When we talk about customer support on this blog, we’re always talking about a certain kind of support — but that can be hard to define.

What is the definition of customer support, and what what does good customer support look like today?

Customer support isn’t the same thing as customer service, although it employs customer service techniques. And it’s not the same thing it was 50, 20, or even 5 years ago — the definition is still evolving.

What do support pros earn? Find out in the 2016 Customer Support Salary Study >>

A brief history of customer support

If you ask your great-auntie (isn’t it time you rang her up, anyway?), chances are she can tell you about a time when shopkeepers knew her name, and if she had a problem with a product she purchased, she’d hoof it back to the store where she bought it.

Customer support has undergone some dramatic changes since that time — starting with the advent of call centers in the ’60s, when suddenly companies were able to resolve customer issues, if somewhat impersonally, on a larger, more efficient scale.

In tandem with increased competition and pricing pressures, that efficient-but-impersonal trend surged dramatically, and by the ’80s and ’90s, companies were offloading any service extras that couldn’t be directly tied to their bottom line. Service departments were outsourced to inexpensive locations. You could dial one for this and two for that, wait on hold for an hour, then start over again after being disconnected. (Clearly, those days aren’t entirely over, but we’ll get to that.)

Then the internet happened.

In the 2000s, we saw the advent of customer care software, as well as customers taking to social media to voice their opinions and concerns (and the smarter companies caught on to that). Community forums such as Get Satisfaction allowed customers to crowdsource their own support. Platforms like Yelp helped people distinguish “good” companies from “bad,” and Twitter and Facebook gave companies a new amplification platform and their customers a new channel to seek support.

The companies who understood the ROI of these one-on-one interactions adapted quickly, and they incorporated above-and-beyond customer service (Zappos is a famous example) as a key component of their marketing strategies. “Community management” became a job role and, along with the proliferation of online support tools, gave way to customer support in its current incarnation.

What is ‘the new customer support’?

To us and many other customer-driven companies, customer support means:

Timely, empathetic help that keeps the customer’s needs at the forefront of every interaction.

This is what informs our mission of helping you build a company people love. It’s why we train everyone at the company on customer support, why our support team has the power and authority to resolve issues as soon as they arise, why our customers’ customers don’t see anything but a normal email, and a hundred other decisions that inform a customer-driven approach to support.

Traditional Customer Service

The New Customer Support

Viewed as a cost center

Viewed as the face of a company, a critical component of sales and word-of-mouth marketing

Disempowered agents who require managerial approval for tasks customers should be able to accomplish themselves

Self-service first; skilled and empowered agents can help with more complex questions and requests

Requires customers to call during specified business hours and often wait on hold for help

Round-the-clock help via multiple channels: documentation, email, phone, chat, social media, etc.

Call centers relegated to cubicles or outsourced to other locations/countries

Works side-by-side with product teams, has a seat at the table in company decision-making

Dead-end job

Myriad opportunities for growth and development

Operational metrics tied to cost-cutting: first response times, call resolution times, etc.

Holistic metrics tied to company-wide goals: NPS, customer satisfaction, etc.

Support, as we currently understand it, is still a relatively new discipline. The first conference exclusively for customer support professionals (as opposed to more general customer service conferences) was held as recently as 2012.

The new customer support applies the principles of customer service in helping customers solve problems and make decisions, but in addition, functions as part sales, part tech support, and part customer success.

When 86% of customers quit doing business with a company due to a bad customer experience, today’s subscription-model, customer-retention-oriented businesses need to approach every support interaction as an opportunity to acquire, retain or upsell as well.

In the self-service internet age, customers don’t need go-betweens to assist them with what should be simple functions, like canceling their account. Many businesses continue to direct their energies toward protecting revenue by putting these speed bumps in place, but they waste time that could have been spent solving a problem that only a human can solve. And what’s more, people have grown to expect self-service — if you let them get to a point where they have to reach out, you’ve gotten in the way of usage and adoption.

Customer-driven companies remove a lot of that friction by automating that which can be automated and freeing their most valuable resource — their team — to work on problems that can’t be automated away. Hence the shift away from hiring your average “people person,” toward hiring highly skilled, empathetic problem-solvers.

Even the call centers of yore are making way for contact centers: “partners in revenue generation and customer experience, populated with highly educated staff that have career paths and incentives beyond calls-per-minute.”

The evolution of customer support

As Seth Godin wrote, customer service means different things to different organizations, but things aren’t going to end well for “the industrial titans who see customer service as a cost, not a profit center.” Gary Vaynerchuk echoes that sentiment in The Thank You Economy, a treatise on the “undeniable evidence that there is financial gain for any size company that is willing to open the lines of communication with its customers and market to them in a personal, caring way that makes them feel valued.”

The definition of customer support is still evolving. Many signs point toward support morphing into a branch of marketing and growth, because companies who fail to offer quality support will lose their customers to those that do.

And the more closely support is tied to product, the better the product becomes.

“If the support team isn’t 100% embedded in the product you’re trying to market, support suffers,” says Help Scout support lead Justin Seymour. That alignment with product lets us focus on helping customers get the most out of Help Scout’s features, versus being bogged down with revenue expectations. Rather than sell something to help you achieve your goals, our model is to help you achieve your goals first, so you’re happy to pay for what we offer.

Bottom line, SaaS is a crowded marketplace, and support is a feature. It’s really that simple — organizations who take support hires as seriously as engineering hires have a greater shot at success than those who don’t.

Learn how to take your career to the next level in Stop Defending Customer Support.
Emily Triplett Lentz

About the author: Emily Triplett Lentz is on the Growth team at Help Scout, the invisible help desk that helps you build a company your customers love with more human, more helpful customer support tools.