The Difference Between Customer Service & Customer Success

customer success vs customer service

Since customer success is a relatively new industry, customer success and customer service often get mixed up.

It’s not unusual for someone from outside these disciplines to use the terms interchangeably because they aren’t aware of the differences between the two.

To be fair, both roles have similar end goals. Customer service and customer success are both all about helping customers and delivering an outstanding experience, but they achieve this in different ways.

In this article, we’ll take a look at:

  • The ins and outs of customer service roles

  • What customer success is and the various skills needed for customer success managers (CSM)

  • A few things that the two teams can learn from each other

What is Customer Service?

Customer service is tactical and typically more reactive by nature.

Customers reach out when a specific problem comes up, and it’s up to the customer service team to solve that problem.

This customer service team helps to resolve individual issues and provides product-specific guidance.

When a customer isn’t sure how a product or service works, it’s up to the customer service team to educate the customer.

In a nutshell, this team receives an incoming communication from the customer and responds accordingly.

The average customer service professional needs skills like empathy, problem-solving, and linear thinking. They also need strong technical skills, the ability to follow step-by-step processes, and more importantly, the patience to walk customers through different solutions.

Because the customer service industry is already established, there are plenty of best practices and a world of information on how to deliver a great customer service experience.

In any business and any industry, customer service is considered necessary because customers will always run into problems that need solutions. They’ll always have questions that need answers, so it’s easy to justify the need for a customer service team.

What is Customer Success?

Where customer service is tactical and reactive, customer success is instead focused on being proactive and strategic.

A customer success manager guides their customers through the bulk of the customer lifecycle, from onboarding all the way through to renewing or closing the account.

Instead of focusing on service issue resolution and product “break/fix” knowledge the way a customer service professional would, the CSM focuses on helping the customer achieve their goals.

Customer success managers work to understand their customer’s business, challenges, and desired outcomes.

By knowing their customers well, they can be proactive in finding new solutions, anticipating needs, and supporting the customer’s goals. In this role, there is a significant amount of strategizing ahead of time.

When working with their client portfolio, customer success managers are always looking to help their customers accomplish their goals.

If the customer’s needs change, they are quick to suggest a better solution. They are also focused on reducing churn, improving customer retention, and maximizing the lifetime value of a customer.

The customer success team plays a big role in creating a consistent and predictable revenue for the company.

While there is overlap, customer success managers typically require a more expansive set of skills than customer service professionals and benefit from specialized training. The set of skills needed is a little more varied and includes relationship building, creative thinking, and sales instincts.

As a young industry, customer success is often mistakenly seen by many companies as a value-add rather than a necessity. For any company looking to foster a long-time customer base and increase their customer lifetime value, it is a critical long-term investment.

What Can Customer Service & Customer Success Teams Learn from Each Other?

Since the end goal of both teams is to help their customers, both teams benefit from working together and learning from each other.

Although customer service is predominantly reactive, customer service can take a page from the customer success book by trying a proactive approach.

Are there certain problems customers may run into that customer service can plan ahead for? One good trick is to have an easily-accessible knowledge base for customers that offers solution or a FAQ on the support site.

Customer service teams should also be on the lookout for opportunities to expand the customer’s relationship with the company. Since they’re in direct contact with customers, customer service can learn to recognize when a customer needs a product change or upgrade and alert the assigned customer success manager to this opportunity.

While customer success teams need to be versatile, and be able to employ the skills of both roles, they tend to me more focused on large-scale strategic needs. This wider view is a critical part of the customer service role, but they also need to be able to hone in on the fine-grain details. The best CSMs are as strategic as they are tactical: don’t overlook smaller opportunities, and consider highlighting some quick wins to build a stronger customer relationship.

The relationship between customer success and customer service is a critical one, and both teams are inextricably linked -- to be a good customer service manager you need the strengths and experience of a customer service rep and the wide-lens view of a customer success professional. By educating coworkers and customers on the purpose of their role and how it differs from other customer-facing roles, they create a stronger brand for customer success.

Shared Skills, Shared Success

Understanding the differences as well as the shared skills required for customer service and customer success roles will allow to better develop within your role, and potentially transition into a customer success management position. Both the fine-grain skills of a customer service expert and big picture expertise are required to succeed in customer success.

As these roles continue to evolve and change, the field is developing with a bright future ahead, and you can do a few things to help it along:

  • DO Ensure that these roles are clearly defined and understood throughout your company.

  • DON’T forget to educate customers on the role of each team so they know who to reach out to and when.

  • DO Organize a meeting of the minds. Bring the customer service and customer success teams together so they can learn from each other on a regular basis.

  • DON’T keep your teams siloed. Customer service and customer success teams that work closely together will achieve the best results!

With a clear understanding of each team’s purpose, you’ll be able to create an incredible experience for all of your customers!

Robyn Petrik

SuccessCOACHING contributor Robyn Petrik is a freelance copywriter originally from Vancouver, Canada, who specializes in blogging, website copy, and social media content. While she happily spends most of her time writing, you’ll also find her reading, hiking, and eating too much peanut butter.