Customer Service vs Customer Success: What’s the Difference?

7 minute read

September 24, 2020

Customer Service vs Customer Success: What’s the Difference?

When these terms are mixed up, it’s likely that the definition of “customer service,” also becomes the definition for “customer success.” But hey, “customer success,” is still a relatively new term, so we don’t blame you! That being said, let’s start by defining what customer service is, and then compare it to customer success.

Customer Service

Customer service refers to the experience that a customer has when they are searching for a solution to an issue or have questions about your product or services. The customer reaches out to you, and the experience that you provide them amounts to your level of customer service.

Now, unfortunately for customer service reps, they’re extremely unpopular and nobody wants to talk to them. In fact, they’re becoming increasingly outdated as more companies opt for customer self-service support options rather than invest more into training their reps. When it comes to solving product related issues, customers overwhelmingly prefer to solve them themselves. 

That’s where the difference lies. When it comes to customer success teams, they don’t merely help solve issues, they act as partners, equally invested in their clients’ individual projects and help to create long term plans to tackle current issues, and issues that will likely occur down the road. 

Some key characteristics of customer service include:

  • Relationships and immediate gratification: Customer service is about building meaningful relationships with your customers and providing them with instant gratification. When customers connect with customer service reps, they’re looking for an immediate solution to an issue they’re currently facing. Customers are looking for fast response times and effective answers.

  • Assistance and advice: Customer service teams are tasked with providing their customers with product/ service assistance and advice whenever their customers need it. They provide assistance and advice in regards to each specific question that a customer asks.

  • Be polite, effective and professional: Any effective customer service rep will be polite, effective and professional (though statistics show that this isn’t always the case!). You know that old saying “the customer is always right”? Customer service reps live by this rule, whether it’s right or wrong.

  • Interacts when contacted: Customer service teams interact with their customers when their customers need it; essentially, interaction occurs when customers call in for help. Sometimes, customer service reps may periodically check in with their customers and ask how satisfied they are with their products or services, however for the most part, customer service is largely reactive. 

  • Build trust and brand loyalty: A good customer service reputation is key to any successful business. As you know, people don’t like to talk to customer service, but when they do, their experience can make or break a business. Good customer service can increase trust as well as contribute to a sense of brand loyalty

  • Helps product meet/ exceed customer expectations: Customer service is there to ensure that customers are able to get the most out of their products and services. This means that they help to troubleshoot issues, deal with bugs, handle service requests, make account changes, etc. 

  • They work for the customer: Customer service teams essentially work for the customer. They simply lay in waiting for their customers to reach out and request assistance. 

  • Know the product/ services: The key to any good customer service is truly knowing the product or service. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case; 89% of customers get frustrated because they have to repeat their issue multiple times to multiple different customer service reps.

  • Aims to be personalized: Customer service aims to be personalized — oftentimes, customer service teams refer to your customer profile with your name, address and product/ service package. They also love to throw your name out there when talking to you on the phone (which always throws me off guard!).

Now that we know what customer service is, and the key characteristics of that term, let’s take a look at “customer success” and compare the two.

Customer Success

Customer success is a whole other ball-game. 

Customer success refers to a business methodology that focuses on ensuring that customers are not only able to get the most from your products or services, but are also successful in achieving their end goals. Customer success is long term in nature; for instance some business goals might be a five year plan, with a number of key milestones along the way. Customer success teams are there every step of the way to help guide their customers so that they can achieve these goals.

Enabling Customer Success in Your Community

Customer success is about partnership; it’s about being on equal footing as your customers and working together for a mutually beneficial outcome; their success is ultimately your success. 

Key characteristics of customer success include: 

  • Partnerships & Long Term Success: While customer success is also about building relationships with customers (just like customer service), it’s more so focused on partnerships. Customer success emphasizes teamwork between both parties to secure long term business goals and successful outcomes.

  • Strategic planning: Customer success teams know their product/ services well, and with that knowledge, they work directly with their customers to help build a strategic business roadmap. In this regards, customer success teams can sometimes serve as advisors or consultants to their customers while helping to build a strategic roadmap to success.

  • Build rapport and mutual respect: Customer success isn’t a one-time thing. Customer Success Managers will often be in touch with their customers and have periodic check-in times. Through this long term process, customer success strategies create a strong bond between both parties through mutual respect and understanding.

  • Interacts from the time a customer signs until the customer leaves: Customer Success Managers interact with their customers from the time they become customers, until the very end.

  • Build Roadmap for Business Success: Customer Success team are involved in the planning process at their customers’ discretion, and are there to help identify what product/ service features can help their customers reach their business goals.

  • Help customers realize their expectations and shape product to fit needs: Customer success teams aren’t reactive; they’re proactive. They take the time to understand what the customers needs are, and then guide them in the right direction while using their in-depth knowledge of the product/ services. 

  • Work with customer: Unlike customer service teams who work for the customers, customer success teams work with the customer. It’s more like a collaborative partnership.

  • Be the product/ services: Unlike customer service who aims to know their product and services, customer success managers are their products/ services. They are experts in what they do, and as a result, they’re able to provide strategic business advice on how to implement and use the product/ service to reach the end goal.

  • Is personalized: The customer success methodology is highly personalized. In many cases, a Customer Success Manager will be assigned to specific accounts and will work in close liaison with their customer. That being said, customer success is highly personalized because it’s (usually) always the same rep managing the account.

The table below sums up the key differences between customer service and customer success, as outlined above. Each characteristic is paired with their counterpart to emphasize the differences.

Customer Service Customer Success
Relationships & Immediate Gratification Partnerships & Long Term Success
Assistance and advice Strategic planning
Be polite, effective and professional Build rapport and mutual respect
Interaction when contacted From the time a customer signs until the customer leaves
Build Trust and Brand Loyalty Build Roadmap for Business Success
Helps product meet/ exceed customer expectation Help customer realize their expectations and shape product to fit needs
Work for customer Work with customer
Know the product/ services Be the product/ services
Aims to be personalized Is personalized


So now that you have a good idea of what the difference is between these two terms, let’s take a closer look at what a real customer success team actually does. 

Customer Success Teams in Practice

For the sake of this blog, it’s pretty easy to talk about ourselves, so let’s take a look at what the SuccessTeam™ at Vanilla does. The main goal of our team is to make each and every customer (you guessed it!) successful.

This SuccessTeam has been designed to consist of a team of professionals with in-depth knowledge of community and a range of subject matter expertise, to provide customers with optimal support during every step of their journey. The Vanilla SuccessTeam works to support customers from the beginning to the end.


The SuccessTeam provides customers with the knowledge and materials they need to get started. This includes useful checklists, training materials, including technical instruction on software configuration and administration, setting KPIs and learning community management best practices.


As subject matter experts, members of the SuccessTeam have helped launch hundreds of communities, and as a result, are great at advising and launching communities for customers. The SuccessTeam works in partnership with the customer to get new communities up and running quickly, and make migrations as smooth as possible.  


As you know, customer success is a long term process. That being said, the Vanilla SuccessTeam works with customers to set periodical checkpoints and receive ongoing and continued support. This is done to ensure the continued success of the product/ service and help customers to measure, improve and scale the community so that it can achieve the end goal.

Concluding Thought

Customer success is a whole lot different than customer service; you only have to look at the chart above and the example we provided to clearly see the difference. But hey, perhaps the biggest differentiator of all is the level of customer satisfaction. As you know, people generally don’t like customer service; statistically, 40% of customers would rather scrub a toilet than speak to customer service. 

On the other hand, at Vanilla, the SuccessTeam has had a huge impact on our customers. The testimonial from Scott Genzer, the Senior Community Manager at RapidMiner, says it all:

“There are a few things that make the Vanilla [SuccessTeam] exemplary – number one is clear transparency [and] honesty…the customer SuccessTeam not only answers our questions as responsively as you would expect, but they’re technically competent. And for us, a big tech geeky company, that’s critical.”

So next time you get these two terms confused, just take a quick glance at this blog and remember that they’re not the same!

If you want to learn more about customer success and how you can empower your CS team through an online community forum, check out our eBook, Enabling Customer Success With Community Building.

Enabling Customer Success in Your Community

Community Customer Service Customer Success

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Sarah Robinson-Yu

Written by Sarah Robinson-Yu

Sarah is the Content Marketing Specialist at Vanilla Forums. Prior to Vanilla, Sarah worked in the public sector where she led and coordinated the strategic framework and operational policy development of business processes.

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