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Customer Support: The Ultimate Guide

Everything you need to know about customer support and its importance to the success of your business.

When you need help assembling build-it-yourself furniture, canceling a software subscription, or making an online purchase, what’s the avenue you take to get the answer you need?

Whether you start live chatting on a company’s website, fire off a tweet, or pick up the phone to talk to a person, you’re engaging with various channels of customer support.

Customer support is an evolving discipline that looks far different today than it did only 10 years ago. At its core, customer support is about helping solve customer problems, but it isn’t just made up of siloed employees in a call center anymore. Today, customer support is one of the first points of contact with an organization visitors and customers have -- and that first experience can play a huge role in how customers feel about that organization, and what they say about that organization.

Read on to learn more about customer support, or click below to jump to a specific section.

What Is Customer Support?

The definition of customer support varies from organization to organization, depending on their customer philosophy. Customer support responsibilities vary depending on the size and scope of the team, but our most basic definition of customer support is responding to customers’ needs whenever and however they need help. Customer support is made up of transactional interactions between a business and a customer that are initiated and concluded by the customer, which makes it inherently reactive, as opposed to customer success, which is made up of proactive interactions between a business and a customer.

Customer support responsibilities vary depending on the organization and the individual, but below is a list of the activities a customer support rep (CSR) might do on a day to day basis:

  • Answering phone call requests for support
  • Replying to email requests for support
  • Manning live chat for web requests for support
  • Managing, triaging, and assigning tickets in a customer support queue
  • Responding to social media feedback and requests for support
  • Writing instructional help content for knowledge base articles
  • Onboarding and training new customers how to use a product or service

How Customer Support Has Changed

Customer support, as a company function and as a career path, has evolved a lot -- even over just the last several years.

Where previously customer support was considered a cost center designed to simply solve customer problems, made up of employees in a call center that were siloed from the rest of the company, today’s modern customer support organization is much different.

Today, customer support isn’t a cost center -- it’s a company’s biggest opportunity to grow. Because it isn’t just about listening to customers yell at you and providing them with discounts and resolutions anymore -- it’s about continuously helping customers find value from products or service to make them satisfied, loyal customers for many more purchases to come.

Acquiring a new customer is exponentially more costly than retaining an existing, happy customer, and an increase in customer retention by just 5% can increase revenue by as much as 95%. Businesses can move the needle for growth faster by investing in customers rather than trying to acquire new ones -- and as it turns out, companies that are growing in revenue are more likely to invest in their customer teams than companies that are stagnating.

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Customer Support vs. Customer Service vs. Customer Success

You might be wondering about the difference between the various terms used to describe different customer-facing teams, so here’s a quick breakdown of the definitions and differences between customer support, customer service, and customer success, as described by HubSpot Service Hub General Manager Michael Redbord. The three terms are different, he explains, but they live on the same spectrum:

1. Customer Support

Customer support is about reacting to your customers' needs. It's about being there for customers, whenever they need it, whatever they need help with. At its core, customer support is transactional, and the interaction is begun and ended by the customer.

Customer support is about a business reacting to a customer when they reach out for help.

“Once you have a customer,” Redbord explains, “you’re in the business of customer support. They’re going to need help at some point, and the more you grow, the more the volume of that need.”

2. Customer Service

Customer service is more proactive than customer support. It's about saying to a customer "I have something for you" instead of a customer saying "I need something from you." Service is about a business guiding the customer.

If businesses can provide both customer support and customer service by engaging reactively and guiding proactively, they're in great shape.

3. Customer Success

Customer success is something that's initiated by the business, and it's doing something that a customer might not have even known they wanted or needed. It requires anticipation.

Customer success is about expanding value, for both the customer and the business, simultaneously. It might involve upselling or cross-selling by suggesting other products or services for customers that work with what they've already purchased. But here's the key to executing customer success:

Businesses only earn the opportunity to do it once they've proved they can reactively support well and proactively guide well. If you think about it, customer success is at the apex of the customer-facing pyramid, where all three come together: Customer success is the point customer teams want to reach, but they can't get there if they aren't picking up the phone when customers call.

Customer Support vs. Customer Service

The terms with the greatest nuance and potential for confusion are customer support and customer service. The key to the difference between them is thinking about customer support as reactive help and customer service as proactive guidance.

For example, customer support happens when I call a brand asking for help using a new hair care product I’ve recently purchased. Customer service happens when the brand emails me two months later, asking if I want to restock and buy the product again. Customer support is initiated by the customer, but customer service is initiated by the business to help guide the customer toward optimal outcomes.

As Redbord puts it, “Moving from reactive support to proactive service is a key maturation point in a company’s growth story. This is a place where you need to be prescriptive in your approach -- you need to guide customers to their value, and they’re going to look to you to define that path.”

Customer Support vs. Customer Success

Just because customer support and customer success are far apart from each other on the spectrum doesn’t mean they aren’t connected. You have to do customer support first, then customer success -- it’s the building block of any customer organization. You have to make sure you can get organized to react to customer needs first before you can analyze trends and develop strategies for proactively helping them succeed.

HubSpot Vice President of Customer Success Eva Klein sees a lot of confusion between these two terms as well. “Most people think of customer success as customer support -- a team dedicated to responding to questions on social media, via email, or via the phone. It’s largely a reactive model and is sometimes treated as a cost center to keep the trains running on the tracks.”

“But customer success is actually much more than that. There’s a great deal of overlap with support, of course, but a customer-centric mindset really relies on understanding how everyone at your company touches the customer experience. And everyone does, even if their function isn’t directly customer-facing.”

Klein recommends thinking about customer success as the next layer on top of an already-cranking, successful customer support team, as visualized below:

support-vs-success

Customer Support Skills

It’s a special kind of person who can be successful working as a customer support representative. In addition to knowing the product or service inside and out, customer support reps also need exceptional people skills and intrinsic motivation to thrive working in a customer-facing, helping role. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the customer support skills reps need:

1. Product Expert

It almost goes without saying that, in order to help customers with a product or service, a customer support rep needs to know how to answer their questions. Reps should know anything and everything about how to use the product or service, as well as how it can break, so they’re prepared to answer frantic customer questions.

2. Empathetic

Customer support is all about helping people, so reps need to be empathetic to the stories and challenges behind customer requests. There are times when customer calls or emails won’t be polite, and reps need to be able to understand and empathize with where the customer is coming from to best help them.

3. Tough

Reps need to be self-aware of their strengths and weaknesses in a customer support role, but they must constantly be working to build and improve mental and emotional toughness. On days when it can feel like a grind of never-ending phone calls and emails, or in the face of customer churn or poor Net Promoter Score® results, it’s important that reps don’t take bad outcomes personally, and that they can instead objectively evaluate what they can improve, within their team and with their own performance. This toughness will help them to be even-tempered in the face of angry or unreasonable customers, too.

4. Visionary

Successful customer support professionals need to be enthusiastic and visionary, so they can share their enthusiasm with their customers and with their team. Reps need to be able to teach people, coach colleagues, and embrace the mission of helping customers see value, all while staying positive and productive.

5. Thorough

Customer support reps need to be excellent communicators -- over the phone, over email, via live chat, and in written knowledge base articles. And in order to communicate well with customers, reps especially need to be thorough -- drawing on their product expertise to explain in detail how to use products, answers to common questions, and fixes to typical roadblocks.

6. Empowered

Above all, customer support reps need to be empowered.

Empowered to go the extra mile to help solve a problem for a customer. Empowered to be honest with their team when there’s something they don’t know and need help understanding. Empowered to ask their manager for help when they’re overwhelmed and burning out. Without empowerment, customer support reps will work themselves into a state of burnout that won’t be productive for them or their team -- which won’t help the business overall.

These are just a few of the skills needed to work in customer support -- here’s a more comprehensive list of general customer service skills that also help support reps excel.

Customer Support Resources

Customer work is messy and necessary, but remember that customer support employees are humans. “Mental health and self-care are huge trends in support roles at startups,” Redbord explains, “and there’s a reason for this. These jobs are incredibly taxing and can be relatively low-paying. Reps are always at the beck and call of your customers, and whenever something goes wrong, a company leader or executive is jumping on the team to fix it.”

Here’s his list of the resources needed to foster happy customer support reps and to build a successful team over time from his own experiences at HubSpot:

1. Staff the team correctly.

A team with enough resources is a happy team. Learn how and when to grow a customer support team.

2. Staff the team with mentally tough people.

Don’t hire people who are unprepared to deal with chaos, challenges, and pressure.

3. Empowering your customer team through sponsorship and visibility.

Ask for their recommendations and include them in the decision-making process when it comes time to fix customer issues. Bring in team members to higher-level leadership meetings, or cross-functional meeting with the product and sales teams.

4. Seat your team physically close to problem-solvers in product.

Physical proximity means both teams will learn more about the other’s day, creating a shared understanding of how to help customers. It also helps build personal relationships and trust.

5. Be prepared to create solutions.

If your team is empathetic and hardworking, they’ll have a hard time asking for help. Be there for them to prevent that burnout and brainstorm solutions and workarounds for them.

Self-Care

Preventing burnout and exhaustion is also on the individual customer support reps, too. There are a few things reps can do to take care of themselves so they can bring their best selves to work every day:

  • Remember self-care: a healthy diet, regular exercise, plenty of sleep, and a reasonable work/life balance.
  • Prioritize passions: Reps should ensure they’re creating or setting aside time during the work day for side projects and skill-building that they can do off the phones to invest in their professional development.
  • Invest in education: If reps are feeling burnt out or unsatisfied at work, they should invest time on nights and weekends into learning and building new skills so they can work more effectively.

Customer Support Software

Technology is one of the best resources leaders can provide their customer support team. Customer support software helps reps build and automate processes, manage and share information about different customers, obtain customer feedback, and more. Below are some of the must-haves your team needs, as well as specific software options:

Customer Support Technology

1. Tickets

Customer support teams need a way to track and organize incoming customer requests to stay organized and build processes. Analyzing customer tickets will help customer support teams figure out where they spend the most time, and how they can optimize or better educate around those customer issues to save the team time and energy.

2. Customer Feedback

Teams need to ask for customer feedback to learn what they’re doing well, as well as what they need to improve. This feedback is all useful, from feedback on individual calls to product requests. Technology can help to deploy customer feedback surveys and analyze trends in customer sentiment over time.

3. Knowledge Base

After a while, customer support reps will have a good sense of the questions and issues customers are running into again and again. Repeatedly walking customers through solutions isn’t a good use of employee time -- nor is it the way customers want to get the help they need. Instead of jumping onto a phone call or sending an email and having to wait to hear from customer support, customers would much prefer to search for the information they need online.

Creating a searchable knowledge base with instructions for everything from setting up a new product to solving a common fix will save customer support reps time, better help customers, and free up time and resources for working on other challenges.

4. Universal Inbox

Today, customers aren’t just reaching out for help on the phone. Customers are connecting with companies via email, live chat, SMS, and social media, too. A universal inbox can help organize all of the channels of customer support so no customer request goes unnoticed, and to keep track of a customer’s history so customer support reps have the context they need to best help them.

Different options that include some or all of these recommended technologies include HubSpot, Zendesk, Freshdesk, Help Scout, and Front.

Conclusion

Customer support is about more than just answering customer questions. Once a lead becomes a customer, the customer support team is the representative of a business in closest contact with the customer -- further reinforcing their loyalty and satisfaction every time they solve the customer’s problem quickly and effectively.

The impact the customer support team has on the business is tremendous -- by helping to retain customers, customer support reps have a direct influence on revenue growth. And when the customer support team makes customers happy, those customers go on to share word-of-mouth recommendations with their friends and colleagues -- the most reliable form of “advertising” there is.

Customer support is the key to growing your business to build on the work your marketing and sales team are doing. If you invest in your customer teams, you’ll see big returns accordingly. Next, learn more about customer service and customer success.

Net Promoter, Net Promoter System, Net Promoter Score, NPS and the NPS-related emoticons are registered trademarks of Bain & Company, Inc., Fred Reichheld and Satmetrix Systems, Inc.

  • sophia-headshot
    Sophia Bernazzani
    Blog Editor

    Sophia is the writer and editor of the HubSpot Service Blog.

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