The definitions of customer service vs customer experience (CX) aren’t just knowledge for CX teams to have. Anyone who directly or indirectly impacts customers should know what the terms mean.
The world of marketing and CX tends to be a little jargon-y. Marketers are generally creative people who enjoy describing business concepts in imaginative terms. For example, the path a customer takes while transacting with a business has been dubbed as a "customer journey," which evokes images of an epic adventure rather than just a run-of-the-mill internet purchase or attempt to find help.
While some CX terminology is creative and descriptive, it can also feel like secret code to those not in the loop. That's unfortunate, because in order to align an organization to meet its customer experience goals, everyone needs to understand the vocabulary and how it applies to them. Let's call this the democratization of CX jargon.
This article will define two CX terms - customer service vs customer experience - to illustrate how they are different concepts, yet highly related.
What is customer service?
Customer service refers to the assistance a business provides its customers before, during, and after purchasing a product or service. Typical customer service transactions include:
- Troubleshooting product issues
- Answering questions
- Taking orders and facilitating purchases
- Booking appointments
- Handling billing problems
Customer service interactions can be handled by contact centers, retail or office locations, through self-service, and more. The proliferation of digital channels is making customer service through methods such as messaging apps and chatbots increasingly common.
The quality of a brand's customer service can impact customer retention, brand image, purchase decisions, and ultimately the bottom line. For example, our research revealed that most consumers agree they are willing to buy more products (87%) and are willing to recommend a company to others (81%) if they have an exceptional customer service experience.[i] Conversely, in most cases, it only takes two negative interactions for a consumer to switch to a competing brand.[ii]
Because the stakes are so high, businesses are investing in their contact centers to enable them to provide great customer service experiences that can create loyal customers and drive business results. But customer service is only one piece of the CX puzzle.
What is customer experience?
Customer experience (CX) refers to a customer having an opinion of a brand based on a cumulative set of impressions.
And because customer experience is based on opinion, it's fluid and individualized. One person may have a positive reaction to a social media post that makes them a customer for life, while another customer might decide to boycott the business based on the message in the post.
Additionally, just because a customer is loyal doesn't mean they will remain that way. One bad customer service interaction can tilt the overall customer experience so that the customer now has a negative opinion of the brand despite previous positive experiences.
CX has become increasingly important over the years and many businesses now use it as a competitive differentiator. Salesforce found that 80% of consumers believe flawless engagement is as important as product quality,[iii] making it clear that experience really does matter.
Customer service vs customer experience - some noteworthy differences
While customer service and customer experience are related, there are some significant differences, including the following.
Customer service is a component of customer experience
Customer service is one of many components of the customer experience, and it can have a disproportionate impact on customer opinions.
Think of CX in terms of mixing paint. You're trying to create a pleasing color to make all your customers happy. Customer service is one of the pigments you add to develop the right tone, along with product quality, marketing campaigns, e-commerce experience, and other CX-impacting factors. If any of the pigments are discolored or you use the wrong proportions, you'll wind up with a muddy gray customer experience instead of a soothing green or a vibrant violet.
Fortunately, unlike a bad batch of paint, you don't have to throw all your faulty touchpoints out and start from scratch if your current CX isn’t satisfying customers. Meaningful, targeted improvements to customer service and other areas can provide the course correction needed to get CX back on track.
Customer service may not even factor into the customer experience
The variety of customer journeys is plentiful. To purchase a product, one customer might click on a Facebook ad and buy the product online, while another may clip a coupon from a newspaper insert and go to the store to purchase the item with a clerk's assistance.
One of these experiences involves customer service (the retail interaction) and the other does not. In fact, the online shopper could have a long relationship with the business and never experience traditional "customer service," instead basing his opinion of the company on factors such as product, price, loyalty programs, website experiences, and social media content.
Customer service is traditionally reactive while customer experience should be proactive
Customer service is typically reactive, meaning the customer initiates the interaction. For example, if a customer receives a damaged package, she'll reach out to the contact center for support.
On the other hand, when CX is done right, it's highly proactive. Superior customer experience is only possible when businesses deeply understand their customers. This knowledge enables organizations to anticipate customer needs and personalize interactions and offers, ultimately creating more satisfying experiences.
The customer service vs customer experience question can be much easier to answer if you keep these key differences in mind.
3 ways organizations can enhance customer service to boost customer experience
Keeping in mind the mixing paint analogy, contact centers should ensure the customer service experiences they deliver help the brand achieve just the right tint – a vibrant green – they want rather than creating a dour color – like split pea soup – when added to the other paint colors.
To improve the customer experience, businesses need to expand beyond just a toll-free number customers can call for help. Brands need to be creative about how they approach improving customer service. The following ideas can help contact centers deliver support experiences that positively contribute to CX.
Proactive customer service
I mentioned previously that customer service has been traditionally reactive in nature, but it doesn't have to be that way. Modern technology, such as artificial intelligence and smart analytics, can proactively meet customers' support needs.
For example, interaction analytics enables contact centers to manage problems better so that fewer customers are impacted by them. Interaction analytics software can analyze 100% of interactions from all channels in real time. The insights it produces include:
- Trending topics
- Customer sentiment
- Contact drivers
- Potential compliance issues
- Root causes of issues
- And more
This analysis can alert contact center leaders to emerging problems much more quickly than traditional methods, and it also provides the size and scope of the problem, so managers know what they're facing. The information allows contact centers to extinguish smoldering coals before they become wildfires quickly.
In addition to better problem management, interaction analytics enables businesses to reach out to affected customers or implement preventative measures to contain issues quickly. People like it when businesses do this. One study found that nearly 70 percent of customers favorably view brands that engage in proactive customer service.[iv]
For more ideas about providing proactive customer service, read "Proactive Customer Service: How to solve customer problems before they occur and why it benefits contact center CX."
Provide well-designed self-service options
We're in the age of do-it-yourself services. People pump their own gas, use self-checkout at grocery stores, and bypass bank tellers in favor of ATMs or mobile apps.
Similarly, most consumers want to solve their own problems or answer their own questions. According to an article published by Harvard Business Review, 81% of consumers try to handle matters themselves before contacting a live customer service agent.[v] Additionally, we found that 81% of consumers want more self-service.[vi]
Not only does effective self-service enhance CX by meeting customer demands, but it's also a much more cost-effective way to support customers. In fact, Gartner estimates that the average agent-assisted contact costs $8.01, while a typical self-service transaction through tools such as the company's website or mobile app costs only $.10.[vii]
Given these facts, it's in a business's best interest to make customers as successful at self-service as possible. When designed right, self-service solutions such as virtual agents, conversational IVRs, and smart knowledge bases can elevate the customer experience while also reducing operational costs.
Really listen to your customers
Exceptional CX is based on thoroughly knowing your customers so you can anticipate their needs and personalize interactions. This requires plenty of data and the right tools to analyze it.
The contact center is a prime location for listening to what customers say about products and services, customer service quality, website experiences, and so much more. To get the most value from this wealth of information, contact centers need the right "listening tools," including the following.
- Real-time operational reports. They might not seem "cutting-edge," but accurate, comprehensive, consolidated operational reports can tell you a lot about customers. Data such as abandon rates, conversion rates, and self-service completion rates are based on actual customer behavior, and sometimes actions speak louder than words. Additionally, performance against key metrics such as average speed to answer (ASA), first contact resolution (FCR) rates, and transfer rates directly impact CX and must be visible through management reporting.
- Customer surveys. Surveys are a valuable way to measure KPIs such as customer satisfaction score, Net Promoter Scores (NPS), and customer effort score. An automated transactional survey with contextual questions about the customer’s service interaction can allow contact center leaders to keep their fingers on the pulse of how customers are feeling as well as identify areas and agents that need improvement. Negative survey responses can be used for near real-time proactive outreach to close the loop with customers and resolve their issues, often with positive outcomes and reduced customer churn.
- Sentiment analytics. We've already discussed the capabilities of interaction analytics software, but I want to dive a little deeper into its ability to measure customer sentiment. Interaction analytics tools can analyze factors such as keywords and speech patterns (volume, pace, length of pauses, etc.) to determine if a customer is feeling positive, negative, or neutral. For example, if a customer says in a loud voice, "You're not being helpful and your product stinks!" that would be flagged as negative sentiment. Customer sentiment can be aggregated at the agent, team, and contact center levels, and users can also drill down to individual customers and interactions to further troubleshoot.
When combined, these solutions can paint a detailed portrait of the customer.
Summing up customer service vs customer experience
As a rule of thumb, customer service is a one-time event, while CX is an ongoing collection of impressions that includes the entire customer journey and the duration of a customer's relationship with a brand. While they are different concepts, they're highly intertwined. The quality of a customer service interaction impacts the customer experience and can even shift a person's opinion of the brand. This relationship between customer service and customer experience is why companies should have a comprehensive strategy to manage the quality of both.
[i] NICE: 2019 NICE CXone Customer Experience (CX) Transformation Benchmark, Global Consumers (2019)
[ii] NICE: 2022 Digital-First Customer Experience Report (2022)
[iii] Salesforce: 4th Edition State of the Connected Customer (2020)
[iv] Microsoft: The global state of customer service (2019)
[v] Harvard Business Review: Kick-Ass Customer Service (2017)
[vi] NICE: 2022 Digital-First Customer Experience Report (2022)
[vii] Gartner: Does Your Digital Customer Service Strategy Deliver?