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Customer Service Vs. Customer Support: Why Your Business Needs Both

Customer service vs. customer support—if you're in business, you know all too well what customer service is, and it's probably already part of how you create a customer experience for the public. There's another dimension to it, however, and it's possible you're missing out on what a real customer-first approach can do for you. 

Modern customer support is as far beyond old-fashioned customer service as the supermarket is to your kids' lemonade stand. By building a comprehensive customer support network, you can explore new frontiers in sales and customer retention. The expansion of existing customer relationships while saving tons of money in your day-to-day operations are added bonuses.

What's the Difference Between Customer Service and Customer Support?

Customer service is the traditional interface between your business and the public. When customers have an issue with your product or service, they call your customer help line and speak with a customer service rep. That rep then goes through a list of actions to address their issues and keep them as loyal customers.

If you're especially good at this, your reps might be able to upsell customers to new services or upgrades when they call. In the old days, that would be the end of it.

Customer support is a different animal. While customer service supports your entire customer base, customer support exists for a specific product or line of services. While your customer service stays pretty constant, your customer support teams will come and go with product lines, and they might undergo wholesale changes as your services change. 

Neither of these systems should operate alone, and you need both to create the kind of customer experience that turns routine customer interactions into increasing sales. There are a lot of possible approaches to both systems as part of a customer support network, which I'll review in a minute. First, here's a table to clear up some of the things you might use your customer service for, versus other things that you should turn over to customer support:

Customer IssueCustomer Service or Customer Support?Reason
Trouble logging into an accountCustomer serviceTroubleshooting accounts issues doesn't require specialized, in-depth training with your products.
Defective productCustomer supportA product-specific issue is usually best handled by the people trained specifically on that product.
Edit account infoCustomer serviceSimilar to troubleshooting an account login, anything account-related should be a unified work process best handled by a single customer experience point.
Tech issue with a productCustomer supportTechnical support can be outsourced globally, but if you offer a large array of products or your products are highly technical in nature, it's best to have a dedicated in-house support team.
Modify an orderCustomer serviceOrders usually go through a process that's the same across all product lines.
Request a refundCustomer serviceYour company probably has a single refund policy, which is best handled by your customer service team.
Register a complaint/leave a recommendationCustomer serviceGeneral customer communication should go through the company's primary point of contact, which is generally customer service.
Ask for company informationCustomer serviceInformation requests relating to the company are best handled by customer service.
Ask for product informationCustomer supportAnything specific to the product, like dimensions or compatibility issues, can best be answered by product specialists.
New salesBothIt should be as easy as possible for customers to make a purchase decision, no matter what their point of entry happens to be.

Why Should Your Business Care About Having Good Customer Support?

Robust customer support is one of those things everybody says is important, but not everybody bothers to say why. The way you're going to structure your customer support network depends on what you want it to do for you. Here are 10 things a solid customer support approach can do for your business:

  1. Customer retention beats customer acquisition: It costs money to bring new customers through the door. If an unhappy customer leaves your brand after one sale, you've done a lot of heavy lifting for very little. Investing in responsive customer service helps keep customers you've already won, so your acquisition costs pay for themselves over and over.
  2. Keeping customers pays over the long run: A happy customer is often a returning customer. But the relationship you build with great customer service also leads to multiple future sales and ever-widening margins. You benefit when a lone customer keeps coming back to you and occasionally brings in referrals you didn't have to work to recruit.
  3. You can charge more: Customers are willing to pay more when they like the brand, and nothing makes people like your brand more than fast and responsive customer support.
  4. Good customer service is a solid differentiator: When you think of Apple retail stores, you think of the Genius Bar. Brands that have invested in best-in-class service stand out.
  5. Well-trained customer service generates feedback: People bring their complaints to customer service first, and sometimes it's the only part of the company a recent customer will ever talk to again. That makes your customer service reps agents for gathering customer satisfaction data. If you have decent customer satisfaction metrics for capturing this information, a surprising number of innovations might come out of your customer support web.
  6. Robust customer support creates marketing opportunities: Every contact you have with a customer is potentially a chance to make another sale. Sometimes, a customer's issue suggests a sale opportunity, like a smartphone customer who learned the hard way why they should invest in a protective case. At the very least, a mere mention of related or complementary products costs you nothing and might generate an extra sale.
  7. Solid service improves conversion: The trust issue is a major holdback for online customers visiting your ecommerce site for the first time. Since anybody can set up a website, people can be reluctant to feed their credit card information into an unknown system. Your online customer support, even just a chat window, goes a long way to calming down edgy customers and encouraging a sale.
  8. Improvements to your brand: The brand you show the world is just as much a matter of presentation as it is the products and services you sell. The way you treat your customers is part of that image, and a smooth-running customer contact machine helps burnish your brand with your customers.
  9. Earn some slack for later: Nobody's perfect, and sooner or later, your system will let somebody down. It could be a late delivery, a defective product, or an accidental overcharge. When this happens, the goodwill your customer support has bought you encourages your customers to assume you're a good company having a bad day rather than a bad brand with worse intentions.
  10. Win referrals: It's simple: Make a customer happy, and maybe they'll tell someone else about you. That's a free new customer, one you didn't have to reach with a paid advertisement, and that's about as efficient as marketing gets.

What Should Your Customer Service Look Like?

As the first point of contact customers have with your company, the customer service you put together is the face your brand shows the world. If you want that face to attract more customers, it has to make a good impression. Hitting that mark with your customer service department is all about giving people a good experience when they have to contact you. Here are a few things people get irked about during a typical customer journey and some suggestions for how to turn potential snags in customer satisfaction into a major plus for your customer service team.

Long Wait Times

You can only hire so many people to take customer inquiries, and they can only talk to so many people in a day. That results in long wait times and overworked customer service representatives. Two factors cause wait times: too many customer inquiries at once, and too few customer service representatives to talk to them. Hiring more reps is costly, so here are some ways to reduce customer contact demand:

  • Handle routine inquiries online or via a simple automated system over the phone
  • Set up a frontline of customer service reps to quickly process requests that can be handled in less than 5 minutes
  • Establish an escalations team of experienced reps who can take the time for thorny or time-intensive inquiries

Confusing Navigation

Customers aren't usually experienced at navigating your systems, and not knowing who to talk to or which button to press makes the process confusing and frustrating. You can't guess what every customer is going to need out of the automated system or the self-help part of your ecommerce site, but you can do a few things to make the process easier on your customers:

  • Keep automated menus simple and self-explanatory without too many options
  • Separate menus by topic, such as billing, tech support, and so on
  • Allow callers to connect to an operator by pressing 0 from any menu

Invest in Excellent Customer Service Training

If you want to make your customers mad, have them navigate a few menus and wait in the queue, then connect them with an agent who can't help them. Getting through to talk to a person, only to still not get the problem fixed, is one of the biggest sources of frustration for customers. Recruit and train your customer service reps to:

  • Have the information most customers need, with onboarding and refresher training and plenty of proactive mentor support for when they're stumped
  • Build simple workflows, and make sure reps know exactly what can or cannot be done for customers over the phone
  • Create a clear and easily accessed escalation procedure that lets frontline reps move overly complex issues up to more experienced agents 

What Should Your Customer Support Look Like?

Think of customer support as a smaller customer service department that's just for a specific product line or service you offer. If you provide digital SaaS products, for example, your technical support is a kind of customer support that's focused on troubleshooting. Customer support reps should be a definitive source of information about the product family they work on, and ideally, a call to them will result in first contact resolution for customer issues. 

Should You Combine Your Customer Service and Support?

So, should you use the same team for customer service and support? If you're just starting out, sure. All customer-facing reps should be trained in customer service procedures, but for customer support matters, you can often get away with assigning one or more of your service reps to specialize in a given product line. That makes them a go-to authority for customer support while keeping them productive on other matters between their support calls. Bigger brands and higher-volume retailers don't do it this way, however, and once a business exceeds a certain size, setting up specialist customer support teams is the way to go.

Customer Service and Customer Support: Why Your Business Needs Both

Customer service is sometimes used as an umbrella term to cover both general contact with customers and more specialized customer support. Working together over the typical customer lifecycle, they create a high-quality customer experience that reduces churn and promotes customer loyalty, keeping people coming back to your brand over and over again. 

Traditional customer service is great for a lot of things. It provides first contact with most of your customers, a single location where you can concentrate your customer questions, and a natural point for customer self-service that's way more efficient than time on the phone with customer care reps. 

It does have its shortcomings, though. A company-wide service center will probably lack the in-depth knowledge base and product know-how it takes to get serious problem-solving done. While the reps in this department can provide customer-centric interactions and boost your company's customer effort score, it tends to fall short when technical issues come up or help desk issues need to be solved.

Specially-trained customer support representatives are the solution to these shortcomings. With their generally higher levels of technical skills, customer support agents can often solve technical problems in a single interaction rather than endlessly escalating customers through the system. Toss in a few standard self-help templates for common product issues, a dash of soft skills like active listening, and positive brand messaging that can be delivered on every call, and your customer support help desk fills the gaps left by your less-specialized customer service center.

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By Hannah Clark

Hannah Clark is the Editor of The CX Lead. Her goal is to bring together a community of CX professionals to learn, interact, and voice their own opinions on this ever-evolving industry.

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