Your Customer Success Team Is Really Support: From Recognition to Remediation

A common question in early stage implementations of Customer Success is “Why do I need to differentiate CS and support?

Luke Ferrel | April 26, 2022 | 7 min read time

Article Last Updated: June 28, 2023

Your Customer Success Team Is Really Support: From Recognition to Remediation

There are several customer facing functions in modern, mature SaaS companies. Some of those functions are:

  • Sales (new logo + growth)
  • Professional Services (implementation + managed services) 
  • Customer Success 
  • Customer Support (managed [TAM], ad hoc [Support lines])

Generally companies begin with sales, then support. After these functions are established, companies expand into professional services and customer success. As such, customer success often takes on some of the attributes of its “parents”. While it can be easy to differentiate customer success from sales (one is pre-sale, the other is post), differentiating CS from support can be more difficult. We’ll dig into 3 subtopics to give a robust understanding of the Customer Success and support relationship

  • Why Does it Matter?
  • How do we recognize an issue?
  • Once we know there is an issue, what do we do about it?
    • Internal changes
    • External changes

Why is it Such a Big Deal for Customer Success to Not be Support?

A common question in early stage implementations of Customer Success is “Why do I need to differentiate CS and support? Just help customers – it doesn’t matter which department helps them”. Our goal is most certainly to help customers. The best way to do that is to cover the entire “space” of customer needs.

There are a few problems with Customer Success being support for customers. The first is that customers will not demand the value they need to use your product and be sticky customers.

A visual will help clarify:

In this image we see the major needs of most SaaS customers, with full coverage by customer facing functions.

Fig (1) – Differentiated Customer Success

In this image we see the same needs, but Customer Success not being differentiated from support. In this model the customer loses the value Customer Success should be providing. 

Fig (2) – Undifferentiated Customer Success

Customer needs are similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (fig 3). If a customer isn’t getting their support and commercial needs met, they are going to get those needs met somewhere. Often that burden can fall to Customer Success or even Account Executives. As needs move further up the hierarchy, the customer will become less vocal – but meeting these needs is KEY to creating a sticky product

Fig (3) – Hierarchy of Customer Success

Customers almost always let you know if they are not getting the support they need. They will not however always complain if they aren’t getting good adoption, or value realization from your product. Instead they will simply let you know they are planning to churn. As a Customer Success leader, you HAVE to force your customer success team away from support to value – because the customer will not sound this alarm for you. 

The 2nd major problem with providing support for your customers in Customer Success is you cripple your Support team. When your Customer Success team provides pseudo support, you hurt your support team’s ability to build support documentation, community, and feedback for product teams.


How Do I Know if My CS Team is Really Support?

There are 4 primary give-aways that your Customer Success team is actually a support team masquerading as an advisory team:

  • Break/Fix and How-to dominate conversations

This is the most obvious indicator that your Customer Success team is actually a support team. If customers spend the majority of their time with you talking about features – you are a support team. If your customers spend a large portion of their time talking about support escalations and technical needs – you are a support team. If any time something in the customer instance breaks, or the customer wants to enable a specific feature, the customer calls you to talk about it – you are a support team.

  • Ad Hoc Meetings

When a customer values you as a strategic partner, the majority of your meetings with the customer will be planned out, with an agenda. That agenda will focus on moving their program forward. If the customer does not value you as a strategic partner, they will call you when they need you to fix a problem or train new users. If over half of your meeting with customers are ad-hoc – The client views you as support.

  • Lack of Time Mapping

When you are building any team, you want to understand where your team is using their time. Mature Customer Success teams are able to do this because they have a defined rhythm with customers. If your Customer Success team takes work as it comes, they are reactive. Reactive teams don’t have the ability to define where they spend their time, or where customers get value. How these Customer Success teams spend their time will change every month, as will the value customers derive from CS teams. Providing value will always be a mad scramble that requires individual heroism.

  • Level of Customer Contacts

This is going to sound harsh. If you are not talking to senior people in the client organization (think Director+, depending on organization size and spend) – you are likely support. This doesn’t mean every conversation needs to be had with a C-level executive. It’s fine to work with folks who put their hands on your software solution. It’s good to understand exactly how the software is being used and who is using it. If you don’t ever engage with a senior level decision maker, you are not advisory, and you are not a strategic partner.


If my CS Team is Really Support, What Do I Do About It?

If you have realized that your Customer Success team is really doing support work, there are two areas to address: Internal and External changes.


  • Set clear expectations as early as possible

Setting clear expectations starts in the sales motion. There should be a clear one page artifact Account Executives can share with customers that details the post-sale motion for customers. For clients that are already in your ecosystem, you can create this and share with the customer. To do this without causing friction, pair with step 4 (enhance customer value)

  • Get proactive

Adapt your motion so you are advising clients before they come to you. Clients won’t see you as a strategic advisor if you don’t actually ADVISE them. This means you see when they are going to run into a problem and help them avoid said problem. In a better case, your CSM should be monitoring their instance and understanding where opportunities exist for the client to improve their business. A simple way to do this is focus on enhancing customer value

  • Enhance customer value

1. Build an Operating Rhythm

I can’t emphasize the value of an operating rhythm enough. The operating rhythm tells your CSMs and your clients what you are going to do throughout their lifecycle. If you don’t have an operating rhythm, you won’t be proactive. You have to be able to take a customer on the journey from usage and adoption, to value realization and finally to evangelism. The key component of that operating rhythm is creating value plans

2. Create value plans with clear KPIs

One of the first motions in your operating rhythm should be value plan alignment. Value plans are a shared set of goals. The client and CSM agree on what these goals are, how we will achieve them, and how success will be measured. By having this conversation you accomplish two objectives: you become strategy partners rather than merely execustors, and you know exactly what the client will consider a success.

3. Make internal evangelism easy (we’re going to deliver this, by doing this — We did this, by completing this)

This is part of a value plan conversation, but I want to emphasize that a value plan isn’t just about bringing value to your client company – it is about bringing value to the person who put their career or promotion on the line by bringing you in as a vendor. When you build a business plan with this specific person that is focused on business results, you set this person up to get promoted an awarded when your program is successful.


  • Create graduation criteria for accounts in professional services

Graduation criteria narrow the range of acceptable accounts that come into the CS ecosystem. If you have accounts that have gone through professional services and have not graduated, they need to be remediated before they come to Customer Success. Moving these accounts into customer success will lead to the CS team doing shadow services

  • Ensure support is able to handle product functionality

At the end of the day, if support can’t handle break/fix workflows, the customer will ask someone. Share customer ‘asks’ routinely with support. Make sure support knows the volume and why the customer came to you instead of support. This is much simpler when you…

  • Have a clearly defined categorization system

Define with support your categories of ‘asks’. Build a library of examples. Step through these examples with support leadership. Be crystal clear what belongs in support and what belongs in CS. This lets your CSMs know exactly what they should do with customer asks. Most CSMs will simply support the customer if they don’t have this backing to pass tasks off. 

  • Negotiate escalation path with support

There will be times when a customer does not get the support they need right away. They will come to the CSM and ask for help. The CSM needs to have an escalation path within support that is pre-negotiated. If the CSM does not have this path they will either try to fix the issue on their own, or lose credibility with the client. 

It does matter who performs support in a SaaS organization.

It cannot be your Customer Success team.

You should identify if your CS team is doing pseudo support.

You have to take specific steps to change the support/CS situation with your customer and CS team. 

Don’t be shy. 

Connect with Luke on LinkedIn here.

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