Customer support vs Customer success? What’s the difference?

Nykki Yeager Nykki Yeager · 5 min read

Professionals who work with customers go by many titles. Customer support agent, customer success manager, happiness specialist, support ninja, success rockstar…and the list goes on. With the variety of names flying around, you might be wondering what’s the difference and what each of them mean.

In large part, customers don’t care what you call your team. But to you and your business, it matters. Titles impact how employees understand and identify with their roles. They provide a charter of responsibilities and allow for benchmarking against others in your industry.

While the jury is still out on referring to your team as ninjas or rockstars, there is a clear distinction in our industry between customer support and customer success. Support and success are both means to the same end: helping your customers reach their goals. But as with their names, the methods they use are different.

All too often, companies seem to silo success and support, pitting them against each other. This leads to a competition for who has more value to the business. But in reality, they’re complementary. Support and success should be woven together into a unified effort to provide your customers with the best experience possible.


Making the differences work for you

When it comes to communications: Success makes the first move. Support waits.

The distinction between success and support is often defined as proactive versus reactive. This can carry a negative connotation, and it isn’t entirely accurate.

Success teams do a lot of outreach, opening up conversations before customers contact them first. On the other hand, customers initiate the majority of conversations with support teams, with support responding to inquiries as they receive them.

But this doesn’t mean that the descriptor of “proactive” belongs to success teams alone. The best support teams are proactive too. Just one example of proactivity from support teams is focusing on next-issue avoidance, anticipating customer needs ahead of time and providing for them in advance.

Having part of your team focused on outbound communications and another part focused on responding to inbound inquiries means that you’re drawing customers into conversations they may not have otherwise started, while at the same time having a group ready and dedicated to responding when customers have a need that’s urgent enough for them to initiate contact.

This combination of success and support ultimately means more communication with your customer base, ensuring their fulfilment of their needs.


Their guiding purpose is complimentary: Success teams mark the path. Support teams keep it clear of obstacles.

Success teams encourage and guide customers to move forward along the path of their lifecycle development. Their job is to make sure customers understand the full potential and value they can achieve from the product.

As a result, success often owns onboarding, one of the most important touchpoints on the customer journey. They ensure that users have access to education that allows them to understand and adopt the product into their routines. Success teams show customers how to set up and reach their goals through in-product tutorials, drip email campaigns, webinars, one-on-one calls and more.

After the onboarding phase, success is also typically responsible for continuing to monitor customer health and engagement, making sure they reach particular milestones and providing timely interventions when customers face risk of churning. Great success teams use an early warning system built on data from a variety of sources like the company CRM, product usage metrics, NPS scores, and others to flag churn indicators and reach out to customers who show signs of leaving.

And while success teams show customers the direction of the trail, support teams make sure the path is unobstructed, solving any problems that customers encounter on their way and equipping customers with resources that help them solve problems on their own, like documentation and self-service portals. The best support teams also work together with their product teams to identify common problems and eliminate them.

Both teams need to be strategic

Often, people consider success a strategic function and support a tactical one. But the truth is that both teams need to be strategic, thinking about how to improve the customer experience from a holistic perspective and how to equip customers with the information they need to be better at their jobs. Both support and success teams need to have in-depth industry knowledge and act as consultative business experts for their customers.

Customer Success at Hubspot

Hubspot’s Customer Success team, for example, pairs each new customer with an “Inbound Marketing Consultant,” who shows the customer the ropes on the software. At the same time, customers get inbound marketing training, with monthly account reviews. Customers who followed the inbound marketing guidelines set by HubSpot achieved double digit increases in their lead generation, both meeting their goals with the product and getting better at building their businesses.

To sum it up, success helps customers understand where they’re going, motivating them to keep moving forward. Along the way, as the inevitable unexpected issue pops up, support is there to problem-solve and keep customers going strong. Success and support reinforce one another’s efforts toward the goal of a seamless, positive experience for every customer.

Let’s talk money: Success teams drive revenue. So do support teams.

Success teams are often held responsible for revenue metrics and are lauded for their positive impact on revenue. This is not without good cause — success teams undoubtedly drive improvements to the bottom line by:

  • Protecting recurring revenue through churn reduction
  • Expanding existing revenue through upselling and cross selling
  • Bringing in new revenue through influencing new sales with brand advocates. These provide referrals or change jobs and bring the product to their new company (also called second order revenue).

On the contrary, support doesn’t typically have any formal revenue metrics, instead being held accountable for more operational metrics like response time and CSAT. In fact, support is often viewed as more of a cost center than a revenue generator.

Drive revenue through customer support

But smart businesses know this is a fallacy and set themselves apart by investing in support instead of working to run it as cheaply as possible. As Seth Godin has written, things won’t end well for “the industrial titans who see customer service as a cost, not a profit center.”

The fact is that support teams can impact revenue in all the same ways that success does. Support faces many situations when a customer may be at risk of churning. Through excellent care and issue resolution they can save them. Support, like success, can also advise on common reasons for churn, based on their conversations with customers. They can also upsell and cross sell, either directly or identify opportunities to pass to success. And with each issue resolved, they can boost customer advocacy

In the end, 70% of buying experiences are based on the emotional experience of the customer and how they feel they’re being treated. In the end, customer’s don’t care if they’re dealing with someone with “success” in their title or “support” . What matters is how they feel about their interaction. Both teams have the potential to move the needle on revenue. We should leverage and celebrate them as such.


Different titles, same team

In the end, support and success are really all on the same team: the customer’s. Both focus on building relationships with each conversation, improving retention, boosting value, and increasing advocacy. Both deserve due credit for their contributions. Neither deserves a place above the other. While the approach varies, the best businesses bring support and success together, leveraging their differences to build valuable customer relationships that last.

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Nykki Yeager Nykki Yeager

Nykki Yeager is a customer-centric consultant who writes about customer support and success, management, and more.

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