Dear Abby Hammer: Splitting out Your Customer Success and Support Teams

By Abby Hammer posted 04-13-2021 12:00 AM



Dear Abby Hammer, 

After working in customer-facing roles for several years, I’m familiar with Customer Support and Customer Success being referred to interchangeably.

While we know that’s not the case, our book of business has been growing steadily which has brought new questions pertaining to our CS and Support functions. Previously limited resources left my team wearing many hats. I’m hesitant if this is the way forward, especially considering some internal confusion around each role.

Should I split out my Customer Success and Support Teams into distinct functions? How can I make an argument internally in favor of an independent Customer Support department?

 -Split on Success & Support



Dear Split on Success & Support,

Early on, many teams wear multiple hats. It’s not surprising to hear that your team does the same, especially when it comes to customer-facing functions. Many organizations have yet to split up their CS and Support functions or do so when it’s too late. And for those organizations that have divided these functions, even they sometimes blur the lines between these departments and their roles. You’re not alone.

That said, you should ideally break out your Support and Success teams as soon as is feasible to do so. Seize the moment and get started!

Proactive Success vs. Reactive Support

Having an employee or team straddling both Customer Success and Support can muddle priorities, both internally and among your clients. Let’s drill down to the basics:

  • Your Support Team should be focusing on immediate needs – those urgent and unexpected requests that pop up. A great example of this is help tickets – support typically takes a reactive approach by managing a ticket queue as opposed to a customer’s lifecycle.
  • Your Customer Success Team should primarily be a proactive team - focusing on long-term customer needs and guiding customers from the start of onboarding. A CSM isn’t waiting for an issue to pop up – they’re proactively keeping a pulse on their book of business and account health.

Each function manages a totally different aspect of the customer experience. While some employees can be great at wearing both a CS and Support hat, you’ll often find it limiting long term. Consider that:

  1. Oftentimes different personalities (and hires) excel in Customer Success or Support. You may find differences in effectiveness between workers who are more task-oriented and relationship-oriented workers in each role.
  2. Wearing both hats can impede customer relationships. If you are a CSM but also respond to support tickets, your customers will think of you differently. They may not view you as a trusted advisor if you are mostly responding to technical questions or troubleshooting other matters. If you’re a “Fixer” what is to say your client will look to you as a strategist? 

Drawing a Line Internally

One of the most important aspects to breaking CS and Support into two teams is drawing a line internally. This is even more critical if you’ve experienced the functions being referred to interchangeably at your organization. Not setting clear expectations internally can be harmful for important customer lifecycle stages. This can make or break relationships during times like onboarding. As a rule of thumb, most organizations should internally view CS and Support as:

  • Customer Success should be about driving customers to achieve their desired outcome. You’ve established processes to help clients reach their aha moment in a logical, proactive way. CS teams provide the strategy and experience to drive product value.
  • Customer Support should be about helping customers in a reactive way if they happen to hit a technical barrier. Maybe it’s setting up some of those initial integrations or dealing with a feature that now seems to be “broken.” AKA a login screen that is displaying improperly. 

Additionally, these teams should be evaluated on different metrics:

  • Customer Success = Retention / Upsells / Cross Sells / NPS
  • Customer Support = Ticket Volume / Time to Response / Post-Ticket Surveys

Be sure to reinforce this outline company-wide and ensure all levels of our organization are aware of the breakout of responsibilities. While grey areas will sometimes exist (and CS and Support will often refer customers to one another) expectations should be clear internally.

Set Customer Expectations

Customer expectations, like internal expectations, must be well-defined surrounding CS versus Support. Laying out these expectations can be difficult for any clients who may have on boarded before these teams were split.

As a start, your CS team needs to define (or reset) the relationship by clearly outlining their role post-purchase. CSMs should outline:

  1. They are here for strategy and best practices. CSMs don't always have time to reply right away.
  2. If you have questions that need an immediate reply, or if you have something that appears to be working incorrectly, those troubleshooting questions should be directed to Support.
    1. Why? Support can almost ALWAYS get to these types of questions more efficiently than CS can.

For customers who are set in their ways, you may have to press a little harder. If they’re having trouble ‘letting go’ and continue to approach CS for support related questions, encourage them to CC their CSM on any Support request. For some customers this may feel a little more normal. In other instances, CS may just need to respond by opening a Support ticket in their customer’s name.

In practice, lightly driving the customer towards Support is a strong approach when they have technical inquiries. For example, reroute their email to Support rather than answering the question yourself, even though you could. This quickly helps the customer identify which team is appropriate to address. The sooner you take such actions, the easier it will be to manage. 

-Abby Hammer




04-14-2021 06:24 PM

Thanks a lot @Abby Hammer , appreciate the time and attention on this!  Super helpful and a lot to unpack.​

04-14-2021 06:21 PM

I affectionately refer to these customers as Goldfish Customers...every time around the tank they are surprised to find a castle.

A few suggestions for you, @Brian Hartley:

- Make sure your how-to guidance is bite-sized (tiny bites). Goldfish Customers are often not the best at digging through materials to find their answer. For your most common questions, have dedicated articles that provide short, clean steps for just that specific action. And leverage a variety of mediums to relay information (like videos or gifs) so that users with different learning styles can gravitate towards the format that works best for them. Once you have your most common questions in a quick-consume format, I'd suggest looking into whether your ticketing system supports automatic replies/recommendations based on the content of tickets. Ideally, you could receive a query, automatically offer the right bite-sized piece of guidance based on the question asked, and then the customer can help themselves without your team being involved at all. With or without this automatic portion in place, bite-sized content means repeated questions are less of a drag on the team - and hopefully, you're teaching your customers how to fish (pun intended).

- Leverage in-app walkthroughs: One of the best ways to deflect tickets for how-to requests to provide step-by-step guidance directly within your app. Goldfish Customers reach out all the time because they've learned having their hand held gets them the best results and, frankly, is the easiest. Providing targeted directions and advice within your app accomplishes both of these goals: it provides a clear, clean pathway to good results and it's zero effort on the customer's part. You can set up guidance so that it's automatic at first (the first time someone tries to do X, proactively walk them through it) but also so that it's available on-demand (at any point that someone needs help, they can click this question mark symbol to get guidance). Reaching customers while they are actively trying to accomplish something is A) when they are most primed to accept and retain information and B) a beautiful opportunity to largely eliminate the frustration or stress of not knowing/lack of confidence. 

- Proactively offer live 1:many training: If you do it nicely, it's okay to call out where users might need more help - especially if you're offering that help in the next breath. Create a Segment of users who have repeatedly submitted questions about Feature X and invite them to attend a live session about that Feature. Position the session as a deeper dive for heavy users of that Feature - and deliver on that. Use the recent questions you've recently to drive the content of the session; dress up the basics in a new way. Even if you do only one of these trainings a month, they can build confidence among Goldfish Customers in a more scalable format. And they can, of course, be recorded and re-purposed in a variety of ways. 

I hope this all helps! Would love to hear other's ideas as well!

04-14-2021 04:27 PM

Hey, Abby - one of the areas we struggle in is "gray" area of training/education.  We have recently rolled out a support and education function that is intended to cover technical issues as well as "how do I do X,Y,Z" .  This is primarily geared towards our long-tail customers as a small number of customers get a named CSM.  Curious how you coach your team on those longer tail customers who always need a hand held...over...and...over again.