowledge on how to do it right. Customer success is, at best, a little over a 10-year-old field, and we don't yet have a definitive, convergent view on how to do customer success right for every business.
Because customer support is a more mature field, the job function is well-understood, and customer service skills are a category unto themselves. Customer success is a newer, more diverse field, and the required skills range from customer service, to subject matter expertise, to sales.
Customer support can be viewed as an operational cost of doing business or a key experience function -- but either way, support is a necessary cost, is obvious when it breaks, and generally well-understood by finance organizations. Customer success is more controversial among the C-suite, pushing leaders to always try to prove its ROI ... usually by modeling what would happen if the whole success organization were to vanish: increased customer churn, decreased customer lifetime value, and potentially decreased revenue.
At scale, customer support can get lumped into engineering or operations teams and operate purely as a cost center. Now, this isn't so bad as to be non-functional, but it can really limit how big an impact support can have on the business. Companies get more out of customer support teams when they organize them with customer success and other more revenue-centric, as opposed to operations-centric, functions.
Customer success teams often get grouped under sales, which is fine when they're first starting out, but companies can get more out of customer success teams when treating them as their own discipline and group them with other customer experience-centric teams like support. this enables a focus on end-to-end experience which leads to a better
-tuned operation over time.
How to Measure Success in Customer Success vs. Customer Support
Customer Support Metrics
Customer support metrics that tend to rise to the top are about speed and quality.
To measure speed, you can look at the amount of time it takes to get to a ticket, average response times, or average wait-times, for example.
On the customer success side, it's a little bit different. The goal of this function is to measure value over time -- both in terms of value delivery and value expansion. In the SaaS industry, you most often see this quantified as customer retention.
Businesses with a recurring revenue component will often measure customer retention in terms of "net revenue." In other words, did you renew the customer, and what else did they buy from you? Other businesses might keep things even simpler: "You started the year with X customers, and you ended the year with Y customers."
How to Model Growth in Customer Success vs. Customer Support
Start by tightly defining your CSM responsibilities. Customer success management is a real job -- it has components to it that you should be able to understand and itemize, and you should be able to back into a capacity model based on the work your CSM(s) are delivering.
Are you responsible for X number of accounts? Are you responsible for Quarterly Business Reviews (QBR) for every account? Well, that's X pieces of work. How long does each QBR take? Perhaps an hour to prep, an hour to present, and an hour of follow up? So that's three hours, multiplied by X number of accounts, which might be a significant chunk of work.
As you think about each component of work, think about the value that it's creating for your customers and your business. If you're able to define the work, define the value, and even loosely track your ROI, you'll be doing much better than many customer success organizations.
The alternative approach I've seen is when an organization says: "we know customer success is valuable ... we're just not quite sure what it is because we can't itemize or operationalize it. But we do know that each CSM is managing around 100 customers right now, so let's just try giving them the 101st, and the 102nd ... "
This method can sort of work for a while, but you don't know what you'll end up squeezing. At some point, this model will break, and you don't want breakage at scale. Plus, you want to know what CSMs are actually up to, what value they're delivering — not just their capacity. Ideally, you want to follow the bottom-up (the amount of work) and not the top-down approach (the number of customers) of hiring for your customer success team.