Nowadays we hear the terms “customer success” and “customer service” almost everywhere, often in the same sentence. But this doesn’t mean that they’re one and the same, or that they’re inseparably connected. Does your company differentiate between customer service and customer success? Do you have a manager responsible for each individually, or do you include both under a single customer service department umbrella?
Regardless of how you’re currently organized and the metrics you use to analyze customer happiness, you should separate the two functions. Here’s why.
When you search for the definition of customer service on Google, it tells you that customer service is a noun meaning “the assistance and advice provided by a company to those people who buy or use its products or services.” Customer service is a replicable thing which is provided or consumed. Like a delicious donut.
Customer service is relatively narrow and immediate in scope, focused on resolving a problem or issue as quickly and effectively as possible while providing the recipient with a positive experience. Customer service is hugely important and companies that do not take it seriously are destined to fail – especially in today’s intensely competitive marketplace.
Example: A customer buys a newfangled, grossly over-priced techno-watch but can't figure out how to make it actually display the time. So they call the help line of the company that sells it. A representative talks the customer through the ins and outs of operating the watch and both parties hang up with a smile on their face. Replicable “thing” provided, current problem solved. Everyone is happy!
The scope and scale of customer success is far broader than customer service; it is a business model, a philosophy and much more. As the subscription economy has come into its own, companies have become increasingly concerned with customer success as a means to influence how they engineer their products as well as how they nurture and retain relationships. So how should we define customer success? I like Lincoln Murphy’s basic definition:
"Customer Success is ensuring your customers achieve their desired outcome through their interactions with your company."
Put another way, customer success is about creating programs, plans and policies that ensure your customers get maximum value out of your company’s products and services throughout the entire customer lifecycle. Customer success is more like a verb. It’s something so big and so important that companies have to do it all the time. It’s like breathing. And, although related, it has to be independent of other critical functions like customer service.
Lincoln Murphy identifies seventeen key elements of customer success. I’ve seen others boil it down to seven. I could make an argument for ten, or fifty. There is no perfect number. Because no two companies are exactly alike, there can be no one-size-fits-all strategy for customer success. Moreover, since a customer success program spans the entire customer lifecycle, it requires input and effort from every functional department within a company as well as its customers.
Example: A customer success team leads close and ongoing collaboration between the product development, marketing, sales, and customer service departments. Their purpose is to ensure the company actually works on products customers want, that marketing and sales know what they can sell and when they can sell it, and that customer service knows how to best help customers use what has been built for them.
Separate is better
When I co-founded my first SaaS company in the early 2000’s, we treated customer success and customer service as one and the same. However, as we grew and reached scale, our one-size-fits-all customer service + customer advocacy model began to break down under the weight of our success. I learned that customer service plays a pivotal part in an overarching customer success program but it is just that - a single part of a much bigger program. In hindsight, we had our service and success reps try to wear both hats for far too long.
The best customer success programs engage every department within an organization to drive toward clarity and consistency across the entire customer experience. Ultimately, customer service can’t thrive without customer success, but neither can product development, sales, marketing, or operations.
Building lasting customer partnerships requires that every team be devoted to customer success, which is why it should be separate from customer service.