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When working in customer facing businesses, there are a number of terms thrown around that revolve around the customer. We hear such phrases as “customer service,” “customer success,” “customer experience,” “customer loyalty,” used repeatedly, but just because these phrases are common within our industry, it doesn’t mean that their meanings are obvious. We’re going to focus on clarifying the difference between two phrases that are often confused with one another: customer service and customer success.

Knowing the Difference

First, let’s define the two terms before exploring their differences and detailing why it's important for companies to focus on customer outcomes, rather than just looking at customer service ideals.

Customer Service

Providing customer service is more reactive in nature with the organization offering technical help or guidance in solving product or service issues. Providing customer service often follows a break/fix or question/answer arc, so its function is an important component of assisting your customers. Offering customer service allows the company to help the customers troubleshoot a specific issue or answer questions that may be impeding their use of your service or product. There is often a fee-for-service model associated with higher-level customer support.

Customer Success

Customer success grows out of customer service, but its scope and breadth are much broader. Ensuring success is more proactive and requires a holistic approach and real-time visibility into the customer’s needs. Customer success focuses on the customer and finding ways for the customer to realize maximum value and benefit from your product and/or service. Customer success is not a one-size-fits-all approach, as each customer will have different needs and requirements. Ensuring customer success requires a dedicated team or department that is focused on understanding and learning about your customers so they receive and realize the full value of your product or service. Customer success is not a billable service, but that doesn’t mean you can’t realize a return on investment. In fact, the case can easily be made that not having a dedicated team focused on customer success will cost your organization in the long run.

Using Both Within Your Organization

When companies focus on the outcomes the customer receives when working with them, it is informative for the company in how to improve upon its product or service. If a company were to only consider its customer service ideals, it would remain divorced from the customer’s perspective and fail to understand how its product was or wasn’t functioning as intended. While providing customer service does yield some important data and feedback for the company to use for improvement, it is limited in its scope. Focusing on customer success, on the other hand, paints a much more complete picture and ultimately allows for a more prosperous relationship to develop between company and customer.

Understanding the difference between customer service and customer success is more than semantics. Each has its own organizational approach and it isn’t as simple as renaming a position from Technical Assistance Manager (TAM) to Customer Success Manager (CSM).  Successful businesses realize the differences between TAM and CSM and are investing in both departments, as both have an important, but different, role to play in servicing and nurturing the customer relationship. 

How Customer Success Fits Within Customer Service

Most customer-facing organizations have established customer service departments, so let’s look at what some of the components of a customer success department or team would focus on. Keep in mind that customer success tracks the lifetime of a customer from beginning to end, and requires a whole different set of skill sets and training.

  1. Customer Development: Before a sales pitch is ever delivered, the CS team learns about the customer and what her unique needs are.

  2. Customer Pitch: Once the company has a good idea about what the customer’s needs are, the sales pitch is made and the customer is shown how and why a particular product or service will benefit and enhance his needs.

  3. Acquisition: If the case has been adequately made as to the benefit of a service or product, the customer will commit to complete the purchase.

  4. Onboarding: During this process you’ll be working out all the details and logistics of getting your customer to switch to your product or service. There is sometimes a technical component to this process, and this is where your customer service team plays an important part.

  5. Staying Engaged: Now that the sale has been made and your customer converted, the role of the CSM continues. Staying engaged with the customer and regularly checking in to make sure the product or service is functioning as intended is important.

  6. Customer Service:  As you customer uses your product, she may have issues or questions that arise, and will need to access your customer service team.

  7. Continuing Engagement: Over time your customer’s needs may change and by staying engaged you’ll be able to respond and grow with her. (This is where the ROI on a CS team is realized!)

With clarity around the differences and functions of customer service and customer success, your organization can begin to invest and train accordingly. Keep in mind that creating a customer success team is a long-term commitment and grows out of having a strong customer service team. One can’t function without the other, but a customer service team isn’t the end-all, be-all in developing long-term customer relationships.  Building lasting relationships requires a team devoted and committed to your customer’s success. Simply put, if your customer is successful, your organization is successful.

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Jodi Beuder

About Author Jodi Beuder

Jodi is a Marketing and Customer Experience fanatic. Some might say "guru", but she prefers it the other way around, as there’s always something to learn and grow as it relates to Marketing and the Customer Experience, and how each is connected to one another. In the past three years, Jodi has dedicated her career to thought leadership in both realms through her work at MHI Global, and has earned honors as Top 100 Customer Success Influencer from Mindtouch, Top 15 Most Influential Customer Service Experts To Follow on Twitter from GetApp, and Top 50 Contact Center Thought Leader on Twitter from ICMI. MHI Global is a TSIA Program Alliance Partner.