Customer support: Definition, skills, importance, and tips
Customer support is the linchpin of any successful business. Learn what it is, why it's important — and how the pros do it.
Published February 7, 2019
Last updated December 2, 2021
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
- Customer support definition
- What is customer support's job?
- What's the difference between customer support and customer service?
- Why is customer support important for your business?
- The key features of good customer support
- Tips from the experts
- Customer support examples
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.
What is the job of customer support?
Customer support could look very different depending on your business, industry, and who your customers are. But for customer support professionals like Meg 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, Head of Member Success at Trust & Will. “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.”
For Brian Kale, Director of Customer Success at Novo, 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.”
Customer service vs. customer support
So we’re basically just talking about customer service here, right? Not exactly.
What's the difference between customer service and customer support?
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 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.
An umbrella term for all interactions that enhance customer experience and help improve their relationship with the company.
One type of interaction.
Fixes technical issues.
Why is customer support important for your business?
The short answer is that customer support is important because support agents are key for helping resolve customer issues 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,” says Palazzolo. “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.
- 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?
Key features of customer support
Here are a few key features of great customer support, according to our 2021 Customer Experience Trends Report:
Customers want to connect with you on the same channels they use to talk to friends and family—so being able to help a customer on their preferred support channel is one of the best ways to create an excellent customer support experience.
Great customer support often means anticipating your customer's needs before they even have to tell you.
47 percent of customers believe 24/7 support is a key component of great customer service. A knowledge base or chatbot are two great ways to provide customer service when agents are off the clock.
73 percent of customers say quick resolutions is the top factor of good customer support.
75 percent of customers want a personalized experience.
5 tips for delivering excellent 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 2021 Customer Experience Trends Report.
Here are 5 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.
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.
Best practices from a customer support expert
Here are some bonus tips from Trust & Will’s Meg Palazzolo:
- Be personable. Treat your customers like your friend or family member. No one likes a robot.
- Be fast. Respond to the customer’s inquiries as soon as you can. No one likes to wait around for an answer.
- 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.
- Find ways to go above and beyond. It doesn’t need to be anything crazy, but leave the customer with a little bit more than what they originally reached out for.
Customer support examples
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, 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.
Good customer support answers the why, not just the how
Jonathan 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 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.