Customer Experience vs. Customer Service: What's the Difference?

My beloved iPad is dying a slow death.

It's several years old and I use it daily. The memory is nearly full. I've dropped it a few times. The lightening connector is getting finicky.

So I'll soon be making a trip to the Apple Store to buy a new one. This process provides a nice overview of the differences between customer experience, customer service, and even customer success.

Man scratching his head in confusion.

What is Customer Experience?

Here's a definition from customer experience expert, Annette Franz:

The sum of all the interactions that a customer has with an organization over the life of the “relationship” with that company… and, especially, the feelings, emotions, and perceptions the customer has about those interactions.

The elements of customer experience go well beyond just customer service. To illustrate this, I've listed some of the steps in my customer journey with the customer service elements in bold.

  • My experience with my current iPad (I love it, so I want another)

  • Visiting the Apple website to research new options

  • Driving to the Apple Store and parking (gotta avoid the crowds!)

  • A person greets me as I walk in the door and offers assistance

  • The Apple Store layout

  • I'm introduced to another employee who assists me with my selection

  • The employee shows me some of the new iPad's features

  • The look, feel, and function of the new iPads

  • The employee rings up my purchase on a mobile device

  • Another employee retrieves my new iPad from the stockroom

  • Unboxing my new iPad at home after I buy it

  • I follow guided instructions to configure my new iPad

  • A support article helps me transfer my content from the old iPad

  • Using the new iPad every day

What is Customer Service?

This is a helpful definition from the Oxford English Dictionary:

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

Customer service also includes something called customer success, which I'll define in just a moment. Here is a summary of the customer service I can expect to receive from Apple, with the customer success elements in italics.

  • A person greets me as I walk in the door and offers assistance

  • I'm introduced to another employee who assists me with my selection

  • The employee shows me some of the new iPad's features

  • The employee rings up my purchase on a mobile device

  • Another employee retrieves my new iPad from the stockroom

  • I follow guided instructions to configure my new iPad

  • A support article helps me transfer my content from the old iPad

What is Customer Success?

Here's a straightforward definition from Hubspot:

An organizational function that helps customers get maximum value out of a product or service.

Buying a new iPad would be a frustrating experience if I couldn't figure out how to use it. There are a few particular functions, such as configuring the new device or transferring content from my old device that can either create a moment of delight or a moment of misery.

Here are some examples of how Apple focuses on customer success:

  • The Apple Store employee shows me some of the new iPad's features

  • I follow guided instructions to configure my new iPad

  • A support article helps me transfer my content from the old iPad

The Total Customer Experience

One of Apple's secrets is the organization's understanding of all three elements and how they work together.

The overall experience is customer-focused. Apple's products work seamlessly together, which is why I own a MacBook, an iPad, and an iPhone. 

The customer service function is designed to quickly get me the help I need. When there's a human involved, I've consistently been served by someone who was friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable. 

The customer success function is dialed in to make using Apple products easy and intuitive. There are gentle nudges, such as on-screen prompts, in just the right places along with deeper assistance and even in-store classes if I need them.

So yes, I'm a huge fan.

Customer Experience vs. Customer Service Infographic

customer experience vs customer success infographic

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The Best Phrases for Taking Ownership of Service Failures

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Customer service often involves solving problems we didn't create.

Our colleagues make mistakes. A defective product, a late shipment, or a billing error can all send fuming customers in our direction. Sometimes, customers themselves cause the issue.

We're expected to take ownership of these situations, represent the company, and help customers feel better. Yet it's tempting to deflect ownership when the pressure is on:

  • "They don’t know what they’re doing in that department."

  • "They've been having problems in production."

  • "You should have read the policy."

The instinct is to deflect blame and distance yourself from the issue. While the words may be true, they aren't very helpful. Customers still look at you and your company as one and the same.

Here are some positive phrases that can change the tone when you have to resolve a problem that's not your fault.

Stamp with the words “own it.”

What to say when a coworker makes a mistake

Our colleagues sometimes make mistakes, and we have to pick up the pieces.

I once tried to use a paper certificate to rent a car. The employee at the rental counter told me to present it as payment when I returned the vehicle. 

Unfortunately, this was a mistake. The employee should have taken the certificate. I learned this when I returned the car and explained I was told to use the certificate then. "Who told you that?!" asked the visibly frustrated employee.

His defensive statement was designed to distance himself from the problem, but it actually made him seem less capable. Here’s a better way to handle a coworker’s error:

  1. Acknowledge the error, using “we” to accept ownership.

  2. Refocus on a solution. 

Here's what he could have said:

"I'm sorry we gave you the wrong information! It will take just a moment to get this resolved so we can get you on your way to the airport."

The time to address a coworker’s mistake is after the customer has been served. This is still an important step, since the employee might continue to make the same mistake if nobody shares any feedback.

What to say when there's a delay

Delays often happen that cause our customers to become anxious or frustrated.

You've probably found yourself getting hungry while waiting for your food in a restaurant. It doesn’t help when the server defensively says, "They're backed up in the kitchen. There's nothing I can do."

Here's a better way to approach a delay:

  1. Apologize for the delay, using “we” to accept ownership.

  2. Provide a brief explanation (this helps the customer feel better).

  3. Refocus on a solution.

A server might say it this way:

"Thanks for your patience—I'm sorry about the wait. We got a lot of orders in at the same time, so it's taking longer than usual. I just checked with the kitchen, and your food will be out in a few more minutes. May I refill your drinks in the meantime?"

Notice the brief explanation comes after the apology. 

The explanation will sound like an excuse if it comes before a sincere apology. However, providing a brief explanation after the apology can make the customer more understanding of the situation. 

What to say when it's the customer's fault

Customers are sometimes the ones who make the mistake. 

A couple went to the theatre, but discovered they had purchased tickets for the next night's show! They had paid for dinner, parking, and a babysitter, but now their fun was in danger due to a careless error.

It would have been tempting to blame the customers in this situation, but that was a lose-lose move. The customers would lose out on a night of fun, and the theatre might lose out on the couple's future business because the couple would be frustrated and embarrassed.

Here’s a better way to handle a customer’s error:

  1. Avoid blaming the customer.

  2. Minimize their embarrassment if possible.

  3. Refocus on a solution.

Here's what the theatre employee said:

"Don’t worry, this happens more than you might think! I do have two seats available a few rows back. You're welcome to take those and enjoy this evening's performance, or come back tomorrow and use your tickets then. Which would you prefer?"

Giving options reduced friction because it involved the customers in finding a solution. The grateful couple accepted the offer to attend that evening, and were happy and relieved that the theatre employee had help them recover from their own error.

Take Action

These phrases are just a few common examples. There will always be tricky situations where taking ownership and saying the right thing is a challenge.

There's a wonderful exercise in the book, The Effortless Experience, by Matt Dixon, Nick Toman, and Rick DeLisi called "say this, not that." I highly recommend you get the book, but here's an overview of the exercise:

  1. List situations where you might be tempted to avoid ownership.

  2. Brainstorm a list of things you should definitely not say.

  3. Discuss more positive alternatives that accept ownership.

I've facilitated this exercise with customer service teams before and it's a lot of fun. People enjoy the chance to say the wrong things out loud in a safe setting, and they appreciate coming up with effective alternatives.

Saying the right thing isn’t easy. I said the wrong thing to the first customer I ever served, but I made sure I learned from the experience.


Why You Need to Fire Your Toxic Employee

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Some people suck the air out of the room.

George is an example. He talks too loud on the phone, to the point where it seems like he's shouting in an open space work environment filled with coworkers and customers. He frequently makes promises to customers that can't be kept, and George's coworkers end up having to deal with the fallout.

Even worse, George is manipulative. He begs, needles, and cajoles customers into giving him good survey scores. At George's company, good survey scores are all that matter.

His coworkers don't like him. He's abrasive and difficult to work with. Many customers don't like him either, after being on the receiving end of his poor service. It's like a breath of fresh air when George has the day off.

Yet George's boss hasn't done anything about it. Here's why that's a big mistake.

An angry boss firing an employee.

How common are toxic customer service employees?

I recently wrote a post describing ways customer service leaders accidentally hire toxic employees, and how to avoid it. (Read that post here.)

Much of the post was based on a 2015 study by Michael Housman and Dylan Minor that reviewed hiring and termination data for 58,542 customer service employees. The study revealed 1 in 20 were terminated for toxic behavior within their first year of employment.

Housman and Minor defined toxic behavior as "an egregious violation of company policy. Examples include sexual harassment, workplace violence, falsifying documents, fraud, and general workplace misconduct."

What the study didn't account for was toxic employees who weren't fired.

George's behavior qualifies as toxic. He manipulates survey results to keep his job. His boorish presence and repeated service failures have a negative impact on his coworkers. Somehow he’s managed to stay employed for years.

It's difficult to count the number of toxic employees without data, so let's see if we can gather some. Please take this one-question survey that asks whether you currently work with a toxic employee. You’ll be able to see the results once you respond.

How much do toxic employees cost their employers?

Housman and Minor estimate it costs companies an average of $12,489 to replace a toxic employee. This doesn't include the impact of theft, fraud, litigation, fines, penalties, and other legal fallout from a toxic employee's behavior. 

Toxic behavior includes harassment, which can be an especially costly issue for companies. The typical costs involved in resolving a sexual harassment complaint include:

  • Internal time to investigate

  • Legal fees

  • Cost of settlements or lawsuit payouts

Even the cases that are quickly resolved can add an additional $5,000 to $10,000 in expenses. The cost increases substantially if it can be proven that a company leader knew about the behavior and failed to take action. This doesn't even take into account the soft costs associated with unchecked harassment such as lost productivity, decreased morale, and turnover.

The poor service provided by toxic employees like George is also costly. There's no way of knowing exactly how much he has cost his company in lost business, discounts, and refunds, but it's certainly thousands of dollars.

How do toxic employees impact their coworkers?

Absenteeism. Turnover. Poor productivity. These are all negative impacts associated with having to work with a toxic employee. A colleague shared this example with me from a previous experience. 

"It made me not want to go to work knowing I was going to have see them and deal with their toxicity."

Toxic employees tend to cause other employees to become toxic as well. The Housman and Minor study found that adding just one more toxic employee to a team of 25 people made everyone on the team 46 percent more likely to be fired for toxic behavior.

One customer service leader put it this way:

"Total trickle effect. Instead of just managing one person's bad behavior, their impact resulted in having to manage subsequent toxic behavior, resulting in more time spent coaching those sucked into the spiral."

Employees start to see their boss as part of the problem if the manager doesn't do anything about it. They question why toxic employees are seemingly able to act with impunity.

When I was writing Getting Service Right, a book about obstacles to great customer service, I uncovered amazing stories of toxic behavior that became ingrained in a company's culture because the boss failed to act:

  • Bankers signing off on home foreclosures without due diligence.

  • TSA agents physically violating airline passengers with overly aggressive security screenings.

  • Customer service reps lying to vendors about unpaid bills.

  • Hotel associates deliberately providing poor service to guests.

  • Retail employees bad mouthing coworkers in front of customers.

Take Action

First, a short disclaimer. This post is not legal advice. Please consult your human resources representative or attorney before firing anyone.

If you have a toxic employee who works for you, the best thing you can do is fire them.

I don’t make this suggestion lightly. I'm generally an advocate for employees. Poor performance can be improved. Mistakes can be learned from. Most people want to do a good job.

The first assignment I was given as a new supervisor many years ago was to document an employee's poor performance and fire her. I saw her potential instead, and convinced my boss to let her stay. Five years later, that employee was promoted into my boss's job.

Toxic behavior is different. It's egregious. Examples include harassment, theft, or changing a customer's name to "Asshole" in the billing system. (That last one really happened.)

This type of behavior challenges customer service leaders. Many are naturally compassionate, and want to find a way to save a toxic employee. Perhaps the employee is a top performer, they've been with the company a long time, or the manager is simply afraid.

But what about that employee's coworkers? What about customers? 

When I investigated the person I was supposed to fire, I learned her work was consistently being undermined by a toxic employee. This person would deliberately sabotage my employee's work, and then blame my employee and complain about it to my boss. (This was happening before I was hired and my role hadn't yet been filled.)

The worst part was she got away with it. When I was hired, I documented what she had been doing to my employee and shared it with her boss. Her boss wanted to write her up, but relented when she started crying in the meeting and the boss felt bad about it. The toxic behavior continued.

So dealing with a toxic employee won't be easy. They often don’t go quietly. But what you do next speaks volumes about you as a leader and the culture you're trying to create.


Why Should You Care About Internal Customer Service?

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Imagine a customer service manager needs to hire a new representative.

There are probably a lot of other employees they depend on to get that done. A recruiter posts the job and screens candidates. Human resources provides an orientation. Payroll enters the new hire into the system so they can get paid. Facilities gets the new hire's workstation setup and issues any necessary access badges. IT creates all the necessary software accounts.

All of those people are responsible for internal customer service. 

Internal service doesn't always get the same level of scrutiny as external service, yet it's vital to a company's success. If any of the employees in the scenario above fail to do their job, the new hire won't enjoy a smooth onboarding experience and they may not live up to their potential.

Approximately 50 percent of the training requests I receive are for internal customer service. This post takes a closer look at who is an internal customer and why internal service is so important.

Group of happy coworkers high-giving over a conference table.

Who is an internal customer?

An internal customer is any internal stakeholder you serve. This typically means other employees, but it might also include contractors, temporary workers, or owners. The goal of internal service is usually to help someone else so an external customer receives better service.

There are a few common characteristics of internal customers that help separate them from external customers:

  • Frequency of interactions: we tend to serve the same internal customers more often.

  • Closer relationships: we form tighter bonds with the people we work with.

  • Two-way service: internal customers often serve each other.

That last point is important, yet often overlooked.

Why is internal customer service so important?

Internal service is an essential part of the employee experience.

I once hired a new customer service representative, only to be told by the IT manager that it would take three weeks to get their new computer. That created a poor experience for my new hire and made onboarding more difficult.

It felt like a service failure from the IT manager, but the reality was we were both at fault.

The IT manager learned about about the new hire once they had accepted the job offer, which was just one week before they started. In my mind, this was plenty of time to get a computer and setup the employee's workstation, but that was a big assumption on my part. I caused unnecessary tension with the IT manager because I didn't proactively let him know about my hiring plans.

He doesn't get off the hook in this scenario, either. The three-week lead time to order a computer was excessive, and entirely due to his desire to stick with a certain model of computer. He would have been able to get the new hire setup much faster if he had been more flexible.

It was a powerful learning experience. The next time I hired someone, I was much more proactive. And to the IT manager’s credit, he was much more flexible. The end result was the next employee had a workstation ready to go on their first day.

Later in my career, I saw the concept of mutual internal service play out with a hospital where I was doing some consulting and customer service training.

The hospital provided scrubs for its medical staff. The team responsible for stocking the scrubs was receiving complaints that there were not enough scrubs available and designated storage areas were frequently empty.

The supply manager took a tour of the hospital with a few internal customers to get a closer look. The tour quickly revealed the two-way street that often happens when serving internal customers.

The supply manager learned medical personnel got nervous when the supply of scrubs ran low. They didn't trust the supply team to refill them in time, so people would take extra sets of scrubs and hide them for later. Then when a unit ran out of scrubs, they'd go raid the supply cabinet in another unit, causing them to run out as well.

The solution was fairly straightforward. The supply team agreed to refill the supply cabinets more often, which helped build trust because there was usually an ample amount on hand. And medical staff leaders agreed to reinforce the one pair of scrubs at a time policy, while proactively alerting the supply team if scrubs were getting low so there could be an extra delivery.

Steps to improve internal customer service

The first step to improving service is defining what great service looks like.

This can be done by creating a customer service vision, which is a shared definition of outstanding customer service. My research into customer-focused organizations reveals that elite teams share the same vision for internal and external service.

Brand leadership expert Denise Lee Yohn captures this concept well in her book, Fusion. In it, she describes how the most powerful and authentic brands are a reflection of the company’s internal culture.

On a personal level, you can serve your internal customers better by identifying each one (or group of customers) and their core needs.

For example, in the hiring scenario, I needed the IT manager to provide my new hire with a computer and all the necessary software access. In return, the IT manager needed me to provide him with timely notification of new hires.

You can use this downloadable worksheet to complete the exercise.

This short video provides even more insight into who is an internal customer and why serving them is important.


How to Avoid Hiring Toxic Employees

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Larissa (not her real name) was partying with coworkers and subordinates outside of work. There was a lot of drinking and things got out of hand. People started arguing and a fight broke out.

Intoxication impaired Larissa's judgement. She added fuel to the fire by choosing sides and gossiping.

There was fallout the next day at work. Employees were upset about the altercation and angry at Larissa for her role in it. After all, Larissa was a manager and someone people expected to be a voice of reason.

Her boss quickly got wind of the story and had to investigate.

Larissa admitted her role in the fracas, but didn't accept responsibility. She felt that what she did on her own time was her own business, without understanding that a manager drinking with employees can still be considered a work function.

Her boss subsequently learned that Larissa had created issues at her last job. None of that surfaced during the interview process because Larissa's references had lied about her qualifications and conduct.

Avoiding toxic employees like Larissa can be tricky. In a surprising revelation, many common hiring practices actually attract toxic workers. Here's how to avoid that.

Recruiter evaluating puzzle pieces representing employees. One piece clearly does not fit.

How common are toxic employees?

Michael Housman and Dylan Minor conducted a study of toxic employees in 2015. They reviewed 58,542 customer service employees from multiple companies and found that 1 in 20 were fired for toxic behavior within their first year of employment.

Toxic behavior is defined in the study as "an egregious violation of company policy. Examples include sexual harassment, workplace violence, falsifying documents, fraud, and general workplace misconduct."

It makes sense to avoid hiring toxic people, but that's easier said than done. Larissa got hired by getting references to lie on her behalf and falsifying her resume (more on that in a moment). 

So how can you spot a potentially toxic employee? The study highlighted three specific factors to look for. 

How can you screen out toxic people?

The study identified three prominent risk factors for toxic behavior:

  • Overconfidence

  • Self-regarding

  • Rule-orientation

Let's take a closer look at each one, starting with overconfidence. 

Overconfidence

These are employees who believe they're awesome, even when they're not. 

Study participants were asked during the interview process to estimate their level of computer skills. The applicants were later given a skill assessment to determine their actual skill level.

A whopping 34 percent were overconfident, with the skill test revealing they were less skillful than they had claimed. These employees were 15 percent more likely to be terminated for toxic behavior than the rest.

I've run my own experiments that reveal customer service employees consistently overrate their abilities. These overconfident employees are less likely to accept feedback, learn new skills, or improve their performance because they don't believe they need to.

One of the warning signs Larissa's boss missed during the initial interview process was Larissa lied on her resume. She overstated her qualifications and was overly confident about her ability to do the job. 

You can avoid hiring overconfident employees by having them demonstrate their abilities during the selection process whenever possible. This might include a computer test or asking them to write a sample customer email.

Some abilities, like defusing an angry customer, are more difficult to test in an interview. One solution is to ask candidates to relate a specific experience rather than respond to a hypothetical situation. So you might ask, "What happened the last time you had to defuse an angry customer?"

Janis Whitaker's excellent book, Interviewing by Example, provides lots of great examples and ideas for crafting these types of interview questions.

Self-Regarding

Pop quiz. What type of person do you think is generally better at customer service?

  1. Someone who is self-centered

  2. Someone who cares deeply about others

If you answered "someone who cares about others," you're right. The study found that self-centered, or self-regarding, employees were 22 percent more likely to be terminated for toxic behavior.

Recall that Larissa focused on her desire to party and have a good time with friends, rather than her responsibility to be a good role-model when socializing with subordinates outside of work.

Many customer service leaders make the mistake of designing a selection process that attracts people who are more self-regarding.

  • Including self-centered terms like "rockstar" or "superstar" in the job posting.

  • Promoting perks like games, incentives, and prizes for top performers.

  • Selling candidates on advancement opportunities, rather than the job itself.

The way to fix this issue is by emphasizing teamwork and company culture in the interview process. Here are just a few ways to do this:

  • Highlight culture on your career page, such as this one from Squarespace.

  • Use team-focused descriptions in job postings.

  • Screen candidates for culture fit using this guide.

Above all, do away with contests, games, and prizes that promote self-regarding behavior. There's extensive research that proves incentives can crush an employee's motivation to do the right thing.

Rule-Orientation

Job applicants in the study were asked to decide which of two statements most applies to them.

  1. I believe rules are made to be followed.

  2. Sometimes it's necessary to break the rules to accomplish something.

The surprising twist is people who chose "I believe rules are made to be followed" were 25 percent more likely to be fired for toxic behavior. It seems that someone stating they are a rule-abider doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll actually abide.

Customer service managers with a lot of toxic employees tend to be overly focused on rules.

  • Attendance policies

  • Dress codes

  • Conduct policies, such as the use of personal cell phones

The solution to this challenge can be counterintuitive. Customer-focused leaders spend less time on rules (what not to do), and more time reinforcing positive behaviors (what to do).

For example, rather than reviewing the attendance policy with an applicant, a customer-focused leader might emphasize why an employee might want to come to work every day. Perhaps the company offers fun and challenging work, has a compelling customer service vision, and creates an environment where coworkers genuinely trust and support each other.

Take Action

Hiring good, non-toxic employees is difficult.

When I wrote about customer-focused companies in The Service Culture Handbook, the chapter on hiring was the most difficult to write. There were too few companies that did a fantastic job recruiting the right people.

You can make strides by avoiding overconfident, self-regarding, and rule-oriented job applicants. I've also created this hiring resource page to give you more tools and information.