Customer Service; Customer Experience; Customer Centricity – what is the difference between them?

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It is difficult to deny that these three terms are becoming increasingly visible in the language of business:

  1. Customer Service
  2. Customer Experience
  3. Customer Centricity

I say that they are becoming increasingly visible – in reality, organisations have been throwing them all around like ‘confetti’ for many years now. To a degree, all of them have merged into one as business leader after business leader has tried to convince its employees and customers that they are serious about the one consistent word in all three phrases – ‘the customer’!

Despite their increasing use, it is important that no-one assumes the people using them understand their real meaning. So often I hear one or all three being incorporated into business presentations, but it is sometimes clear that there is a lack of understanding of their true meaning. Even though the difference between service, experience and centricity may be obvious to some, we must never assume it is to all. That is why I think it is worth creating a simple resource to help those who would like a reference to demonstrate the difference. So here goes:

Customer Service

Let’s start with Customer Service – the two words that have been embedded in the way organisations work for decades. Customer Services is NOT Customer Experience. Whilst many definitions will exist to describe it, this one is as good as any:

“The assistance and advice provided by a company to those people who buy or use its products or services”

Many business leaders think that Customer Service IS Customer Experience – they seem to consider that customer perception of their brands is the sole responsibility of the Customer Service function. Without wanting to sound blunt, it is NOT. Customer Service is just ONE of the many business functions who are responsible for delivering the ‘end to end experience’ to customers. Sales; Marketing; Operations; Finance; HR etc.. are all equally as responsible for bringing the ‘customer journey’ to life.

So what is Customer Experience?

Customer Experience

Customer Experience is very simply explained as EVERYTHING an organisation does to deliver the ‘end to end experience’ to a customer. From advertising; to PR and media; to sponsorship; to websites and apps; to physical interactions (stores and branches); to products; to documentation; to employee behaviour; to communication; to Customer Service etc… Again, there are many publicly available definitions of Customer Experience, but this one is as good as any:

“Customer experience is the sum of all experiences a customer has with a supplier of goods and/or services, over the duration of their relationship with that supplier. This can include awareness, discovery, attraction, interaction, purchase, use, cultivation and advocacy”

It is vitally important to understand the true meaning of Customer Experience. The reason why it is becoming more and more significant for businesses all around the world is the fact that many are finally realising that they have been delivering Customer Experiences since the beginning of time! That is right – your organisation has always delivered an experience – yet it is only now that businesses are opening their eyes to the importance of the ‘end to end Customer Experience’. This has led to an increase in companies talking about it.

However…. this is where the link to the last ‘customer’ term comes in. Every business has ALWAYS had a Customer Experience….BUT….just acknowledging that and starting to talk about the Customer Experience does NOT make you Customer Centric!  So let’s explore this final term:

Customer Centricity

Every business is likely to have a Customer Service ‘function’. As I have just stated – all organisations have always delivered Customer Experiences (albeit in the main, subconsciously!!) – yet just having a Customer Service function and delivering Customer Experiences DOES NOT make an organisation Customer Centric! The rise of businesses talking about Customer Experience may be kidding some into BELIEVING they are operating in a Customer Centric way. However, to be truly Customer Centric, it would mean that an organisation does the following:

“Putting customer focus at the heart of everything you do, in order to achieve customer satisfaction and loyalty”

In other words, every time a business makes a decision – whether it be a tactical or strategic decision – it does so considering the effect that decision will have on the customer. Sounds simple right? Wrong! I have literally asked hundreds of business professionals all over the world (most of whom have some role to play in Customer Experience) if this is what their business does – I would say that 99% of those people shake their heads and say NO. It is not because people do not want to do this – do not want to be Customer Centric. The reality is that most organisations are still not able to allow/enable their people to truly be Customer Centric.

Becoming a truly Customer Centric organisation is what will ultimately enable organisations to consistently deliver Customer Experiences that meet and sometimes exceed the expectation of Customers. It is not an easy thing to do. It requires committed leadership, courage and a number of specialist competencies. The Customer Experience ‘Profession’ is steadily developing the competencies to help businesses deploy frameworks to better manage the Customer Experience. Yet to deliver great Customer Experiences, all functions; all roles; need to also continually develop their expertise to become better at doing what they do. If this can be done AT THE SAME time as all functions becoming more aware of the role they play in delivering the Customer Experience ‘collaboratively’, then consumers should start noticing the difference!

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Ian Golding, CCXP
A highly influential freelance CX consultant, Ian advises leading companies on CX strategy, measurement, improvement and employee advocacy techniques and solutions. Ian has worked globally across multiple industries including retail, financial services, logistics, manufacturing, telecoms and pharmaceuticals deploying CX tools and methodologies. An internationally renowned speaker and blogger on the subject of CX, Ian was also the first to become a CCXP (Certified Customer Experience Professional) Authorised Resource & Training Provider.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Great article – we could add a 4th – customer relationship management (CRM), which is all-to-often just referring to the IT system or the direct marketing function!

  2. We can actually chart a progression as an organization is becoming more customer-centric, moving from naive, where there is only general awareness and rudimentary measurement of customer behavior, to customer obsession, where there is a single, integrated view of the customer across the enterprise. When customer focus is baked into organizational DNA, for example::

    – customer needs and expectations are well understood by all
    – everyone provides value
    – loyalty and advocacy behavior is paramount
    – optimal relationships are a key priority
    – service is a vital and profitable element of value delivery
    – management structure is extremely horizontal
    – there is an emphasis on customer inclusion and teaming

  3. Great article. We always need guidance in how we use language to communicate our perspective or point of view. Definitions are helpful in their quest to achieve an accurate meeting of the minds about meaning which bolsters understanding.

    I think of “customer experience” as one part of customer service. To me, customer service has an outcome side (typically quantitative–like the plane landed on time, the lights came on when I flipped the switch, or the car was repaired) and an experience side (typically qualitative–like the flight attendant was friendly, the ordering process was easy, or the repair person made me feel confident).

  4. While it is top-of-mind, also wanted to add a definition by my colleague Professor Peter Fader, co-director of the Customer Analytics Initiative at Wharton School (as stated in his recent book, Customer Centricity):

    “Customer centricity can help you create a passionate, committed customer base that will spread word of your company’s attributes to potential new customers. Customer centricity can improve the way your customers view you – even as those customers pour more money into your coffers. But most important, it will also generate profits – for the long term.”

    Importantly, then, customer centricity is both a core value and is enterprise-wide.

  5. Great article- such an important distinction. I liked your point about the fact that organizations have been delivering a customer experience since the beginning of time without realizing or appreciating it! Its great that people are finally realizing they are delivering an experience whether they like it or not so might as well make it a good one! Helpful articles like this help to make sure we get it right!

  6. Hi Ian

    Thanks for a very interesting and lucid explanation of the differences between customer service, customer experience and customer centricity. I largely agree with your definitions.

    What is interesting is that a fourth proposition ‘service’ actually ties them all together as the common foundation. Service is defined as ‘providing knowledge, capabilities and resources for the benefit of another’. When you call customer service with a problem with your toaster the agent uses their skills and the knowledge embedded in front-line systems to tell you how to fix the toaster. The knowledge, capabilities and resources creates the service that helps you get more out of your toaster.

    Your interaction with the company is also a part of the post-sale usage experience. Although most companies focus on the experience leading up to the sale, most customers are much more interested in the experience starting after the sale.

    The company’s commitment to providing skilled customer service agents and useful front-line systems is part of their customer-centricity.

    Service is the foundation for customer service, customer experience and customer-centriicty. By understanding what the jobs customers are trying to do, you can organise to provide the right services that help them get their jobs done easier, faster and better.

    Graham Hill
    @grahamhill

  7. A very good and clear check on what this similar terms mean and imply. Thanks!

    As many of us who have been in the business for some time know, becoming truly and totally customer-focused is about CULTURE & BEAVIOR: two things that are essential but tough to change.

    For companies who’s DNA is product of technology centric – the move to becoming a trusted solution provider to the customer can be quite a challenge (sic).

    However this transformation process can be helped through training on what it really means and implies to be customer-centric. Unfortunately experience proves that most often these programmes have little if any sustained benefit.

    Why? Because they are too theoretical and not embedded into the professionals’ day-to-day life. So guess why most training programmes are never evaluated a few months after being delivered? The answer is obvious.

    However there are methods and process to make them pay off with substantial soft and hard (financial) benefits. It requires putting the emphasis on practical cases that contextualized for the company’s business, and having people (and not only “teams”) involve themselves personally in the process. Another key success factor to ensure these training really “stick” and are effective is to develop peer-coaching capabilities within the organisation, facilitated by a professional. The third ingredient I now believe is necessary, is that these trainings and not (only) performed by professional trainers but by professionals who have an robust operational experience.

    Customer-centricity, what I prefer to call Total Customer Focus, is achievable provided the management team uses the right approach and the help of seasoned experts. In my experience, both with large corporations and mid-size companies, the majority of the employees WANT to make this shift because it make their job more rewarding, more interesting.

    Being totally customer-focus is good for employees, for customers, for the business and the whole eco-system! Why wait?

    Patrick Giry-Deloison
    [email protected]
    Twitter : @pgirydel

  8. Great post Ian! You’ve done a good job at explaining the difference between all 3 and i’m sure this post has cleared a lot of misconceptions for many. Thumbs up! 🙂

  9. It’s great to see the importance of customer service, experience and centricity being highlighted in this article- koodos to the author for providing us with an in-depth understanding. In business, most of us are aware of how these aspects further our company and it’s awesome to think about the customer. We must also think about the engagnment of the employees as this is something that is important for delivering experience to customers. We have shared some advice about employee engagment and how a happy employee makes for a happy customer. If anyone would like to read more, http://www.clearpicture.com/happy-employee-happy-customer/

  10. Bonjour Patrick

    I agree with you entirely about the importance of experiential training in preparing staff for a changed world of work.

    Research suggest that although 80% of the costs of training is typically from developing and delivering the training, only 20-30% of the value of the training comes from the training itself. Approx. 10% of the value comes from preparation for training and a whopping 60-70% from post-training support back in the workplace. Staff returning from a training course will be less efficient and effective in the new world than they were in the old. It takes time and post-training support to get them to 100% again. After that, there are no limits to the increases in efficiency and effectiveness, and ultimately, productivity that are available.

    Training is critical in getting staff ready for the new world of work. But not the ‘sheep-dip’ that passes for training in most change programmes.

    Graham Hill
    @grahamhill

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