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Article 10 min read

How customer support and customer service work hand in hand

By Tara Ramroop , Senior Manager, Content Marketing

Last updated June 6, 2021

Customer support generally 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 towards a goal or an overall experience with a brand – be it help with choosing a new software solution or narrowing down the options in a bricks-and-mortar retail shop.

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

Some experts – and even Google – have a hard time distinguishing between customer support and 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 that 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 a problem, 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 one 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, perhaps a customer has contacted you about a stolen credit card. Beyond addressing the technical matter at hand by identifying the information that was compromised and then taking steps to rectify the problem, a support team that shows empathy for a customer’s experience goes a long way in a stressful situation. This 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.

So, what is customer support?

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

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 towards a solution. A customer-support interaction begins when the customer contacts you on their preferred channel with a problem, and the interaction should not end until the customer is satisfied with the help they’ve received. Customer-support interactions aren’t the best time to push products and services – no one wants a hard sell in the middle of dealing with a stressful issue – but good customer service might open the door to this type of conversation 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 the 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 favourite messaging app with ideas about how to do so.

Customer-service agents need good reactive skills to help ensure that 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 maximising value for the user, as well as the provider. So while good customer service may entail connecting customers to a technical-support representative promptly, it could also mean answering queries on social media or live chat, helping to onboard new customers, or following up with a returning 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 these issues arise. However, the type of help being offered, when, how and to whom, can be what sets a support team apart.

Let’s say that you are a customer and were supposed to tick a box on a form at the DVLC, the doctor’s surgery or in your tax-preparation software. You didn’t, something didn’t work out as expected, so you contacted customer support. A skilled, helpful agent was on hand to help diagnose the problem, eventually explaining that not ticking the box was the problem. 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. This might mean asking why they didn’t tick the box or taking the time to explain the importance of what happens 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 the human touch is necessary for solving humans’ problems with their technology of choice. Still, that isn’t always what happens 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 that we valued in technical leadership focused on technical skill sets, not on the skill sets necessarily driving towards 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 problem at hand: identifying the problem, taking the appropriate action by triaging or escalating to other support tiers and finishing by asking whether the customer needs help with anything else that day. However, there is a lot of opportunity hidden underneath the surface that can only be uncovered by being in tune with a customer’s requirements, Brummel says.

Bring customer service to customer support with empathy and ‘extreme rapport’

Empathy in a support organisation goes a long way towards clarifying the stuff hidden beneath the surface. When an agent might be on their 700th call or chat of the week concerning the same problem, empathy reminds them of what it’s like to be the customer, whose entire day – and possibly an entire department or line of business – hangs in the balance. Perhaps they’ve just 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 practising ‘extreme rapport’ to foster a sense of collaboration towards 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 spectre of a bigger problem down the line 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 review KPIs constantly 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. However, as traditional ‘support’ functions become more integrated with other channels and business processes, organisations 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 favourites Chip and Joanna Gaines – the 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 is even allowed a budget to entertain customers or to send them flowers.

Supporting your customer-support teams

The nature of technical support demands a level of specialisation in your products and services, which can lead to repetitive work over time. But forward-thinking support leaders balance the necessity of specialisation with assigning new and different projects across the team, helping to guard against the ‘heart hardening’ that Brummel says happens when agents are bored and siloed into their product speciality 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 mixed bag of problems and personalities to encounter during a phone call or in a chat window, a stint in one-to-one live service can provide a new perspective for even seasoned veterans of a support team.

Another approach is training support agents to enter all support situations without being attached to an outcome. While customer support can’t guarantee that the problem will be sorted out then and there, agents can promise that 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, but 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 lines between ‘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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