Customer Service or Customer Experience? What exactly does customer experience mean?


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I am not the first, and will certainly not be the last professional person to work in and around the ‘customer experience’ field. There are thousands of customer experience professionals all around the world, and our number is growing at a very steady rate – something the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA – is delighted to see. Organisations of all shapes and sizes, and from every industry imaginable are finally affording their ‘customer experience’ the time and attention it very richly deserves. Much of the focus has been driven by the fact that many business leaders have finally recognised that delivering experiences to customers that consistently meet and exceed customer expectation is ‘good business’. Delivering great customer experiences is now seen as a differentiator, rather than something just spoken about by fluffy and potentially irritating people like me!

Last week, I was very fortunate to be a judge at the UK Customer Experience Awards. Now in its fourth year, the awards have grown to such a size, that I jokingly suggested to Neil Skehel, Managing Director of Awards International, that he consider hiring Wembley Arena next year. My joke may well become a reality! Over 700 guests at the awards ceremony acted as very tangible proof as to how customer experience has become so significant at a professional level.

So let me get to the point. If customer experience as a profession, and as an area of focus for organisations around the globe has become so significant, why do so many people still not understand what it is? Even at the awards last week, I was asked ‘so just what is customer experience? Recently I have conducted a number of radio interviews for the BBC and commercial radio stations. None of them have been comfortable introducing me as a ‘customer experience professional. Instead, they have opted for ‘customer service expert’, or words to that effect. This is a subject I have blogged about before – one of my first blog posts explored exactly what I do for a living – very little has changed since I wrote it!!

I am someone who recognises that even if something seems obvious to me, it may not be obvious to others. I therefore would like to have another attempt at clarifying, once and for all, the difference between Customer Service and Customer Experience. To do this, I want to provide you with an example we can all relate to. Last week, my family and I ate out at a well-known restaurant that is part of a nationwide chain. I will not name the restaurant as it is not relevant. We chose the restaurant because of its location – it was very ACCESSIBLE. On arriving at the restaurant, we noticed that it has been recently refurbished. The ambience, decor and overall ENVIRONMENT was very pleasant.

Once seated, we moved onto food and drink selection. Whilst not exceeding expectation, both the adult and children’s menus adequately hit the spot – there was plenty to CHOOSE from. The service – that is CUSTOMER SERVICE that is often confused with Customer Experience – was exceptionally good – in fact so good, that it far outweighed my expectation. I noticed a dish on the children’s menu that was not on the adult menu. When I asked if it could be adapted for an adult, I was met with ‘of course’ from one of the incredibly accommodating waiters. Throughout the meal, we were waited on efficiently, empathetically and professionally. It was a real pleasure to experience and see.

The less said about the food the better. Quite frankly, it was awful. Although edible, it was clear that this particular restaurant had not invested in QUALITY of ingredients. Bland, tasteless, and devoid of any skill in presentation, it is safe to say that we were rather disappointed. This disappointment further deepened when we received our bill. This restaurant is not what I would describe as ‘budget’. The price did not reflect the quality, and the overall cost of the meal was not what I would consider to be COMPETITIVE.

On leaving the restaurant, we reflected on our overall experience – our abiding memory distilled down to three things:
1.Amazing Customer Service – the manager and team deserve recognition for their efforts
2.Terrible food

Our conclusion – we will not be visiting that restaurant again. In fact, it is likely that we will not visit any of this brand of restaurants again. Our decision is based on two key elements within the end to end CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE – food quality and price. CUSTOMER SERVICE was outstanding – yet as an element of the customer experience in its own right was not enough to ensure that we remain a customer of this particular business. The Customer Experience in this example combined 6 elements – customer service was just one element:


A colleague of mine had the reverse of this experience recently. Amazing food and terrible customer service – not at the same restaurant I might add. The conclusion however is the same – she will not be visiting the restaurant again. It is the overall experience (of which customer service is just a part) that determines whether or not we have a one-off or a continuous relationship with a company.

So does this clear up the difference between customer experience and customer service? Just in case there are is any doubt, in my research I found the following blog post that looks at the same question – it is sometimes useful to get another perspective –

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.


  1. Conceptually, you are perfectly right that customers today seek overall positive experience in a given transaction from one end to the other. The way each component of the transaction is handled has a bearing on the final judgement that customer makes about the quality of service delivered to him/her. This final judgement or the overall ‘experience’ would determine whether the customer feels any sense of engagement with a given company or not. However, I believe, that the dividing line between the terms ‘customer service’ and ‘customer experience’ is rather very thin.
    To make my point, let me first quote from my latest book Organisational Schizophrenia (SAGE 2013):

    The company—a highly customer-centric, high-growth company that I studied as part of my empirical research—realised that if it were to gain some edge over its competition the fastest route lay in creating differentiation in terms of quality of customer service. Customer Service, in all its facets, meant total customer experience: right from the first contact to selling, delivering, commissioning and beyond. The company knew that it would have to produce quality products, use latest technol¬ogy, offer innovative solutions and work on newer applications to stay in business. But, to gain long-term competitive differentiation, the opportunity lay in offering unstinted customer support; an ex¬perience that customers would cherish and transform into a desire to stay on with the company in a long lasting relationship.

    Let us turn to your own experience at a restaurant and see, if you would have come to the same conclusion if you were to judge quality of service by applying all the relevant dimensions. Most researchers agree that customers usually make a judgement about the quality of delivered service and the extent to which they feel a sense of engagement on the following parameter in the same order of hierarchy:
    1. The tangibles
    2. Empathy
    3. Assurance
    4. Responsiveness
    5. Reliability.

    In this case the tangibles came in last to allow you to make any judgement beforehand but once it is found that the restaurant cannot deliver good food, good service—in this case signified by ‘choice’ and ‘responsiveness’—loses its significance all together.

    This restaurant could not have gone too far unless someone in the management made sure that, as a first priority, the quality of food is improved and that it is made available at a price that customers will pay willingly particularly because they are also assured of excellent service.

    I have made these comments to emphasize that while the word experience does signify a broader perspective yet at the heart of good experience are quality tangibles and responsive, value-adding customer service.

  2. Many thanks for taking the time to read and respond to this post Gopal. I completely agree that good service is at the heart of any experience – I have recently conducted some independent research on ‘what customers want’ and ‘what irritates customers most’ – good customer service is #2 in the list of what we want, and bad customer service is #1 in the list of irritations! You can read both posts as follows:

    Thanks also for sharing the link to your book – I look forward to reading it!



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