Aug 20, 2021

Read Time 5 min

Customer Success vs. Customer Support: Defining Role Boundaries


If you work in Customer Success, then you’ve likely experienced the challenges of customers reaching out to you for their support-related needs – whether it’s technical troubleshooting or resetting a password. When distinguishing between these two customer-facing functions, the customer may think: “eh, tomayto, tomahto.” Afterall, from the customer’s perspective, you’re still all the same company, right? Does it really matter who solves their problems so long as they get solved?

Well, if you don’t want your internal operations descending into chaos and confusion, and the customer experience suffering for it, drawing a line between these teams does, indeed, very much matter.

To examine the importance of establishing boundaries between Customer Success and support, we hosted a discussion with Louise Cunningham, Director of Customer at Firefish, Jason Noble, Global VP of Customer Success at Vinli, and Bri Adams, Manager, Customer Success at ChurnZero. Here’s seven takeaways from the session.

1. Why Customer Success and support will never have a clean break

Naturally, people who work in Customer Success and customer support have a “helper” mentality. But while both functions share a common goal of ensuring customer satisfaction, they are fundamentally different roles that require different skillsets. One of the most notable distinctions being that customer support uses a reactive approach and works in a break-fix mode. Whereas Customer Success employs a proactive approach from the onset of the customer relationship to drive the customer’s strategy, engagement, product usage, and outcomes.

Now, it’d be impractical to tell you to simply draw a line in the sand between roles and have that be that. Because there’s always going to be some degree of overlap between roles. Due to the personal relationships Customer Success teams have with their customers, they often get pulled into support queries, and that can never be entirely avoided. Therefore, your goal shouldn’t be to eliminate that overlap, but rather to effectively manage its balance.

In the following sections, we discuss the tactics shared by Louise, Jason, and Bri during our session on how to create stronger boundaries between Customer Success and support.

2. Establish roles and responsibilities to remove ambiguity

First things first, you need to delineate what proactive activities Customer Success is responsible for and what reactive activities support is responsible for. This may sound like obvious advice, but it’s one of the most common oversights made. Prioritizing speedy responses over structured processes can cause internal disorganization and set an unsustainable support precedent among customers. Putting your processes and procedures into writing helps make your instructions enforceable and hold others accountable. By quantifying the activities of both roles, you can audit how and where time is spent. You start to realize the trade-offs of mixing responsibilities, such as a CSM routinely spending 40+ minutes on bug investigations instead of using that time to engage at-risk customers.

3. Reinforce your roles and rules with clear communications

As part of your customer onboarding and training process, you need to educate customers on who to contact in what circumstances and how. You can even bring in your own support team. Be transparent and explain to the customer how requests are transferred from one team to the next. Outline the proper channels and contact points. Because if a customer doesn’t know any better, they might continually use Customer Success as their point of escalation instead of engaging the support team. The ongoing acceptance of this behavior sets the tone for how customers will raise future issues.

As a helpful tip, if you’re a CSM who’s in and out of meetings all day, you can put up an OOO message to let customers know you’re currently unavailable in meetings and to expect delayed responses. For urgent technical issues, they should contact support.

But the truth is, no matter how many times you advise your customers of the correct protocols, you’re always going to have those who don’t listen, or at least adhere, to your advice. But as long as your internal structure and communications are detailed and clear, you can ensure customers get rerouted to the right place.

4. Make contacting your support team insanely easy

You may have smooth processes, and a vast knowledge base, and seamless self-service, but if a customer has a problem that takes them longer to solve than they think it should, and it’s easier for them to contact their CSM to get an immediate answer, they’ll do it every time.

The easier you make it for your customers to use support, the less likely it is they bypass your processes. Make the experience match what the customer wants and be as responsive as you can. Otherwise, your customer will continue to find alternative routes.

5. Educate your customers to get their buy-in

Given the helpful nature of Customer Success, it’s unlikely that if a customer were to call you with a support question, that you’d respond saying you can’t answer it and to call support.

But when you do and answer customer support tickets, make sure you talk with the customer afterwards to explain the correct submittal process and point of contacts. Walk them through how the support team would have handled their request, the processes, and what they could have expected.

You also want to explain the benefits of following the process. For instance, if the customer wants a faster answer, they should contact support because they have dedicated representatives on standby to field questions. With their technical expertise and product oversight, they’re more likely to know why functionality might be broken and if it’s affecting other customers as well.

Both you and your customer greatly benefit when the customer understands, and truly believes, they receive better technical service when they go directly to support. As Jason put it: “It’s not about proactively discouraging the customer to call you, it’s about trying to understand why they’re calling and how you can address those issues.”

6. Be upfront with your customer

Lastly, don’t be afraid to admit to a customer that you don’t have an answer, especially when it’s outside of your realm of expertise. As Bri advises: “Be really forward about ‘Hey, you just asked me a question that I need to check with our support team on. I will follow up with you later,” instead of saying, ‘I don’t know the answer. I’m going to get it to you.’ Be open and say, ‘I’m not the best person to ask, but our fabulous support team is, so I’m going to take this internally with them.’” This response takes personal accountability and acknowledges that you’re being honest with the customer about not knowing everything, because no one does. The goal here is to get the customer comfortable with that support relationship and the fact that you trust your support team and they (the customer) have no reason not to either.

7. Act as a facilitator

As we mentioned in the beginning of this article, it’s unrealistic to think that Customer Success and support will never overlap; it’s about striking the right balance between roles. One of a CSM’s greatest strengths and defining attributes is acting a facilitator among the customer and internal teams – especially when it comes to support.

“The benefit of getting pulled into queries, even if you’re not the person or team that’s going to ultimately resolve them, is that you’re there to observe and help point the customer in the right direction and facilitate that,” says Jason. So, while Customer Success shouldn’t be working as a frequent stand-in support rep, their role in helping shepherd support issues along keeps tickets from wandering off and getting lost and drives resolutions forward.

To learn more about how to set boundaries between Customer Success and support, you can watch the full session, which also dives into the popular discussion topic of encouraging value-based selling among CSMs.


Subscribe to the newsletter