Customer service vs customer experience: What’s the real difference?

Abigail Sims

October 27, 2021

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We talk a lot about the customer experience. Make it easy, make it effortless, make it such a strong delivery on your brand promise that it circles all the way around to delight again, and so on. “Improve your customer service”, you may have read on our website in several places—what can we say, we’re passionate about it—in order to change your customer experience for the better!

Record scratch. Freeze frame. Wait, what? 

Now, you might be thinking, “Isn’t customer service the same thing as customer experience? If I give my customer great service, aren’t they having a great customer experience?” 

That’s close and almost right, but there are a few key differences that say otherwise. Great customer service is so, so important, but it’s just not going to get you a great customer experience by itself, no matter how hard your service representatives work. (Sorry, service team!) Customer experience is a many-headed hydra, and service is just one of those very important heads—but we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. 

Let’s take a look at customer service vs customer experience, and determine what the differences are between the two concepts. 

What is customer service?

Customer service primarily occurs in the support centers of your business. When your customer calls you to complain about a defective product or service, to change their shipping address, or to place an order, when your service representative reacts to those incidents—that’s customer service. Customer service is the hands-on, boots-on-the-ground response to customer needs, where a representative from your company is working directly with a customer to solve their problem.

Customer service is your company’s direct response via support representative to an acute customer need. 

How important is good customer service? It’s pretty darn important. In fact, 70% of consumers say they will actually spend more money to support a company that delivers good customer service. So, we can be pretty confident that a solid customer support team should be high on every company’s priority list—but that’s not the only thing that should be up there.

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What is customer experience?

Customer experience (CX), on the other hand, is like customer service cranked up to the highest setting. It’s the same attitude of wanting to serve the customer well; but applying that philosophy to every touchpoint along the customer journey. We’ve defined CX in the past as “the sum of all your customer’s experiences with your business and brand”, from start to finish, and we stand by that statement still. Prompt, polite customer service, a great product, and thoughtful user experience are all parts of a great customer experience. 

Customer experience is the sum of all your customer’s experiences with your business and brand.

For example, when you start thinking about buying a pair of jeans, then start looking for jeans on the internet, and then finally go try on jeans and eventually make a purchase—every moment of that time is the customer experience. And if you have a problem with your jeans and need to return them, or call the company to complain about poor construction, or to ask about the materials used? All the time you spend on the phone with customer service is the customer experience, too. Perhaps most importantly, if you love your jeans and never have to interact with anyone from that company again until you buy the same pair of jeans ten years later… That’s also the customer experience. 

Service or experience? Four key areas of difference

The major differences between customer service and customer experience can be demonstrated through four key areas.

  1. Big picture vs laser focus. Customer service is just one part of a solid CX strategy. While customer service applies to a single instance, customer experience involves a whole journey through many different individual instances, some of which may not involve a service or support channel at all. 
  2. The issue of delight. While you might be delighted by above-and-beyond customer service, if that interaction doesn’t fit into an effortless customer experience, then the effort required to delight in that instance is wasted. One good service interaction won’t redeem poor CX; the overall experience will still be negative.
  3. Proactive vs reactive. Customer service is by nature reactive, as it’s deeply rooted in guiding the customer through their issue. The best customer experience leaders, however, are those who think proactively and use insights from all data sources to solve problems before they occur. 
  4. Metrics. Customer service is measured with service-specific metrics like Net Promoter Score (NPS) or the Agent Impact Score (AIS) that track service quality. Customer experience is measured with scores like Customer Effort Score (CES) and the Tethr Effort Index (TEI) that track effort throughout the experience as a whole. 

In each of these areas you can see that customer service is essential—but it still only applies to a very limited set of situations. Customer experience, on the other hand, includes a very wide set of situations. 

What’s the REAL difference between customer service vs customer experience?

The real difference between customer service and customer experience is simple. Customer service is about assisting the customer with a particular need in a specific circumstance. Customer experience, on the other hand, refers to the whole customer journey and beyond, from the moment they consider your product or service all the way through to purchase and use.

Key takeaway: Customer service is just one small part of the greater customer experience. 

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