The Difference Between Customer Service and the Customer Experience


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Something serious has come to my attention: Some organizations still don’t know the difference between customer service and the customer experience for the contact center. Let’s start by saying, we know there’s a linguistic confusion, and we can go ahead and blame the English language for that. However, the function of customer service and the customer experience (although they often work together) are two very different business strategies. Here we’ll decode these often-confused terms so that your organization can learn to prepare and strategize for both properly. And even if you’re well-versed on these two subjects, it’s important to remember that technology has made them ever-changing and they might be worth a quick refresh.

Let’s get started with a quick donut analogy….

Take a look at these plain unglazed donuts:

Plain Donut

Source: iStock

They look pretty good; I’d definitely eat them if I didn’t have any other options. Now take a look at these yummy sprinkled donuts shown here:

Sprakle Donut

Source: iStock

Admit it – the latter donuts look a little more enjoyable than the former plain ones now don’t they?

Consider this: The plain donut is what we can call “customer service”; its one key factor in the entire “customer experience” – and its role is to provide support. “Customer experience” contains all the extras – like sugar glaze, sprinkles, and jam – that make you feel something about the donut, like “Wow! That donut looks delicious. I’ll try that.” Customer experience is about how it’s made, who made it, how it was delivered, the packaging it came in, how quickly you received it, and so on and so forth.

That’s the difference: There’s no doubt that the plain, underlying donut (customer service) plays a huge role in the overall perception of the donut (or company), it’s a must-have attribute, but the customer experience (the journey to and around customer service) is what really makes it satisfying.

Okay – donuts aside – from an operations perspective, what does customer service and the customer experience involve? This chart should help you create a distinction between the two:

Customer Service vs. The Customer Experience

Source: Fonolo

In this chart we can really start to see the difference between customer service and the customer experience, and why it’s so important for them to work in synergy. Customer service requires the overall customer experience to work seamlessly, from every touch point in the customer journey (i.e. live chat, mobile SMS, IVR, etc.). The customer experience needs to be proactive in that it should predict what a customer wants, before they want it, whereas customer service is reactionary, for example when a user error occurs or in the off-chance a process fails.

Simply put, the customer experience is more than just a buzzword; it’s a way to attract customers and make them feel good about their interactions with your brand. The customer experience is the ease in which your customers can access customer service, and customer service is a single touch-point for resolving and satisfying your customer’s needs. Both, however, have one critical function: keep customers coming back time and time again.

For more tips to improve the customer experience: Mastering #CX in the Contact Center: 7 Tips to Follow”


  1. This is well, and effectively, stated. Service is one, albeit often key, component across the spectrum of customer experience. It’s also a reason why KPIs like Customer Effort Score are limited in scope, representing specific service-related customer-vendor touchpoints;

  2. Thanks for your post. Someday we will evolve to a point in our field we can get beyond having to define words!!

    One way to think about the labeling is “customer service” includes the objective, typically quantitative outcome (the plane landed on time) plus the emotional, typically subjective experience (the flight attendant was funny). One is about zero defects; one about zero defections. One includes the features of what the customer came for (a safe flight that lands in the right city at a fair price); one includes the features that get imbedded in the customers’ memories yielding a story to tell. One is the realm of customer satisfaction–I got precisely what I wanted; one is more the realm of customer delight–they made me feel valued. The metrics for the outcome side are different than for the experience side. Trying to measure experiences with outcome measures is a bit like trying to drive a nail with B flat! Nothing wrong with B flats; Mozart used them all the time. But, when he wanted to do a bit of carpentry, a hammer worked much better. Evaluative measures like “completely satisfied” work great for the outcome; but using them on the experience side is like asking someone, “how was your honeymoon?” We would consider “completely satisfied” to come up a bit short in characterizing the full moon on the water, the champagne, and late night activities! We need both.

  3. In a consumer study a few years ago, we found that customers don’t make such fine distinctions.

    “Customer service” is not just about what’s done in the customer service function, it’s viewed more broadly as “serving my needs” — which can and should be part of the job of marketers and sales professionals.

    So in one technical sense, customer service can be considered part of the end-to-end customer experience (along with discovery, buying, using).

    But more generally, top customer-centric companies have a culture of serving customers that transcends these functional boundaries.

  4. Agree with Bob’s perspective. We’re CX pros, so are used to viewing elements of the experience principally from the inside-out (culture, touchpoint processes, employee behavior, etc.) more than the outside-in, which is the way consumers see their connection with vendors. For consumers, service is a rose by any other name.

  5. Hi Nicolina – I agree that it’s vital for marketers to be crystal-clear when using terminology, so I appreciate your distinguishing between two terms that are frequently invoked in meetings when few people have a clear understanding of them (myself included).

    But I also think the tight definitions given here cause logic to veer off the track. For example, I don’t see why customer experience is inherently ‘proactive’ and customer service by definition is relegated to being reactionary. Couldn’t customer service infrastructure (the people, processes, technology, and all the accompanying flowcharts, etc.) be developed to anticipate needs? Of course, this has already happened in IT and capital equipment to mention just a couple.

    I think a good way to think about customer service is to envision and describe desirable results (always a moving target) for customer experience, and adapt resources (i.e. customer service) to make sure they happen. Those activities shouldn’t be defined as just proactive, reactive, single-point, or multi-point. They can be all of them.

  6. I agree that it is essential to make a clear distinction between customer service and customer experience as those two are often mixed up. So the graph is very helpful!

    I am a bit less enthusiastic on the donut analogy. It may create the suggestion that #CX is ‘just’ the icing on the cake. but I am pretty sure it is (or should be) so much more than just the nice-to-have extras…

  7. Hi Nicolina

    I agree with Bob. Customer experience is the sum total of the customers interactions with an organisation, its products, its people and its partners. Customer service as a function, typically called upon for help after the point of sale, is but one of many constituent episodes in the larger end-to-end customer experience. And as the research shows, the quality of customer service will be judged by customers using the same phenomenological framework as they use for judging other episodes in the customer experience.

    I also agree with Bob when he suggests that the underlying currency of both customer service and the customer experience is providing service to customers. Vargo & Lusch in their now famous paper on ‘Evolving to a New Dominant Logic for Marketing’ define service as ‘the application of competencies and resources for the benefit of another party’. The competences and resources are exchanged during interactions. They are used by the other party to create whatever value they are looking for from the interaction. This suggests that customer service and all the other episodes in the customer experience are at their heart EXACTLY THE SAME. They are all about co-creating value with customers.

    Graham Hill

    Further reading:

    Verhoef et al, ‘Service Processes as a Sequence of Events: An Application to Service Calls’, ERIM Report Series

    Vargo and Lusch, ‘Evolving to a New Dominant Logic for Marketing’, Journal of Marketing

  8. Start with the customer.
    Customer experience is the ‘experience the customer has’, by dictionary definition how things are received by the consumer- which is most certainly not about ‘sum of everything’ approaches since no customer ‘sums everything’. We notice what is salient to us based on goal states. In some contexts, my experience is over-weighted to price, in others traditional service and so forth. So, I would see customer service as most certainly part of ‘experience’ so long as it is relevant to the customer in question. I would not say customer experience is defined by notions of enjoyability. The more interesting question is not ‘what is customer experience’ but ‘where is the return on experience’? Experience economy, value in use, service quality.

  9. Two things.

    Number one, I am now craving donuts.

    Number two – completely agree with Bob, Michael and Graham. Customer experience is the whole enchilada – the customer’s journey through processes, policies, practices and people. Customer service is the people part.

    All of the experience components are critical to, as Bob says, serve customers needs well.

    Graham – the other components of experience aren’t quite exactly the same – at least, not in terms of how they influence customer behaviour. Over 90% of ‘wow’ customer experiences – positive and negative wow – comes from the customer service side of things. (“The Science of Wow” – 2015)

    Having said this, I think one can have a great customer experience in the absence of customer service. This is, after all, the premise behind the growing self-serve trend. (although one certainly can’t have a great customer experience when poor customer service is involved)


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