Article | 16 min read

Customer support: Definition, importance + 10 key strategies

Customer support is the team of people who help customers with a company's products or services. Learn what it is, why it's important — and how the pros do it.

By Courtney Gupta, Customer Service Enthusiast

Last updated April 5, 2023

Customer support is having a moment. In a highly competitive, digital-first world, providing your customers with responsive, relevant support is more important than ever.

Whether it’s over email, messaging, social media or the phone, being where your customers are — and helping them solve their problems — should be a first-rate priority for any business.

Here’s what you need to know to get started:

In this article

What is customer support?

Customer support is the team of people who provide help when customers have trouble with a company’s products or services. It’s ultimately about making sure customers are successful in solving whatever issues they came to your business to help solve.

The history of customer support

Customer support was always important. But it’s now a key differentiator between companies, a top consideration for customers, and a profit-generating force in its own right. Whether you’re a well-established firm or just starting to scale and grow, a successful customer support team can help attract new business, boost retention, and increase sales among your existing customer base

Customer support also isn’t just about finding a quick solution to any one customer problem anymore. It’s about building a long-term relationship, one where each customer interaction offers opportunities for deeper, more valuable engagement.

Customer expectations also continue to grow. Customers expect quick, easy, and effective support, and they’re willing to look elsewhere if they don’t get it. And whether a company exceeds or falls short of customer expectations is often directly tied to business success. It’s a high-stakes game—61 percent of customers would now defect to a competitor after just one bad experience.

What’s the difference between customer service and customer support?

So we’re basically just talking about customer service here, right? Not exactly. Some experts—and even Google—have a hard time distinguishing between customer support and customer service.

Customer service is an umbrella term for all interactions that enhance customer experience and help improve their relationship with the company. Customer support is just one type of interaction.

All businesses provide customer service, but not all need to offer customer support. A restaurant, for example, provides customer service when you are seated, as you order your food, and upon payment. The waiter is probably not going to show you how to cut your steak, though.

Jonathan Brummel, Director of Enterprise Support at Zendesk, puts it this way: The difference between customer service and customer support is that a customer support team can fix a technical issue in the short term, but 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 an issue, 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 issue in time if certain steps aren’t taken.

Adding the “why” into the support process improves the experience for customers, and it helps customer support agents grow.

For example, maybe a customer reached out about a stolen credit card. Beyond identifying what information was compromised and then taking steps to solve that problem, going the extra mile can go a long way.

That might mean following up on a messaging or social media channel with a link to relevant tips and tricks from the knowledge base or company blog.

Customer service

Customer support

An umbrella term for all interactions that enhance customer experience and help improve their relationship with the company.

One type of interaction.

Builds relationships.

Fixes technical issues.

The why.

The how.

All businesses need to provide it.

Not all businesses need to provide it.

Focuses on the long term relationship.

Focuses on the short term issue.

Requires more soft skills than hard skills.

Requires more hard skills though soft skills are still important.

Why is customer support important for business growth?

The short answer is that customer support is important because support agents are key for helping resolve customer queries quickly and effectively, and driving customer satisfaction. This ultimately impacts customer retention, customer lifetime value, and brand reputation.

But, again, it really depends on your particular business and industry, and the people you’re supporting.

For Trust & Will, a company that helps families create customized wills and estate plans, customer support is a key driver of business and product decisions.

“Every decision we make as a company revolves around our customers (we call them members), and our customer support team is at the front lines of all communication,” Meg Palazzolo, head of Member Success at Trust & Will. “When we’re focusing on adding in new features, products, or updates/changes to the marketing site, we listen to the input of the support team who are our voice of the customer.”

Because estate planning is so complex, Trust & Will’s support team plays a pivotal role in educating customers — and then sharing customer knowledge with the rest of the team. It’s a virtuous cycle that’s crucial to the business.

“Without our support team, it would be extremely difficult to operate as a company,” says Meg.

Ask yourself:

  • What do customer expectations for support look like in your particular industry? These will be different in ecommerce or travel compared to insurance or banking, for example.
  • How can customer support help elevate the voice of the customer throughout your business?
  • How can you involve your support team in key business decisions like product roadmap or marketing strategy?

10 strategies for delivering great customer support

Good customer support means meeting customer expectations each and every day. And meeting customers’ expectations pays off: 75 percent of customers are willing to spend more with companies that give them a good customer support experience, according to our Customer Experience Trends Report.

Here are 10 ways to deliver amazing customer support.

1. Make support agents strategic partners

There is always a technical answer to a technical problem, and a customer support representative is there to help when those issues arise. But the type of help being offered, when, how, and to whom, can be what sets a support team apart.

Let’s say you are a customer and were supposed to put a checkbox on a form at the DMV, the doctor’s office, or your tax-preparation tool.

You didn’t, something didn’t work out as expected, and you contacted customer support. A skilled, helpful customer support agent helped diagnose the problem, explaining that not checking that box was the issue.

Years ago, when a support ticket was opened when a problem started and closed when it was solved, a quick diagnosis made more sense. For a modern support operation, taking the time to set customers up for success is necessary follow-through. Maybe that means asking why they didn’t check the box, or taking the time to explain the important actions that are touched off when they do.

2. Ensure soft skills are just as important as the “technical” ones

Technology should support humans instead of the other way around. That means that a human touch is necessary for solving humans’ problems with their technology of choice. Still, that isn’t always how it plays out 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 we valued in technical leadership focused on technical skill sets, not on skill sets necessarily driving toward 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 technical. There is plenty of opportunity during a support interaction to connect with customers and demonstrate empathy for their needs, Brummel says.

How to structure your customer service department

Learn more about the key steps for structuring your customer service team with this free guide.

3. Build empathy into every interaction

Empathy in a support organization helps agents read between the lines of a situation.

Even when an agent is on their 700th call or chat of the week over the same issue, empathy reminds them what it’s like to be the customer whose entire day—and possibly an entire department or line of business—hangs in the balance.

Maybe they’re just getting 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 becoming a cartoon of technical support, Brummel also suggests practicing “extreme rapport” to foster a sense of collaboration toward 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 calls “an awkward place.”

Customers, especially stressed customers, don’t always want to do what a support agent suggests, which means making a strong, reasonable case for why they should care. In many instances, the threat of a bigger problem down the road is why they should care. Nothing says “strategic partner” like someone who helps identify a problem before it balloons into a bigger issue.

4. 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 regularly review KPIs to determine where they can evolve. In the early days of support software, the number of tickets solved was a metric for support success.

But as traditional “support” functions become more integrated with other channels and business processes, organizations are changing how they measure success. This also affects the ways in which support teams support their customers.

At Magnolia—the retail and experience empire built by HGTV favorites Chip and Joanna Gaines—number of tickets solved or time to resolution are not brand-right or even accurate indicators of success.

Knowing that their customer base is equally likely to call in 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 even allowed a budget to entertain customers or send them flowers.

5. Support your support team

The nature of technical support demands a level of specialization in the products and services, which can lead to repetitive work over time.

Strategic support leaders balance the necessity of specialization with assigning new and different projects across the team, helping guard against the “heart-hardening” Brummel says happens when agents are bored and siloed into their product specialty or function.

There are many solutions 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 grab bag of issues and personalities to encounter on a phone call or in a chat window, a stint in 1:1 live service can provide a new perspective for even seasoned veterans of a support team.

Another approach is coaching support agents to enter all support situations without being attached to an outcome. While customer support can’t guarantee that the issue will be fixed right then and there, agents can promise they’ll be collaborative and communicative the whole way through.

customer support

6. Be fast

With more than 60 percent of customers reporting they now have higher customer service standards after the past year’s crisis, customer support teams need to be faster than ever. Respond to the customer’s inquiries as soon as you can. No one likes to wait around for an answer.

AI-powered tools, such as a chatbot, can help support agents deliver faster responses. A bot can collect key customer information upfront and take repetitive questions off a support team’s plate. And since bots don’t need to sleep or take lunch breaks, they can deliver fast support around the clock.

7. Be personable

Speed is important. But good customer support isn’t just about solving a problem and moving on. Trust & Will’s Meg Palazzolo emphasizes the importance of support reps being personable.

For starters, treat your customers like real people, not tickets. No one likes a robot.

And don’t hand off the customer – even the difficult ones! Encourage each agent to answer all of the customer’s questions. If they don’t know the answer or process, they ought to find out.

It’s also important to find ways to go above and beyond, when possible. It doesn’t need to be anything crazy, but leave the customer with a little bit more than what they originally reached out for.

8. Integrate customer support and CRM platforms

90 percent of customers will spend more with companies that personalize the customer service they offer them. 68 percent say they expect all experiences to be personalized.

Integrate customer support and CRM platforms to monitor changes in customers and their lifetime value. Sharing data between these platforms can lead to the discovery of personalized, relevant solutions to customer issues that otherwise wouldn’t be considered. With key customer context like opened outbound emails, purchase history, and previous support issues, agents can anticipate customers’ needs and tailor responses accordingly.

9. Meet customers on the channels of their choice

93 percent of customers will spend more with companies that offer their preferred option to reach customer service. Channel preference can vary based on issue type so companies will want to provide customers with a choice of channels.

Social messaging options like WhatsApp, Instagram, and Facebook Messenger enable businesses to meet customers on the same channels customers are already using in their personal lives. In fact, inquiries over WhatsApp,
Facebook Messenger, and regional favorites like WeChat or Line jumped 36% last year—higher than any other channel.

10. Enable customers to self-serve

Today’s customers have adopted a ‘Google it’ mantra. 89 percent will spend more with companies that allow them to find answers online without having to contact anyone.

A knowledge base, community forum, and chatbot that serves help center articles are key to an effective self-service strategy. When customers can find answers to simple issues on their own, support teams can focus on higher-stakes tasks that need a human touch. This helps your customers get solutions faster, and makes agents’ jobs more engaging.

Insights from employees, product experts, and external partners will be key for creating help center articles and addressing common customer inquiries. They’re also helpful to agents as a reference point when they’re assisting customers.

Examples of good customer support

We all have our own personal examples of great customer support experiences – and not-so-great ones too, unfortunately.

Just the other day I was on Instagram and saw a brand I’d recently purchased health supplements from post that the prices listed on their website are the only costs customers will ever pay — “no hidden fees.”

I messaged them privately to let them know that this wasn’t the case for me. Because it was an international shipment, I was charged an extra $40 of duties on delivery.

The brand wrote back instantly, apologized, and said they would reimburse me for the extra charge. Not only is that great customer support, but I’m now more likely to buy from them again, despite the initial mistake on their end.

For Brian Kale, Director of Customer Success at Novo, Apple is the gold standard of customer support.

“Every time I walk into an apple store I am shocked by how great the team is there,” he says. “They always will have you do the task you are asking while they walk you through how to do it. That is education through conversation. They provide such a charming experience that they never have to hard sell you. The experience is the sale.”

Meanwhile, Palazzolo shares this example of truly exceptional customer support that will warm your heart. Seriously, get the tissues ready:

Last month, one of my support agents had a phone call with a very irate customer. He was yelling at her over the phone. The support rep handled herself very well and let him know that she wouldn’t be able to continue the conversation if he continued to yell at her.

After he was able to calm down, he explained to her how his wife was battling stage 4 cancer. My support agent empathized with him over the phone and shared a personal story of her own and continued to answer his questions.

As the call was wrapping up, he apologized to her for his behavior. The agent then told him we were going to cover the cost of the Estate Plan.

It’s really the least we can do.

The keys to a successful customer support team

1. Be helpful

Customer support could look very different depending on your business, industry, and who your customers are. But for customer support professionals like Palazzolo, it’s ultimately about being helpful.

“The role of customer support is to help make a difference in the user’s experience with your product,” says Palazzolo. “It is the support agent’s role and responsibility to become customer advocates to help shape the future of their company’s product, marketing, R&D etc. Customer support is the core of any customer-centric company.”

2. Build trust

For Kale, customer support is all about building trust — which ultimately impacts everything from customer loyalty and retention, to brand and marketing.

“Build trust through empathy, honesty, expectation setting, and by advocating for customers internally with data and insights,” says Kale.

In fact, Kale says the job of customer support is to evolve into a long-term business strategy. That means it’s not just about reacting to customer problems but giving them the tools needed to be successful throughout their journey with your brand.

The key here, according to Kale, is to “take all the knowledge and insights support operations generate when interacting with customers to build better experiences that proactively solve issues and answer questions by empowering customers to take action.”

3. Answer the why, not just the how

Brummel says that it’s easy to succeed in a traditional support role for those with more technical skills; 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 and develop the other skills necessary to help them.

By rewarding soft skills, encouraging empathy and extreme rapport, reviewing outcomes and KPIs, and supporting agents in all of the above, a customer support team using customer support software can take a more customer-centric approach and provide long-term support beyond the issue of the day.

While the lines between “customer service” and “customer support” may have become blurred, it is important to use both to deliver high-quality customer experiences.

How to structure your customer service department

Learn more about the key steps for structuring your customer service team with this free guide.

How to structure your customer service department

Learn more about the key steps for structuring your customer service team with this free guide.

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