What is customer support?

Although similar to customer service, customer support has its own challenges and best practices.

In this age of digital interaction and one-to-many communication, it can be easy to lose sight of the human aspect of doing business. But no matter how large your audience or how many channels you span, at the end of the day the success of your business comes down to how well you connect with your customers on a personal level.

In 2018, Gartner reported that more than two-thirds of companies are now competing primarily on the basis of customer experience. At the same time, research suggests that avoidable churn is costing U.S. businesses $136 billion a year.

In other words, providing a positive customer experience has become absolutely essential. And, a major factor in an effective approach to customer-experience management is customer support.

Here, we discuss customer support—what it is, what challenges it faces, and how you can ensure that your business is using it to provide an exceptional experience for your patrons.

Customer support definition

At its most basic, customer support describes the services, tools, actions, or strategies designed to help customers resolve any technical issues or problems with a specific product or service. Customer support may include everything from original planning and installation, through training, troubleshooting, and maintenance.

Contact centers often play an important role in customer support. When a customer encounters a problem with the product or needs further direction on how to use it correctly, they may opt to contact trained support personnel via the company’s contact center. The customer calls in using their phone, and is able to speak one-on-one with a support agent. The agent can then walk the customer through the troubleshooting process and help them find a solution.

Other customer support channels may include the following:

  • Social media
  • Messaging apps
  • Live chat
  • Email
  • Forums/message boards
  • On-page support widgets
  • Online self service

Each of these options carries with it certain advantages in terms of reach, availability, usability, and communication effectiveness. Successful businesses tend not to limit their customer support options to just one or two channels; multi-channel support ensures that wherever your customers are and however they prefer to reach out, you will be waiting for them and ready to help. Omni-channel support takes this interaction even further, connecting all available service channels and allowing agents to freely share relevant information to promote a more seamless customer experience.

The evolution of customer support

A hundred or so years ago, customers were effectively limited to those businesses that were located nearby. Most people would purchase locally, and when they encountered problems with the product or service, they would simply return to the shop and speak with someone there.

But as larger businesses began to expand to include more and more locations, it became apparent that the need for customer support was growing as well. At the same time, new communication technologies—such as the telephone—made it possible for customers to call into stores directly to find solutions to their problems.

The first call centers began to appear in the 1960s, offering a more efficient way for businesses to manage customer support at scale. The advent of toll-free numbers helped solidify call centers as the preferred approach to customer support.

Throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s new technologies further revolutionized customer support. Interactive voice responses (IVR) and phone trees made limited self service a possibility, and help desks—backed by on-site computer software—allowed agents to quickly retrieve important information. The emergence of home internet technology brought with it email and eventually live chat support options. Finally, the 2000s saw an explosion in customer support software and online support-and-feedback channels.

Today, we are living in a golden age of customer support. However, as support options and capabilities expand, the line between customer service and customer support is starting to blur.

The difference between customer support and customer service

There is a lot of overlap between customer support and customer service. Both play an essential role in the customer experience. Both depend on reliable communication. Both have an impact on customer retention and customer loyalty. But customer service and customer support are not actually the same thing.

Customer service
Customer service is a blanket term that encompasses most interactions between a business and its customers. It includes every action that you take, and every resource you provide, to help ensure that customers’ expectations are being met and that are enjoying a positive customer experience. It’s the assistance and advice you provide to those who are interested in doing business with you.

Customer experience is not a one-and-done task; it begins with the first contact between your business and a prospective lead, and continues throughout the entirety of the customer relationship—through purchase and beyond.

Customer support

If you think of customer service as an umbrella covering the full range of customer-facing services, then customer support is a subset that sits under this umbrella. It also plays a role in meeting customer expectations and promoting a positive customer experience, but it is focused on providing solutions to problems.

Customer support is more short-term than customer service, with clearly defined beginnings and endings. Generally, a customer will experience a problem that they are unable to solve. They will reach out through an available support channel in the hopes of finding a solution. Either with the help of a support agent or through self-service support resources, the customer finds a solution to their problem, effectively bringing the customer-support relationship to a close—until the next time they need assistance.

The differences between customer service and customer support.

Although customer service may encompass a broader definition, customer support has become at least as important to business success. This is, in part, thanks to the fact that customer support functions as a last line of defense against a negative customer experience. And, the more complex the product or service, the more support customers require. And the more challenges those customers face, the poorer they view the overall experience.

Today’s customer expectations are higher than ever before. Customers are informed, self assured, and are aware that they have many other options when it comes to doing business. When they have a negative customer experience, they are not shy about sharing their story, potentially causing reputational damage that extends well beyond the original customer relationship.

When your customers encounter a problem, they look to your support channels to help make it right. If you can solve their problem in a fast, convenient, and friendly way, then they will be more likely to view your company positively. They will be more willing to do business with you in the future, and may refer you to friends and associates.

In other words, customer support is a major opportunity to turn potentially damaging issues into positive support experiences. It’s also a chance to identify and address the root causes of customer support issues, creating an improved experience for those who come after.

Business growth depends on a variety of factors, but at its core, it’s all about customers. Happy, engaged customers will generally spend more and do business with you for longer. At the same time, companies depend on candid customer feedback to improve products and inform future decisions.

Effective customer support provides for these needs. It offers a means to meet expectations and engage customers when they need it most, and collect honest evaluations and criticisms to help drive innovation.

One of the primary challenges support departments face is that they are responsible for inheriting and resolving negative experiences. Customers who contact the support team may already be unhappy. It’s up to the support department to not only resolve their issues, but to do so in a way that creates a positive overall experience.

Dealing with unhappy or angry customers and salvaging the customer relationship can be an uphill battle. It demands patience, empathy, and an in-depth understanding of your business and your products. It also demands the right tools and support software.

Other customer support challenges include the following:

  • Breaking down information silos
    A customer who has gone through an automated system or spoken with an agent and is then transferred expects the new agent to be up to speed on the problem. Unfortunately, when different agents across multiple channels lack access to real-time customer information, customers may be forced to explain their situation multiple times.

    This can be a very frustrating experience for customers. Businesses should strive for a unified customer support system, breaking down silos and ensuring that everyone involved has access to the same up-to-date information.
  • Managing multiple support channels
    A multi-channel approach to customer support will help ensure that your business is available when and where customers need you. However managing multiple channels can be a daunting prospect. Agents need support software that is capable of handling all available channels via a single platform, allowing them to provide true omni-channel service.

  • Prioritizing cases
    Prioritizing customer support tickets can be difficult, particularly given that every customer tends to view their own issues as the most important. Intelligent automation can help agents effectively prioritize cases based on a number of relevant factors, ensuring that the most crucial issues are being addressed first, without letting lower priority cases fall through the cracks.
Various examples showing the experience of customers.

By adhering to a handful of best practices, most organizations can build a customer-support strategy capable of addressing almost any issue that may come its way.

Defining your level of support

At the core of your customer support strategy, you will need to determine exactly how extensive your support offering is going to be. Will you make your support team available 24/7, or will they only be available during regular office hours? Will you offer worldwide support across multiple time zones and languages, or will you restrict support options to your local area? How will you define service levels, either formally or informally, and how will you track adherence to them?

The level of support you choose to offer should be based upon the needs of your customers and the capabilities of your business. Also, be aware that those two factors may change; you might not need a french-language support option today, but you might tomorrow if your business expands to include other parts of the world.

Key features of customer support

In creating a customer support strategy, you will need to define several key features. Addressing these points early in your planning will help you stay on track and provide a consistently positive experience for your customers. Here are several key features to consider:

  • Approach
    How will you approach customer support? Will you focus on one-on-one conversations where your agents walk customers through potential solutions? Or will you take a more comprehensive, but less personalized approach and simply direct customers towards informative resources?

    Both options carry their own advantages and disadvantages, and may be more or less appropriate depending on your business and customer base.

  • Voice
    The tone and voice you use in communicating with your customers can have a big impact on their overall experience. Your agents should be friendly and informed, but how casual or formal they are depends on how you would like to present your brand.

  • Quality / speed
    Although every business should strive to provide the highest quality support as quickly as possible, you may find that your industry or your audience values one of these traits over the other.

    Determine early in your planning stages which is more important. If quality is a bigger concern, then hiring a smaller, but better trained support team will help ensure that customers enjoy comprehensive solutions. On the other hand, if your customers are more interested in a fast response and quick turnaround, hiring a larger team can help make that a reality.

    Ideally, you would want a large support team made up of knowledgeable, skilled individuals. But if you lack the resources to field such a team, first concentrate on ensuring you can provide either a fast or quality experience, and then supplement your choice with automation and other support tools.

  • Availability
    When will you provide dedicated service? Will you limit support to traditional office hours, or will you make sure that there is someone available to provide support at any time of the day, on any day of the year?
  • Process
    There will be times when your customer support department encounters problems of its own. At the same time, even routine events will require defined processes to ensure that they go smoothly. Defining your emergency and non-emergency processes, including who has the authority to make critical decisions, will help ensure that your support team remains effective as you scale your business.

How to build best-in-class customer support

At its heart, customer support is all about promoting a positive customer experience. How you do that will depend on who your customers are, what products or services you offer, and the expectations within your industry. That said, we’ve compiled nine tips to help ensure that your customer support strategy is an effective one.

  • Clearly define your contact paths
    Before you can provide effective customer support, your customers need to know how to get in touch with you. Make sure that support options are clearly defined throughout your website, and that all contact information is up to date.

  • Identify your starting benchmarks
    To effectively measure your success, you need to know where you’re starting. Establishing starting benchmarks also includes taking a meaningful look at leading competitors in your industry.

  • Establish performance measurements that reward customer centricity
    In all likelihood, not everyone in your organization works directly with customers. But everyone needs to understand that customers are the most important factor in business success. Recognize and reward customer-centricity through every department, and internal behavior will become more customer focused overall.

  • Give your support team the right tools
    Depending on the size of your business, the size of your customer base, and specifics of the products or services you offer, your support team may need quite a bit of support itself. Customer service software and customer service management platforms provide invaluable resources. Additionally, tools that promote effective inter-departmental coordination, such as digital workflows, connect your agents with other teams outside of customer support.

  • Hire the right people
    Ideal support teams are made up of patient, attentive individuals with clear communication skills. Hire for these soft skills wherever possible. Additionally, keep your best hires interested by offering competitive pay rates and clear advancement opportunities.

  • Create and clearly document guidelines and policies
    Make sure that your support teams know what is expected of them and how to go about meeting those expectations. Identify processes, goals, values, etc.

  • Empower teams to act with authority
    If you hire the right people and have reliable guidelines in place, there’s no reason why you should force your support teams to double check everything with management. Giving your teams the authority to make decisions will help expedite solutions and improve the overall customer experience.

  • Keep customers in the loop
    Occasionally, businesses will put so much focus on support, that they neglect the customer. Communicate with your customers and keep them up to speed on what’s happening, and what you are doing to resolve their issues. If something isn’t working properly, let them hear it from you first, and give them estimates on when they can expect solutions.

  • Don’t rush when providing solutions
    Support teams should be sure to respond quickly to support requests, but that doesn’t always mean having an answer up front. Give your teams enough time to effectively research issues and come up with working solutions, and make sure the customers understand the time frames involved.

  • Motivate your employees
    Working in a call center or answering email support requests can feel repetitive and thankless—but it doesn’t have to. Recognize and reward exceptional work among your support team, and they will be more attentive to the needs of your customers.

  • Don’t neglect personalization
    Automation can help your support team provide a better, faster, more accurate service, but it shouldn’t replace personalized support. When problems are too complex for chatbots and self-service portals to solve, make sure that customers have access to real, thinking human beings. Personalization supports automation in other ways as well, allowing businesses to tailor automated responses and suggestions to the specific needs of the customer.

  • Report on business wins as well as customer wins
    Raw data and customer-focused metrics don’t always clearly demonstrate the big-picture impact. Be sure to look at the overall impact of your customer support strategy, and share those wins with the rest of your organization.

  • Always be improving
    With every interaction, your support team collects valuable data related to your customer base, your products, and the issues that relate to both. Use this data to inform your support offerings and improve your products. As you identify the most common problems, you’ll be able to address those issues company wide.

  • Be open to make big changes
    It may be natural to experience pushback as you realign company focus onto customer support. But sometimes big changes are necessary if you want to experience big improvements. Help your people commit to improving customer support; difficult changes now can mean significant improvements and gains down the road.

Defining a path to excellence

Once you’ve established a working customer support strategy, consider taking the next step. Check out the ServiceNow customer engagement whitepaper, and see how far your customer support can take you.

On the surface, customer support may seem like something negative; customers encounter problems with your product or service, and they then have to take the time to reach out to you to find solutions. But the truth is that customer support not only provides much-needed direction and troubleshooting, it also gives you a chance to further personalize the customer experience, create positive connections with the people who drive your business, and generate valuable, actionable feedback. In other words, when properly planned and executed, customer support becomes a valuable avenue for promoting a positive customer experience.

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