Customer Service vs. Customer Experience: What is the Difference and Why Does it Matter?

Customer Service vs. Customer Experience: What is the Difference and Why Does it Matter?

It seems that in small business we’re always hearing about customer something … customer service, customer care, customer experience, customer satisfaction … the list goes on and on. But when you stop to think about it, it’s probably rightly so!

After all, without customers, everything stops. Literally grinds to a screaming halt, right?

A focus on customers is actually a focus on business survival, on business growth, on the business bottom line. An important focus on customers is crucial to have the pipeline always full … by which we mean keep new ones coming in the door, and the old ones coming back again and again.

It pays to keep up with what some of these terms mean and why they matter, even if only for your own benefit. And who knows… it probably won’t hurt to take a deep dive into concepts that have so much relevance for business success. Especially when they might seem like so many buzz words at first glance. So what exactly is the difference between customer service and customer experience?

So how can knowing the difference propel your business forward? Join us as we investigate.

Customer Service

So let’s start out with customer service. It seems like it should be pretty straightforward, right? The act of serving the customer, or something along those lines.
Let’s try it out against the conventional wisdom of the web and see how we do.

Customer service has been variously defined as

  • “…the support you offer your customers — both before and after they buy your product — that helps them have a comfortable and enjoyable experience with you.” (source: Desk.com)
  • “… the degree of assistance and courtesy granted those who patronize a business.” (source: Entrepreneur.com)
  • “… the act of taking care of the customer’s needs by providing and delivering professional, helpful, high-quality service and assistance before, during, and after the customer’s requirements are met.” (source: Study.com)

OK, so we can see from even just this small sample of definitions that customer service commonly goes far beyond the notion of just serving the customer. Commonality on these definitions is an idea about how the act of customer service itself should be conducted:

Easy and enjoyable experience … assistance and courtesy … professional, helpful, high-quality service and assistance…

In other words, customers should not view the act of interacting with your business or organization as a burden, a dreaded task to be crossed off the list. Customers should instead depart the transaction with a positive image of your business. Give a feeling that their issues have been heard and their problems resolved, preferably with a minimum of fuss and effort.

Another key concept that has been raised by these definitions is that of customer service as a process, and not just as a one-off transaction. Thought needs to be given to your every touchpoint with a customer – before, during and after a sale.

The truth is, customer service doesn’t end at the checkout – not even close. For most businesses, that first sale is just one amongst a number of opportunities for strengthening your relationship with your customers and deepening their loyalty to your brand and products or service.

Having said all that, this concept of customer service as a process is verging dangerously close to the closely aligned concept of customer experience. Let’s now put the concept of customer experience under the microscope so that we can highlight the differences and similarities.

Customer Experience

With that lead in, we’ve almost given away the secret, but it’s worth recapping once again just in case you missed it. Both customer service and customer experience are about more than just one-off customer transactions. They are both about the ongoing quality of the relationship you have with your customers.

Take a look at these definitions now of customer experience, drawn from across the web:

  • “…the sum-totality of how customers engage with your company and brand, not just in a snapshot in time, but throughout the entire arc of being a customer.” (Source: Harvard Business Review)
  • “…how customers perceive their interactions with your company.” (Source: Forrester)
  • “… customer experience is defined as your customers’ perceptions – both conscious and subconscious – of their relationship with your brand resulting from all their interactions with your brand during the client’s life cycle.” (Source: Forrester)

Notice how even though customer experience is also defined as a process here (similarly to customer service), the point of view taken is from the perspective of the customer, not your organization.

It doesn’t matter diddly squat that your company thinks it is delivering a mind-blowing customer experience. It is what the customer thinks about what’s happening that counts.

Also, we can see that customer experience is all about how customers perceive the quality of total interactions with your company and is not just a one-time thing. So in this way, it is quite similar to the customer service concept … it stretches across the life of your company’s relationship with your customers and is not just isolated to a few points in time.

So what exactly is the difference, anyway?

Ok, so we’ve danced around the topic long enough. Time to get down to the nitty-gritty.

The fact is, the terms ‘customer service’ and ‘customer experience’ are often used as if they mean the same thing… but if you scratch beneath the surface a little, they are actually two distinct concepts.

But don’t just take our word for it – this is a distinction that has also been widely discussed by authority thought leaders across the web.

  • Customer experience is viewed as going a step beyond customer service. According to Bruce Jones, Senior Programming Director, Disney Institute, writing for the Harvard Business Review. It’s about a bigger picture than just occasions of customer service strung together like beads on a chain. Which involves all aspects and functions of the company, including product design, sales, and marketing, finance and service departments. It is a living expression of your company’s values, both to your customers and to your employees.
  • For Blake Morgan of Forbes, the essential question also comes down to one of comprehensiveness. For Blake, customer experience is about engaging everyone at your company. The task should make the customer feel loved, heard, respected, valued.  Unlike customer service, which often feels more on the transaction base.
  • But perhaps the last word should go to David Brennan of the Maximizer blog, who writes: “If a customer has to call customer service, then something has gone wrong with their experience.” Customer service is typically an act, a function, a department, whereas customer experience is a broader concept that is much harder to pin down.

But whatever the essential differences, we hope this article has provided a useful springboard.  You should think about rejuvenating your customer service and/or your customer or experience strategy.
Both require that you think deeply about the customer, placing yourself in their shoes at all points of the customer journey. And just a warning: the road might be long …. So why not enjoy the view?

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