Exploring the differences between Customer Support and Customer Success

The term Customer Success seems to permeate the technology industry with nearly every company engaged in some type of success initiative.  The focus and awareness of Customer Success is timely and refreshing.  I don’t mean to imply that technology companies have not been focused on making customers successful in the past, but this emphasis on Customer Success creates a new level of awareness and commitment to truly impacting customers’ ability to derive benefits from technology.  Customer Success has profound implications for the ways that companies engage, serve, and retain customers.

As we rush to embrace Customer Success it is imperative that we have a shared understanding about what Customer Success is and is not.  All too often we find examples of Customer Success initiatives that involve little more than changing the name of the Support department or adding a few new roles to focus on success-related activities.  Don’t get me wrong, every step towards a Customer Success -oriented approach is positive, but if we truly want to pursue Customer Success, we need to understand what it is and why it is different from traditional Customer Support models.

Customer Success – Functions vs. Philosophy

It is important to distinguish between customer success-focused activities (functions) and Customer Success as operating model (philosophy).  Support and many customer-facing departments have been engaged in success-focused practices long before we started labeling them as Customer Success.  Today, perhaps we label too many things as Customer Success.

By instituting Customer Success functions (onboarding, driving adoption, customer health indexing, success management, etc.)  within Support, we do not necessarily achieve a customer success-focused way of conducting business. True Customer Success requires transformation and cooperation across many departments and introduces new ways to define and measure business performance.

The Success – Spectrum

We need to recognize that there are variations of Customer Success. Customer Success has specific functions, roles, and ways of conducting business.  If you embrace one or even a few customer-success focused activities, or have roles with Customer Success in the title, it does not mean that you have fully embraced Customer Success. I have defined three distinct stages in the “success – spectrum.”  See the descriptions and comparisons below to determine where you are in your journey to Customer Success.

  • Customer Support – Traditional Technical Support functions focused on issue resolution and answering how-to questions primarily in response to customer questions.
  • Success Enable Support – Introduction of success-focused roles such as Customer Success Managers and adoption of success practices such as onboarding, health assessments, journey mapping and success planning. Introduction of proactive customer engagement.
  • Customer Success – Cross-functional cooperation or organizational alignment primarily focused on customer engagement and proactive service delivery. Primary business objective is to retain and grow relationship value.

Customer Support – A Cornerstone of the Customer Relationship

Customer Support is a practice that seems to be as old as the technology industry itself.  For many companies the Support department is the primary interface with customers after the initial sale.  The mission of Support is to be there for the customer when they needed help, but not necessarily to engage customers proactively to assure that they can use and apply their applications.  Once again, this is not to suggest that companies or Support organizations are not committed to helping customers succeed – some of the most committed and customer-centric people in the technology industry can be found within Support.  The fact is that traditional Support organizations typically do not have a mandate nor the resources to fully drive Customer Success outcomes.

Success Enabled Support – A Hybrid Approach

Somewhere between a traditional Customer Support organization and a full-fledge Customer Success initiative is a hybrid model that introduces success-focused practices and resources into Support. Success Enabled Support include success-focused roles such as customer success managers, onboarding and adoption specialists, and retention, renewal and upsell experts. Practices include formal onboarding, efforts to drive adoption and plans to define and drive successful outcomes (success plans and journey maps).

These success-focused resources and activities are a quantum leap towards Customer Success. Yet, they are often contained within siloed organizational structures or lack full organizational commitment and governance to truly drive an enterprise-wide coordination to maximize retention and relationship growth.

Customer Success – A Business Model

Customer Success is a strategy to maximize customer retention and create opportunities for revenue expansion within the customer base. It is not simply an organizational structure, function, process, team, or job description – Customer Success is a customer engagement and retention philosophy. It should be seen as a way of doing business that transcends all aspects of a company from the way it develops products to the way it sustains and expands customer relationships.

Customer Success is predicated on the understanding that a significant portion of revenue and growth comes from existing customer relationships and that for technology vendors to grow relationship value their customers must be able to apply and succeed with the products they have purchased.

Customer Success is a critical methodology for companies that depend on recurring revenues from license, maintenance, and other service subscriptions.  Customer Success is not however just for companies that sell products as-a-Service.  Companies that sell perpetual software licenses, equipment and devices can benefit from Customer Success to drive product adoption and to assure maintenance contract renewals.

Customer Support vs. Customer Success – Key Differences

The following table highlights some of the key distinctions between traditional Customer Support, Success Enabled Support, and all-in Customer Success business models.

  Customer Support Success Enabled Support Customer Success
Primary Objective Resolve product-related issues, answer “how-to” questions. Help customers adopt and succeed with products. Cross-functional approach to engaging, retaining, and expanding customer relationship value by helping customers to use and succeed with products.
Target Audience Customers that are entitled to and request Support through warranty or service contract. Targeted segments of the customer base (e.g. top tier accounts or customers that purchase a specific product or service type). Customers that purchase renewable products and services, and/or buy specific success plans.
Entitlement Program Support portfolio. Success plan or add-on. Success plan, add-on, or included with product purchase.
Monetization Support fees. Add-on fees for customer success programs. Success program fees and subsidies from product revenue, retention, and growth.
Organizational Model Stand-alone Technical Support organization. Distinct team of customer success-focused resources within Support department. Some coordination and cooperation with other customer facing teams. Cooperation across functional roles (Sales, Professional Services, Education, Support) organized by matrix or reporting structure.
Primary Functions Cases resolution. Onboarding, drive adoption, success planning, customer health monitoring, retention. Onboarding, drive adoption, success planning, customer health monitoring, retention, revenue expansion.
Success Metrics Time to Resolve (TTR), First Contact Resolution (FCR), Cost per case, Net Promoter Score (NPS), Customer satisfaction. Process execution: Rate of adoption, success plan execution, retention, renewal rates. Customer retention, revenue growth rate (Annual Recurring Revenue (ARR) / Monthly Recurring Revenue (MRR), renewal, growth)
Service Levels Service levels and terms defined by support contract. Defined by success plan terms or triggering events (e.g. customer health). Ongoing touch points throughout the relationship or triggering events (e.g. customer health).
Service Delivery Reactive, customer initiated. Proactive, often triggered by customer milestones or events. Proactive, often triggered by customer milestones or events.
Retention Emphasis on contract renewal, typically the responsibility of another group. Emphasis on recurring revenue renewal, guided by CSM team, booking often responsibility of another group. Emphasis on recurring revenue renewal, coordinated by cross-functional success team equally accountable for retention/renewal/growth.
Growth Possible add-on upsell, typically the responsibility of other group. Opportunity identification because of customer engagement. Booking often responsibility of another group. Opportunity identification because of customer engagement. Cross-functional success team equally accountable for retention and growth.

The Journey to Customer Success

The journey to Customer Success may not require the full transformation to an entirely new way of conducting business, organizing resources, or measuring business performance.  Adopting some success-focus activities and creating success roles may be adequate for your business.  For companies that depend upon recurring revenues, customer retention and relationship growth are paramount, and a true Customer Success operating mode is an effective strategy.  Be honest about where you are in your journey and what approach to Customer Success is appropriate to your business.  Be careful not to overstate where you are in your journey if you have farther to go.

Stay Connected ½ Stay Informed

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and insights from our team.  We Promise not to send too many messages.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Enjoy the Benefits of Membership

Login or Register

You have Successfully Subscribed!