Customer service and customer support each play a central role in providing a great customer experience.
When executed properly, they foster customer loyalty, word-of-mouth referrals, and more recurring revenue.
Customer service and customer support are often used interchangeably, and both can have a huge impact on your customer retention rate. But despite some crossover, both terms actually refer to different things.
Knowing this difference is important. Once you’ve teased them apart, you’ll be able to define job responsibilities more clearly, make better hiring decisions, and minimize customer frustration by giving them the service they need.
In this post, we’ll look at:
- The difference between customer service and customer support
- 9 tips for providing great customer service and support
- 6 real-life examples of top-notch customer service and support
First, let’s define each concept and look at how they’re different.
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The difference between customer service and customer support
What is customer service?
Customer service is an umbrella term that covers all the interactions between your business and its customers.
Virtually every business has customer service. It refers to everything you do to serve and meet your customers’ expectations and improve the overall customer experience. The ultimate goal of customer service is to help customers get as much value from your product or service as possible—and it is a minefield of potential stumbling blocks for businesses whose customer service teams aren’t organized and whose phone systems aren’t adaptable:
Customer service is long term. It begins the moment a customer shows interest in what your business has to offer and can continue for years after they’ve bought from you.
What responsibilities does customer service involve?
Customer service agents are there to guide and delight customers at every stage of the customer lifecycle.
This could involve reactively helping a customer navigate a common problem or proactively giving them advice about how to avoid some unforeseen issues.
Here are some common customer service activities:
- Onboarding new customers
- Answering questions and replying to comments on social media
- Helping customers with billing and delivery issues
- Resolving non-technical account issues
- Recommending better tools or techniques
- Collecting customer reviews and feedback
- Upselling (when appropriate)
Customer service agents tend to have a broad understanding of the business, its products, and customer contact channels. And although they don’t have specialist knowledge, they’re capable of answering common questions and will know where to point customers for more expert assistance. (This is also why team knowledge is so important.)
Having well-honed soft skills is an essential part of delivering great customer service. The best customer service agents are clear, patient, empathetic, supportive, and pay close attention to the customer’s unique situation.
Learn more about how to build customer service skills.
What is customer support?
Customer support is a subset of customer service. Its purpose is to help customers solve any technical issues that may crop up when using your product or service.
Customer support interactions tend to be reactive and short term. In most cases, the customer reaches out with a problem they want to solve and the support agent simply finds a solution. Support agents will then either implement the solution themselves or guide customers through the relevant steps.
Customer support is most commonly found within SaaS, IT, and eCommerce businesses.
Not every business needs customer support. Restaurants—while big on customer service—generally don’t need to offer their patrons technical support.
What responsibilities does customer support involve?
Customer support agents are there to provide quick and accurate solutions to user problems as and when they arise.
Because of this continuous exposure to customer issues, support agents can also provide valuable customer feedback to product development teams.
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Here are some common customer support activities:
- Real-time troubleshooting with customers on support emails and live chat
- Helping customers install, maintain, upgrade, and dispose of the product or service
- Creating product documentation and supporting resources
- Conducting usability studies
- Providing input into product development
Speed, technical proficiency, and product expertise are key attributes of an effective customer support agent.
But to give customers the best experience possible, customer support agents should also have the same empathy and people skills as any other customer service agent.
Customer service vs customer support
Clearly, customer service and support are closely related but nonetheless distinct.
Customer service deals with the entire customer experience and involves a bit more customer collaboration—aiming to satisfy customers throughout the customer lifecycle—while customer support is more narrowly focused on helping customers solve technical problems.
This table highlights the main differences:
|Customer service||Customer support|
|Applies to the entire customer lifecycle||Applies to customers’ technical difficulties with a product|
|Long-term interactions||Short-term interactions|
|Proactive and reactive||Mostly reactive|
|Applies to all businesses||Applies to some businesses|
|Affects all customers||Affects some customers|
|Doesn’t always involve customer support||Always involves customer service|
9 tips for providing great customer service and support
Now let’s look at some different ways your business could provide stellar customer service and support.
1. Define your philosophy and process
Your approach to customer service generally—and to customer support specifically—should be unified. Without a unified approach, you’ll end up with chaos and inconsistencies throughout your customer service delivery.
Start by defining your customer service principles and philosophy. This will enshrine the set of values that you want to guide each of your company’s customer service interactions, such as speed, accessibility, and proactivity.
You could also create a customer service playbook that outlines common processes and best practices for your team. This will include instructions for processes like reporting bugs and errors, how and when to create support content, and protocols for documenting customer feedback.
2. Give your agents the tools they need
Equipping your team with the right tools frees them up to serve and support your customers.
Good-quality support tools make the lives of customers and agents much easier. They also give the impression that you run a professional, slick operation.
For example, offering your customers omnichannel customer service means they can reach out to you through whatever channel suits them best—whether it’s live chat, social media, in-app messaging, phone, or email:
Customer profiles build a rich picture of each customer based on their interactions with your business across different channels. This gives any agent connecting with a customer an immediate overview of that customer’s history and needs.
Agents can then solve customer problems more quickly while customers are saved the trouble of having to continually repeat themselves to different agents:
3. Communicate clearly
Clarity is key when you’re speaking with customers. Unclear communication leads to confusion and avoidable mistakes which can damage the customer’s confidence in your brand.
To minimize miscommunication, strip away technical jargon and industry slang from your messaging, use simple words where simple words will do, and don’t overwhelm the customer with too much information at once.
Another important part of clear communication is transparency. If the customer asks a question and you’re not clear what the answer is, it’s okay to let them know you’re not sure and that you’ll get back to them as soon as you find an answer.
Communication with your own teammates is important too. Everyone should be on the same page about what they’re telling customers. Here are a few communications tools designed for teams.
4. Use positive language
You don’t just want customers to understand your explanations and instructions, you also want them to feel personally supported and motivated to achieve what they’re trying to achieve.
Positive language entails being solutions-oriented instead of problem-oriented.
For example, suppose a customer had a problem where they were unable to access an online training video due to a technical fault.
A negative response to this complaint might be:
“I’m really sorry about that! Unfortunately, we don’t know what the problem is at this time.”
Whereas a positive response would be:
“I’m really sorry about that! Thanks for the heads up. We’ll look into it right away and let you know the second it’s fixed.”
5. Close conversations properly
That’s why your customer service and support teams must bring all customer interactions to a clear-cut resolution. If you don’t make sure your customer is satisfied with the interaction, you can’t tell if they’ve had a good experience.
When a customer conversation seems to be slowing down, you should always ask whether there’s anything else you can help with. This signals to the customer that you care about getting to the bottom of their issue and that you’re happy to take as much time as they need.
Once the customer says they’re all set and have no more questions, you can close the conversation safe in the knowledge that the customer was left satisfied with the interaction.
6. Prioritize first-contact resolution
Whether reaching out to customer service or support, customers want their problem resolved in one go. In fact, up to 67% of churn is preventable if issues are solved the first time they occur.
This means you should make first-contact resolution—or first-call resolution—a top priority.
7. Save time with response templates
There will be some customer questions that your service and support team encounter a lot.
Creating a bank of saved responses—which your agents can customize as needed—is one way to ensure quick and consistent responses to FAQs.
8. Practice empathy, build rapport
Being able to make a customer feel heard and understood means being in tune with their needs.
This is especially important for customer support agents to remember. Customers contacting support are often stressed and frustrated, even if the problem they have is, in fact, an easy fix. Instead of diving headlong into solving the technical problem, support agents need to take the time to show empathy for the customer’s unique situation (even if it’s the eighth time they’ve addressed that same issue today!).
Likewise, building rapport with customers—addressing them personally, asking questions about their business, showing excitement about their plans—goes a long way toward creating a human-centered customer experience.
9. Involve other teams in customer service
This could mean asking members of different teams to periodically sit-in on customer calls, or it could mean hosting regular cross-team discussions to reflect on customer feedback.
The point is for everyone to feel the customer’s pain so they maintain customer-first focus in the work they do.
6 real-life examples of top-notch customer service and customer support
1. Citibank automatically detecting travel plans
In this example of proactive customer service, Citibank automatically detects when a customer has arranged to travel based on their card usage:
This saves customers the trouble of having to notify the bank of any upcoming travel plans, which can be easy to forget when you’re preparing for a trip.
Customers are also encouraged to verify their contact details so that Citibank can immediately alert them of any suspicious account activity while they’re away on their travels.
2. AT&T personalized video bills
Back in 2012, AT&T decided to level-up its customer service personalization by sending customers personalized videos of their bills.
Subscribers received an auto-generated video that addressed them personally before running them through each part of the bill. The videos clearly laid out the customer’s information and anticipated customer questions and concerns with extra clarifications.
AT&T has since rolled out more personalized videos as part of their customer service strategy:
3. Anglian Water’s real-time updates
In another example of proactive customer service, Anglian Water created a web page to keep customers updated about any water supply interruptions in their local area.
Customers enter their postal code into the interactive map which then highlights any water shortages or supply problems nearby.
They can also sign up for real-time SMS or email updates to alert them of any new work taking place within 500 meters of their area:
4. Asana’s knowledge base
A common responsibility of customer support agents is to help curate a well-structured, comprehensive knowledge base.
A knowledge base is an easy-to-access library of helpful resources about your product and related subjects.
This lets customers solve problems themselves without having to contact a support agent. In fact, of all the so-called “self-service” channels, knowledge bases are without a doubt the customer favorite.
Asana has one of the best knowledge bases around.
Their resources include multiple guides—ranging from basics to advanced tips and tricks—demo videos, interactive courses, and even live-streamed training tutorials.
5. Agile CRM’s product development feedback
Customer feedback is the lifeblood of product development. Without listening to what customers like and don’t like, it’s hard to create things they’ll want to pay for.
Customer support agents are constantly taking questions and feedback from customers. This means they can feed golden nuggets of customer insight to the product development team to help them design ever-better features and upgrades.
As designer Michael McWatters puts it, “Actual humans will expose problems you’ve failed to identify during your design and development process. Even the best teams can’t predict every possible pitfall.”
This wisdom is central to the approach taken by Agile CRM. The customer support team and development team are in constant communication so they can make the most of every customer suggestion, complaint, and concern.
Support agents keep a record of every useful piece of feedback they receive. They then have a 30-minute discussion every day with the development team to consider which pointers should be incorporated into the next product update.
This also gives the developers a chance to question the support agent to make sure they’ve fully understood the customer feedback:
6. Canyon’s multilingual chat support
Canyon Bicycles is a well-loved brand with fans all across the world.
To make it easier for fans to get support in their native tongue, Canyon uses the customer’s preferred language to automatically route them to the best-suited customer support agent available.
Have an international customer base? RingCentral’s customer engagement platform can automatically recognize over 72 languages to assign incoming messages to the right agent.
Recap: How to tell the difference between customer service and customer support
Commonly thought to be the same thing, customer service and support are actually two distinct aspects of creating a seamless customer experience and building positive customer relationships.
Customer service encompasses all the best practices, processes, and values that underpin your interactions with customers, while customer support deals mainly in solving technical customer problems.
In some smaller businesses, the responsibility for customer service and support will often fall to the same person. For other businesses, customer service and support will each have their own dedicated team.
However your business is organized, your success will depend on respecting the differences while delivering both in an integrated way.
Originally published Mar 01, 2020, updated Oct 16, 2020