Customer service and customer experience are two terms that get thrown around a lot in business, but do you know exactly what they mean? The phrases are often used interchangeably, but in reality they are different things.

Put simply, customer service is one part of a holistic customer experience. Customer experience refers to the complete journey a customer takes with your brand, from initial awareness to post-purchase care. Customer service refers to a single event when a customer reaches out for help and support during this journey. 

Both are equally as important to the success of your business. You can’t do one well without the other, which is why it’s so important to know what they are and how they are different. 

What is customer experience?

As mentioned, customer experience (CX) refers to the entire journey a customer takes with your business, which makes it a key brand differentiator and an important factor in the success of a business. Customers spend 140% more and remain loyal for up to 6 years when they rate a company highly for customer experience!

CX involves many different customer interaction points and many different departments. Imagine your company is a retail business that specialises in selling fashionable trainers. Here’s an example of a simple customer experience journey:

  1. A potential customer searches for ‘best trainers of 2020’ in Google and comes across a blog post from your company titled ‘Ten Trendiest Runner of 2020’. They click the link to be taken to the post on your site. 
  2. Whilst reading the post, a pair of runner’s on the list really catches their eye, so they click the internal link to arrive on the trainers’ product page.
  3. At this stage, they aren’t sure if they want to buy the runner, so they leave your site. 
  4. A few days later, they are browsing Facebook when they see a targeted advert for your business. 
  5. They click the advert to be taken back to the runner’s product page. This time they decide to make a purchase. 
  6. When placing the runners in their basket, they wonder if they can be bought in blue and white, as well as the traditional red and white, so they initiate a live chat using the chat widget on the web page to ask a customer service agent.
  7. After chatting and understanding the customer’s enquiry, the agent escalates the live chat to a video chat interaction to show the customer the trainers in different colours.
  8. The customer is happy with the further information and thanks the agent, so the agent ends the interaction.
  9. After seeing the runners in different colours, the customer opts for the blue and white version. They edit their basket accordingly and complete their purchase.
  10. A few days later, the trainers are delivered. The customer is very happy with the product and their experience with your brand, so they continue to purchase trainers and accompanying accessories from you in the future. 

In this example, the customer had multiple touchpoints with the business (blog and website, social media, live chat, video chat), and encountered the work of different departments (marketing, customer service, sales) to complete their customer journey. Each step of the journey made up the overall customer experience.

The key to creating a good customer experience is making sure all the different customer interaction points are linked up. Allowing customers to jump between touchpoints e.g. from social media to your website to live chat, as part of an omnichannel customer experience is vital. 

What is customer service? 

Customer service refers to the customer support function of a business. It’s the help and advice offered to customers when they have a question or an issue concerning your product or service.

Unlike customer experience, customer service is an isolated event and only involves customer-facing departments, such as agents in your contact centre or employees in physical stores. 

It typically involves human contact with brands, but as artificial intelligence becomes more advanced, we are seeing more and more technology involved in customer service too. AI chatbots, for example, are increasingly used by businesses to deal with FAQs and field initial enquiries to the right agent. 

Going back to the example used above, steps 6 and 7 of the journey saw the customer have contact with customer service. They reached out via live chat, and the agent used their resources (in this case video chat) to best serve the customer and answer their question. 

In this way, customer service makes up one part of the customer experience with a business, which is why providing good customer service is essential to providing a good overall customer experience. 

Key differences between customer service & customer experience

Now we know what customer service and customer experience are, let’s look in detail at the three main differences between them.

1) Holistic experience vs specific interaction

A major distinction in customer service vs customer experience is the number of touchpoints involved and the length of the interaction. 

  • Customer experience refers to the entire customer journey. This encompasses discovery and awareness of a business, through to initial purchase and post-purchase care, to hopefully repeated purchases. As a result, it involves numerous touchpoints and means multiple departments need to be involved in creating a good customer experience. Not every customer journey will look the same, but all will involve more than one interaction with a business. In this way, customer experience is holistic. 
  • Customer service is part of customer experience: it’s one step of a customer’s journey. Some customers will not need to interact with customer service and others may need more than one interaction during their journey. The role of customer service is to support the customer by solving their issue, which improves their overall customer experience. This involves the work of customer-facing departments, and typically involves just one or two touchpoints. In this way, customer service refers to a particular customer interaction with a business. 

2) Reactive vs proactive

One key difference between the two terms is who leads the process: is it the customer or is it the business? Is it a reactive or proactive process?

  • Customer experience is all about anticipating the needs of the customer. Through customer journey mapping, studying funnel drop-off points and website analytics, and asking for customer feedback, businesses constantly work to improve the customer experience and ensure customers don’t run into problems. Where needed, this could involve steering customers to initiate a customer service interaction. In this way, customer experience is proactive. 
  • Customer service is nearly always initiated by the customer. The customer faces a problem so they reach out to a business’ support services via their preferred channel, e.g. phone, email, social media, or live chat. In this way, customer service is reactive.

3) Ongoing relationship vs isolated event

The last difference between customer service and customer experience is how they are measured and connected to other events. 

  • Customer experience is all about the customer’s relationship with a business. It cannot be quantified or pinned down to one single event or interaction. In this way, customer experience is an ongoing relationship – if a customer keeps coming back to your business (which we all want!), their customer experience continues. 
  • Customer service refers to a specific event, i.e. a customer reaching out for help and support, or making a complaint. As an event, it can be measured by a number of metrics, such as first time resolution rate and average response time. In this way, customer service is a quantifiable, isolated event.