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Understanding customer support
and customer service

Everything you need to know

We are in an age where competition is immense, and differentiating your brand solely on the basis of your product and service offerings is becoming more and more challenging. In a scenario like this, customers tend to flock to brands that they perceive will offer better value in comparison to their competitors.

Delivering superior customer experiences is a great way to create this value and gain a competitive advantage against other players in the market. And great customer support and customer service are the cornerstones of a memorable customer experience.

The basics of customer service, customer support, and customer success:

The terms customer support and customer service are interconnected, and, in common parlance, are often used interchangeably. In recent times, another important aspect of customer experience that businesses have started concentrating on is customer success. Understanding the meanings of each of these terms, and the differences between them can help you contextualize your customers' needs better, and devise a strategy to build a meaningful relationship with them.

What is customer support?

Simply put, customer support is a dedicated function that offers technical help to customers who use a company's products and services. The term is commonly associated with technology and SaaS companies that offer complex IT solutions, and whose customers require ongoing technical assistance.

A good customer support agent has a thorough understanding and technical know-how of the company's product and service portfolio. The agent also possesses great listening and communication skills, since support interactions with customers involve high levels of patience, coherence, and concision.

What are some common customer support responsibilities?

Onboarding assistance

Onboarding refers to the entire process of helping new customers understand how to use your products and services. Customer onboarding is crucial because it sets the foundation for their long-term association with your brand.

Customer support agents can offer onboarding assistance in the form of welcome emails, video tutorials, sign-up process/first login, data import, etc.

Troubleshooting

When a customer reports a technical issue, the customer support team has a two-fold responsibility. Firstly, they must effectively communicate with the customer and take note of all the essential details pertaining to the problem. Secondly, they must be able to help them fix the issue in the most seamless and timely manner.

In the book Technical Support Essentials, authors Andrew Sanchez and Karen Sleeth explain how troubleshooting is a multidimensional skill that requires a combination of confidence, analytical reasoning, and experience.

Maintenance and upgrading

Another important aspect of customer support includes helping customers with timely maintenance and upgradation of systems. Doing this keeps customers up-to-date with the latest versions of the company’s services and ensures high levels of performance and security.

Sharing customer feedback with other departments

After every customer interaction, support agents must ask for feedback and share it with the relevant departments. Customer feedback, whether positive or negative, helps brands grow at various levels. It fosters product innovation and development, improves marketing performance, and enhances the overall customer experience.

Some common feedback collection outlets include surveys, emails, social media, and the brand’s official website.

What is customer service?

Customer service trends 2020 infographic

Source: Netomi

Customer service is the more human aspect of customer experience. It mostly pertains to non-technical customer interactions. Even when there may be an instance of inferior experience on the customer support side, high-quality customer service can compensate for it. In the absence of great customer service, it can get difficult for brands to build a long-term relationship of trust and satisfaction with customers.

Customer service is more proactive than customer support — it offers customers ideas, solutions, and recommendations for dealing with potential concerns so that they can prevent issues even before they crop up.

A good customer service agent must possess incredible soft skills, in addition to in-depth knowledge around the relevant product or service. They must be great communicators and listeners with excellent persuasion skills, high levels of emotional intelligence, and stellar problem-solving abilities.

What are some common customer service responsibilities?

Understanding and anticipating customer needs

Perhaps the most important element of exceptional customer service is being able to anticipate customers’ needs. When customer service agents approach clients, they must do so with a view to solving their problems — especially the ones the customers aren’t yet aware of.

An Inc. Magazine article suggests the following 7 keys to anticipating customers’ needs:

  1. Industry research and trend reports
  2. Influencer reviews on social media
  3. Tools and analytics to decode industry trends
  4. Hiring smart people
  5. Building a team of effective mentors
  6. Asking customers for inputs and ideas
  7. Accepting and adapting to change

Customer engagement

Engaging with customers via unique experiences and interactions can help brands create a deep emotional connection with them. According to research by global analytics firm Gallup, customers who are fully engaged with a brand contribute 23% more in terms of profitability and revenue as compared to the average customer.

Some effective customer engagement strategies include offering customers personalized experiences, building a strong brand personality, and sharing unique and compelling content on social media to connect with customers.

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Maintaining customer records

Maintaining a record of customers’ details is key to offering them tailored and personalized customer service. According to Segment’s The 2017 State of Personalization Report, 71% of customers find lack of personalization frustrating while 44% of customers say that they will become repeat buyers of brands that offer them a personalized buying experience.

And for personalization, you need data. Customer service agents must maintain a record of important customer data, collating information via order forms, feedback forms, email inquiries, complaints, etc.

Building a knowledge base

Creating a comprehensive self-service knowledge base helps customers find quick solutions to their own problems and goes a long way in improving customer experience. Building a knowledge base is a time-intensive process, but it comes with several benefits. In the long run, it can help reduce customer service costs and customer service agents’ workload.

What is customer success?

Customer success is a business function aimed at helping customers achieve their goals sustainably. This function ensures that all of the interactions customers have with your brand holistically contribute to their organization’s overall growth and success.

Customer success is very much relationship-focused -- with every customer success manager responsible for a specific number of clients, ensuring they derive maximum value from the product or service.

The term customer success first originated in the '90s but has gained greater traction over the past decade, especially in the world of SaaS.

What are some common customer success responsibilities?

Enhancing the brand’s perceived value

One of the key responsibilities of customer success includes demonstrating the brand’s products and services in a way that customers see value in it. This, in turn, lays the foundation for building strong customer relationships and improving retention rates.

Turning free trials into paying customers

SaaS businesses often offer customers free trials with the hope that they can convert those trial users into long-term paying customers.

Customer success managers who are proactive in assisting customers and keeping them in the loop about the product and its functionalities are more likely to convert free users into paying customers. Often, it’s the lack of initiative and support from brands during the trial phase that makes customers leave.

At the same time, customer success managers must also focus on constantly delighting their paying customers with unique experiences.

Turning customers into loyal brand ambassadors

Great customer success managers continuously work towards helping customers achieve their business goals. Consequently, they help build a community of committed and loyal brand ambassadors who in the long run are huge drivers of business growth - through positive word-of-mouth.

Some other factors responsible for creating loyal brand ambassadors include great products, compelling brand stories, and memorable experiences.

Increasing expansion revenue and reducing customer churn

Expansion revenue refers to expanding revenue from the brand’s current customer base through up-selling and cross-selling. Customer churn, on the other hand, is the rate at which customers stop using the brand’s product(s). The aim of customer success is to increase expansion revenue - by proactively identifying opportunities for revenue growth - and minimize customer churn.

According to a report by Profitwell, companies with a dedicated customer success team see about a 27% decrease in gross churn and up to 125% increase in expansion revenue.

What are the differences between customer support, customer service, and customer success?

Key Differentiators Customer Support Customer Service Customer Success
Approach Reactive Proactive Proactive
Support provided Technical Non-technical Tailored to customers’ needs and goals
Interaction Type Transactional Personal Transformational: focused on turning every customer interaction into a long-term association
Key focus areas Problem resolution and maintenance Customer satisfaction Customer loyalty and commitment
Objective Lowering customer attrition Earning customers’ trust Turning every customer into a long-term revenue stream

The importance of good customer support and service

Customer experience survey statistics

Source: Salesforce State of the Connected Customer report

Brands spend considerable amounts of time and resources in building great products and marketing them. However, despite their best efforts, not many are able to survive tough competition. On top of that, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has only aggravated the situation, forcing many promising small businesses and startups to shut shop.

According to a report by Failory, 90% of startups fail, of which 20% fail by the end of the first year and 50%, by the end of the fifth year. Market intelligence company CB Insights reports that 23% of companies fail because of the wrong team and 14% fail because they ignore their customers. These stats are a testament to the fact that to survive cut-throat competition, brands need to invest in a team of talented people who understand and embody great customer support and service.

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Following are some of the key reasons why good customer service is critical for a company’s growth and success:

Enhances your brand value

Companies whose customer service representatives go that extra mile in assisting, and surprising their customers with top-notch experiences are the ones that stand out. Such companies are perceived to be superior than their competitors in the industry, even if their products and services are similar in terms of quality and features.

Great customer service, and therefore a great customer experience, can justify a company's higher price tag in comparison to its competitors. According to the third edition of Salesforce's 'State of the Connected Customer' report, "66% of customers are willing to pay more for a great experience."

Increases customer retention and thus, customer lifetime value (CLV)

Businesses place a lot of emphasis on retaining their current customers because as per research, customer acquisition is anywhere between 5-25 times more expensive than customer retention.

The happier your customers, the more likely they are to maintain a long-term association with your brand. This, in turn, increases customer lifetime value (CLV), i.e. the amount of money a single client spends on your business during their association with you and lowers your operating costs to serve them.

Increases customer endorsements and improves brand image

Brands that ‘wow’ their customers with stellar customer service are bound to earn their respect and admiration by way of testimonials and referrals.

In fact, word-of-mouth marketing can prove to be a lot more effective than traditional marketing. According to a report by the marketing agency IMPACT, 75% of people don't believe advertisements, but 92% of people believe brand recommendations from friends and family.

Customer testimonials, when used strategically, are an excellent means to establish and demonstrate credibility in your brand, thereby enhancing your company's image.

Fosters a customer-focused culture

Great customer support and service are at the heart of great customer experiences. Companies that invest time and effort in enhancing their customer service are in a better position to foster a customer-focused culture across the organization.

Customer service teams that proactively reach out to their customers for feedback and concerns, and later report them back to the other departments in the company, can be instrumental in improving performance across marketing, sales, and product development functions. They can help the company fine-tune its strategy to the needs of customers, ensuring it's a win-win for both parties.

Types of customer support

Brands can extend customer support in different ways and through different channels, depending on individual customers and their unique support needs. It's a combination of the following types of support that makes up a world-class customer support strategy.

Self-support

Most customers try to find solutions to their queries using a brand's internal knowledge and resource base. Self-support is one of the most essential and cost-effective forms of support that brands must focus on building and updating consistently. According to a study, 92% of people prefer using a knowledge base for self-service support if available, and 77% of people view organizations more positively if they offer self-service options for customer support.

Common forms of self-support include FAQs, white papers, user guides, and case studies.

Anticipatory support

Anticipatory support is support offered to customers proactively, foreseeing their needs at various points during their lifecycle. A customer support strategy, that aims to improve loyalty, places a lot of importance on anticipatory support as it demonstrates a brand's commitment towards serving its customers well.

Customer support teams must maintain a database of common customer support inquiries so they can anticipate issues frequently faced by customers, and address them even before they arise. In this way, anticipatory support can lower the number of support requests received. Since customers are already equipped with the required tools and guides to understand and use your product or service better, it reduces the burden on your customer support team.

An example of anticipatory support includes sending automated emails with explainer videos and FAQ links while onboarding new customers.

Responsive support

Responsive or reactive support is support offered when a customer reaches out with a query or complaint. Unlike anticipatory or proactive support, responsive support cannot prevent issues before they crop up.

Although responsive support is important since not all issues and concerns faced by customers can be foreseen, customer support teams must aim at offering more proactive support as it improves customer experience.

An example of responsive support includes help offered to a customer experiencing an issue with a particular feature or tool after they reach out to your support team via email or call.

What are the differences between self, anticipatory and responsive customer support?

Key Differentiators Self-Support Anticipatory Support Responsive Support
Approach Proactive Proactive Reactive
Key focus To provide customers with adequate data to resolve their own issues. To help customers prevent issues from arising by preemptively offering them support. To resolve customers’ issues as and when they arise.
Objective To reduce the number of customer calls and emails and thus, improve the efficiency of customer support teams. To enhance customer experience and loyalty. To solve customers’ issues swiftly and satisfactorily, ie. lower turnaround time, prevent escalation, etc.
Common channels Knowledge base and FAQs. Explainer videos, walkthroughs. Email, phone, social and chat.

Common customer support and service challenges

Customer support can be a tough job, but when done right, it can also be one of the key factors responsible for building customer loyalty and retention. Gone are the days when customer support and service were considered inconsequential to a brand’s sustenance and growth. Today, a single unhappy customer can cost your business a lot of money and bring down its reputation.

According to the 2020 Achieving Customer Amazement survey, 96% of customers will leave a brand because of bad customer service.

While your organization’s customer support team may strive hard to deliver timely, constructive, and personalized customer service, they are bound to face the following challenges at various stages of interacting with customers.

Being unable to respond to customers in a timely manner

As organizations grow, so does the pressure on their support teams to respond to customer queries and complaints swiftly and satisfactorily. While most organizations promise a 24-48 hour window to respond to customers, customers today expect and value faster turnaround time.

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According to a recent research by SuperOffice, 88% of customers expect a response from your business within 60 minutes and 30% expect a response within 15 minutes or less. That's the kind of time efficiency customers expect today!

Poor turnaround time can hugely tarnish a brand's reputation and credibility. Some simple tips to deal with a barrage of queries and complaints from customers and reduce response time include:

Using email auto-responders

Sending emails to acknowledge the receipt of a query along with estimated response time.

Using email templates

Using pre-drafted emails to address similar queries from different customers.

Categorizing emails using keywords depending on priority

For example, keywords like 'urgent', 'damaged product', 'demo request', etc. could move higher up your email queue, depending on how you prioritize each keyword.

Setting time-based alerts

Creating time-based alerts for every query to avoid missing out on emails and delaying response time.

Being unable to resolve customers' issues satisfactorily

Time and again, your customer support team will encounter issues that are complex in nature and those they may not have ideal solutions for. They may respond to such queries and issues by redirecting customers to other departments. This can be an extremely disappointing experience for customers.

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Instead of asking your customers to get in touch with other teams, do that work for them instead. Acknowledge that you don't have a solution to their problem currently, but you will work towards finding one within a stipulated time frame. Customers notice and appreciate it when you go out of your way to serve them.

Dealing with difficult customers

The true test of your customer support team’s competence is in how they deal with difficult customers. Customers may lose their cool because of a product or service issue that they might be facing or because they might be dissatisfied with your support quality. Whatever be the reason for their grievance, customer support agents must maintain their composure, and avoid getting defensive, as doing so will only exacerbate the situation.

A highly popular technique of dealing with customer conflict is Disney's 5-step H.E.A.R.D framework:

  • a) Hear - Listen to the customer with an open mind and without interrupting them
  • b) Empathise - Tell them that you understand their frustration
  • c) Apologize - Make sure to apologize to the customer
  • d) Resolve - Work towards resolving their issue as quickly and satisfactorily as possible. Ask the customer what you can do to make the situation right
  • e) Diagnose - Review the situation with your entire team and try to get to the root of the problem so that a similar issue can be prevented in the future

Lack of personalization

In the age of automation, technology has remarkably transformed how we work and operate. Customer support teams are making use of technology to improve the quality and efficiency of their operations — be it in terms of process automation or data management and analytics.

That being said, nothing can replace the good-old personal touch when it comes to customer interactions. Offering personalized and customized support can make your customers feel valued, and set you apart from your competitors.

As per a report by PwC, 82% of U.S. and 74% of non-U.S. consumers want human interaction in their customer service interactions.

Some effective ways to offer personalized customer support include:

  • a) Addressing customers by their first name
  • b) Knowing your customers well and surprising them — for example, offering them an exclusive discount on their birthday or on the anniversary of their first year of business with you
  • c) Being receptive to customer feedback and implementing it
  • d) Offering a tailored service experience depending on their search history, past issues, and past purchases

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Having to transfer customers’ calls repeatedly

According to a research report by Hiver, more than 50% customers think there's nothing more frustrating than having to explain their issue over and over again to different customer support representatives. Not only does it waste the customer's time, but it also ruins their experience.

To avoid such a situation from arising, the customer support staff must be trained to assist customers with the most common support issues. At times when a customer support agent needs to transfer a customer's call, they must not 'blind transfer', ie. transfer the call without verifying whether or not a designated agent is available to assist the customer.

Managing a crisis or an outage

When your business experiences a crisis or an outage, your customer support teams end up being put under a lot of pressure. It's these teams that have to bear the brunt of customer frustration and anger in such difficult times.

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A prudent way to handle a scenario like this is to anticipate and prepare for it in advance. When you have a plan of action to handle a crisis, you will be better equipped to deal with the bombardment of customer calls and emails, and respond to them in a manner that is reassuring and effective.

Following are the most important things customer support agents must remember to do in times of a crisis or an outage:

  • a) Inform customers about the situation at hand and apologize for the inconvenience caused to them
  • b) Update them regularly about the progress happening behind-the-scenes
  • c) Reassure them that the services will be back up soon
The past and present state of customer support

Source: Kommunicate Whitepaper: Customer Support in 2020

Tips for developing an effective customer support and service strategy

Customer support and service are highly nuanced functions that require thorough planning and consistent improvements along the way. A well thought-out and effective customer support and service strategy gives the organization better judgment and clarity needed to serve customers. It is also extremely essential in providing customers with a consistent and reliable support experience.

Following are some tips to keep in mind while devising a customer support and service strategy:

Set actionable customer service goals

Setting SMART goals should be the first step in developing a customer service strategy. SMART, a mnemonic acronym for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound, first appeared in the November 1981 issue of Management Review by George T. Doran.

Goal setting can help establish expectations and act as a great standard to measure your service team's performance against. It is also important to ensure that the goals you set for your customer service team are aligned with the larger goals of the company.

Build a well-trained and customer-centric service team

For companies aiming for customer success, hiring employees that already possess the personality traits and skill-set to align with an overall customer-centric strategy is imperative. For example, great interpersonal skills, the ability to handle a crisis, and high emotional intelligence are some of the many qualities that customer service agents must possess.

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The next important thing is to invest in periodic training programs for both new as well as existing employees. These programs can empower your customer service team with the knowledge of new techniques, tools, and skills to better serve customers and enhance their experience.

Invest in the right customer support tools

Your customer support tools must meet the requirements of your support team as well as your customers. When starting out, companies usually have a single point of contact to manage customer support. As companies grow, their need for a more sophisticated support helpdesk grows as well.

For example, in companies with limited clients and low volumes of support requests, a group email can often suffice. However, with an increase in their quantity of support emails, doing everything from a single inbox becomes cumbersome. It can lead to multiple issues internally such as unanswered support queries, duplicate emails, poor accountability, and much more! This can cause a huge blow to the brand's reputation.

Using a shared inbox solution to manage customer support emails can make communication a lot more systematic and efficient. A shared inbox tool allows multiple users to access, send, and collaborate on emails. It also allows for easy assigning of emails, reduces duplication, gives a clear picture of the entire activity timeline on a particular email thread, helps categorize queries better, and can enhance the overall productivity of your support team.

Personalize your customer service

Personalization is a great way to make your customers feel important. However, as businesses scale, communication with customers tends to become impersonal.

A smart way to personalize email communication is using placeholder variables, i.e, information unique to different customers, such as name, email address, etc. while creating email templates. This way, you can enjoy the convenience that comes with email-automation as well as offer a customized service experience to each one of your customers.

Monitor customer service performance indicators

Monitoring your customer service performance is highly crucial in helping you understand whether your customer service strategy is working or failing, and adopting corrective measures if need be.

Amidst the daily grind of managing a business, it can become difficult to keep a tab on the performance of your customer service agents and the quality of service provided by them. Customer service performance indicators such as Customer Satisfaction Score (CSAT), First Response Time (FRT), and Net Promoter Score (NPS) can give you a clear and unbiased picture of your team's performance and help them strive for continuous improvement.

Solicit and implement customer feedback

Customer support agents must solicit feedback from customers at every stage of interaction with them. According to Microsoft's 2017 State of Global Customer Service Report, 77% of people view brands more favorably if they reach out to them for feedback and implement it.

Customer feedback is crucial as it not only improves customer experience but can also play a huge role in enhancing your product and overall business strategy. It helps improve outcomes across marketing, sales, and product development functions.

Your customer support team must pay close attention to what your customers have to say — both, the praise and the criticisms. Often, your most difficult customers will give you the most important feedback.

Measuring your support and service team's performance

It's no secret that giving your customers a great experience goes a long way in determining your company’s success, especially given the competitive nature of markets today.

Customer surveys can offer very valuable and actionable insights into customer experience as well as the quality of your customer support and service.

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Following are some useful metrics that can help you track your customer service team's performance over a given period:

Customer Satisfaction Score (CSAT) - Customer Satisfaction Score or CSAT, as the name suggests, is a key performance indicator used to measure how satisfied your customers are with your products and services. The higher the CSAT score, the better your customer satisfaction.

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A Harvard Business Review study found that customers who had the best support experiences spent 140% more than customers who rated their past experiences poorly.

Customer Effort Score (CES)

Customer Effort Score is a metric used to measure the effort put in by a customer to use your product or service. It also takes into account the effort required for a customer to resolve a product or service related issue. A higher CES score corresponds to higher customer satisfaction, and subsequently, better customer loyalty.

First Response Time (FRT)

First Response Time measures the average time taken by an agent to respond to an initial customer request, complaint, or query. More often than not, customers value a quick first response to their queries more than a deliberate but delayed response.

First Contact Resolution (FCR)

Customers dislike having to repeatedly contact customer support for a single query, and have their issue getting transferred from one agent to another.

First Contact Resolution is the percentage of support requests that are resolved in a single interaction with a customer.

A study by Ascent Group found that 60% of companies that measured FCR for a year or longer reported improvements of up to 30% in their performance.

Overall Resolution Rate

Being unable to solve customers' issues promptly can be reason enough for them to switch to your competitors.

Overall Resolution Rate is the average rate at which customer requests and issues are resolved by your support team. This is a great measure of your support team’s overall efficiency. It can also give you cues into how satisfied your customers are.

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Net Promoter Score (NPS)

Net Promoter Score is one of the most important metrics that indicate customer loyalty and satisfaction. It measures the willingness of your customers to recommend your products and services to others. A high NPS score suggests that your brand's relationship with its customers is healthy.

Companies must remember that great customer support and service, and eventually, customer success is a constant work-in-progress. They are not features that can be introduced and left on auto-pilot. They require consistent learning and improvement. They require a team that is driven, motivated, and rewarded for their efforts. Most importantly, they require time — the rewards will come slowly but surely.

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