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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How to Get Massive Customer Feedback Without a Survey

Nate Brown, Co-Founder, CX Accelerator

Nate Brown, Co-Founder, CX Accelerator

It's no secret that customers are tired of surveys.

We get too many, they take too long to complete, and many fail to adequately capture how we really feel about our experience. There has to be a better way.

Conversations are an untapped resource. We talk to customers face-to-face and over the phone. We have written conversations via email, chat, sms, and social media. This conversational data, often referred to as "unstructured" data, represents a treasure trove of customer insight, but customer experience leaders struggle to capture and organize it all.

Nate Brown, Co-founder of CX Accelerator, has discovered a novel way to solve the problem. He's designed a simple process that allows frontline representatives to quickly and easily capture data from customer conversations.

Brown shares his simple process in this 20 minute interview. We cover:

  • Why capturing data from customer conversations is so important

  • How to turn a simple USB webkey into a “CX Magic Button”

  • Where in the customer journey to look for data

  • How to encourage employees to capture and share customer feedback

  • Simple ways to quickly analyze and act on the data

You can get step-by-step instructions from this post or follow him on Twitter at @CustomerIsFirst. You’ll also get more customer feedback help on this survey resource page.

You can get low-cost USB webkeys with your company’s logo from Lev Promotions.

New Report: What Customers Value Most in Their Experience

Customer service employees may be more important than ever.

A 2018 report from the consulting firm PwC surveyed 15,000 customers from 12 countries, including 4,000 from the U.S, to identify the qualities that customers value most in their experience. The results clearly indicate that having friendly, helpful employees available is critical—even as service interactions are increasingly automated.

There are major implications here as 43 percent of customers said they would pay a premium for a better experience. 

You can find proof of this in many places. Coffee is cheap, yet coffee shops are packed with customers willing to pay a premium each weekday morning. Airlines now bring in an estimated $47.2 billion in fees annually for upgrades such as extra legroom or earlier boarding. And movie theaters everywhere are upping prices in exchange for reclining seats that can be reserved in advance.

Here are some insights than can help you leverage your customer service team to get an edge on the competition. You can also read the full report here.

A smiling retail associate helps a customer in a clothing store.

Top Experience Drivers

There's a clear cluster of customer experience drivers that customers feel are worth paying a premium for:

Image source:  PwC

Image source: PwC

The top five are:

  1. Efficiency

  2. Convenience

  3. Friendly Service

  4. Knowledgeable Service

  5. Easy Payment

Notice these all seem pretty basic. There's nothing about the latest technology, hyper-personalization, or even socially-consciousness branding in the top five. Customers are telling us they value companies that are easy and enjoyable to do business with.

Better Access to Humans Is Needed

Despite the rise of automation and self-service, customers still crave a human connection:

  • 71 percent said employees have a significant impact on their experience.

  • 59 percent feel companies have lost touch with the human element.

  • 71 percent of Americans would rather interact with a human than a chatbot.

One challenge is it's often difficult to connect with a live person, as anyone who has found themselves repeatedly yelling "Human! Human!" into a phone can attest to. Self-service is often welcome, but it's a best practice to make a live person easily accessible.

Service Quality Trumps Advertising

In the U.S., 65 percent of survey respondents said their experience was more important than advertising when it comes to influencing their purchasing decision.

Three of the top four experience elements that send customers to the competition are directly related to interactions with employees:

  1. Bad employee attitudes

  2. Unfriendly service

  3. Untrusted company

  4. Unknowledgeable employees

Keep in mind your customers are increasingly likely to go online and rate your company's service—good or bad. Customer-centric businesses are able to leverage positive reputations on rating platforms such as Google My Business to drive even more customers to their doors.

Bonus Insight: Physical Locations Are Rising in Popularity

A separate PwC survey found a 22 percent increase from 2014 to 2018 in the percentage of customers who shop in physical stores at least weekly for items other than groceries. 

Online retailers such as Amazon, Bonobos, and Warby Parker have successfully opened brick and mortar locations in recent years to capitalize on this trend. CapitalOne is adding coffee shops to its bank branches. And this may be anecdotal, but that line at Costco doesn't seem to be getting any shorter!

Once again, experience is key.

I recently did a comparison of three drugstore chains near my home. The stores were all on different corners of the same intersection, carried many of the same products, and had similar prices.

Yet the experience at CVS was significantly better. Friendly employees were more readily available and visible signage along with an intuitive store layout made items easier to find. 

Take Action

Small details can make all the difference in a crowded market. 

This makes it critical to capture and analyze customer feedback. Customer-focused companies relentlessly identify and resolve pain points that aggravate customers. You can use this resource page to find help with your feedback program.

We also need our employees to create positive connections with customers. I know many customers service leaders who are struggling with consistency in this area, however, there are several solutions within easy reach:

How to Gain Big CX Insights from Small Details

My wife, Sally, and I really enjoy wine. 

It's fun to explore new wineries and share both bottles and experiences with friends. So we were a little excited when I found a winery in Napa Valley that was looking for "investors."

The deal was enticing. 

In exchange for investing a small amount of money into the winery, you would receive an estimated 6 percent annual return plus a few bonus perks such as free wine, wine discounts, and even business cards. The business cards were a huge perk since many Napa wineries offer benefits such as free tastings to people affiliated with the wine industry.

Naturally, we had two big questions before we invested.

  1. Was the wine any good?
  2. How was the customer experience?

To test both, I placed an order for two bottles. The process revealed a lot of clues about how the winery was managed.

Here's how that one experience told Sally and I all we needed to know.

Man placing a puzzle piece marked "investigate" into a puzzle.

The Purchase Experience

Texas was a key part of the winery's sales strategy. The state represents a growing market with a lot of wine enthusiasts, but has less competition than California. 

So I went to the websites of two of Texas's biggest wine retailers, Total Wine and Spec's, and searched for the wine. Total Wine was sold out while Spec's didn't have anything from the winery listed.

A lack of inventory can easily drive customers to a competitor. You can't sell what you don't have.

So I went back to the winery's website and tried to place an order. The online store was not integrated into the website, and it took a bit of navigating to place my order. The order confirmation email arrived quickly, but did not confirm an expected delivery date.

Warning signs:

  • Lack of inventory in key market
  • Poor e-commerce experience


Fulfillment Time

Amazon is the product delivery benchmark for many of us. You can get purchases delivered the next day, sometimes even the same day, seven days a week.

The wine industry is a little different. Most smaller wineries typically ship purchases twice per week. Shipping time from Napa to my home in San Diego is about two days, so I expected delivery to take up to a week.

Two weeks went by and the wine had not arrived. I also had not heard from the winery.

List of warning signs so far:

  • Lack of inventory in key market
  • Poor e-commerce experience
  • Long delivery time
  • Lack of proactive delivery notices


Transactional Service

I sent a follow-up email to the company to check the status of my order. This could be a good thing in a way, since it would be an opportunity to try out the winery's customer service.

The CFO, Kevin, quickly responded:

Email from winery CFO.

My first question was, "Why is the CFO answering customer service email?" This might not be too unusual in a small winery, but it didn't make much sense in a winery that was looking to woo investors so it could grow into a powerhouse.

The other red flag was Kevin promised that my wine would ship the next day. Why not today? It seemed my order hadn't been a big priority until I raised an issue.

The warning signs list grows:

  • Lack of inventory in key market
  • Poor e-commerce experience
  • Long delivery time
  • Lack of proactive delivery notices
  • The CFO is answering customer service emails
  • Website orders aren't a priority


Poor Leadership

The warning signs had added up, so it was time to cut bait on this investment idea. I replied to Kevin and put my cards on the table, explaining that I had ordered the wine as a trial run while considering an investment.

That investment clearly wasn't going to happen, so I asked him to cancel my order. He quickly responded again:

winery email 2.png

Kevin inexplicably copied two other people on the email, Brandon and Kathleen. I have no idea who they are, though presumably they were employees tasked with stopping my shipment and issuing a refund.

Here's a guess, based on my experience working with executives like this. Copying those people on the email was Kevin's way of giving them an assignment. It's both inappropriate (why include the customer?) and potentially unclear to the employees. 

Ten days passed and no refund. I emailed again to ask about the status. Kevin quickly replied to Brandon, copying me.

winery email 3.png

Whoa! Three problems here:

  • Who is Brandon?
  • Why is Kevin emailing him rather than replying to me?
  • It's Wednesday. Why will it take the CFO until Friday to process my refund?!

It was really further evidence of Kevin's poor leadership. He may have been frustrated with Brandon (who was copied on the last email) for not issuing the refund earlier. Or perhaps he thought he was being responsive by showing me that he had tasked this duty to Brandon. 

None of that mattered. The CFO should have been able to issue a refund immediately.

The big list of warning signs:

  • Lack of inventory in key market
  • Poor e-commerce experience
  • Long delivery time
  • Lack of proactive delivery notices
  • The CFO is answering customer service emails
  • Orders aren't a priority
  • Poor executive leadership



Friday came and went with no refund. It had now been 30 days since I had placed more order and more than two weeks since Kevin promised a refund "ASAP."

I wound up disputing the charge with my credit card company since Kevin, Brandon, or whoever else was working there couldn't seem to get it done. Which tells me the winery may have some cashflow issues in addition to it's many other dysfunctions. 

Sally and I were disappointed this investment idea didn't work out, but one test order told us this winery was probably going to struggle. You can learn a lot about a business when you view it from a customer's perspective.

Why Channel Switching Is a Good Thing

Channel switching gets a bad rap in customer service.

If you are not familiar with the term, it refers to situations where a customer starts an interaction with a company in one channel and the interaction moves to another channel.

The customer sometimes initiates this. For instance, a customer might email a company with a question and then call a day later when she does not get a response.

At other times, companies cause the channel switch. The classic example happens when a customer tweets at a company and the company replies saying, "Can you email your information to and we'll look into it?"

Both of these examples seem bad, and they are. But there are definitely times when channel switching is terrific. 

Customer using a smart phone to contact customer service.

A Good Channel Switching Example

I've become a fan of the ride sharing app, Lyft. 

Using Lyft requires a lot of channel switching, though I'd argue it enhances the experience. Here's an example from a recent business trip where I used Lyft to get from a client's office to the airport:

  1. App: I booked a ride on Lyft using the app and then tracked my driver.
  2. Text: Lyft texted to inform me my driver, Benjamin, was near.
  3. In-Person: This is the ride itself. Keep in mind in-person is a channel. 
  4. App: I used the app to give Benjamin a rating and a tip after I arrived.

This one experience used three channels (app, text, and in-person) and switched channels three times. What made it terrific was every channel switch was seamless and felt natural. 

The truth is we often seamlessly switch channels when interacting with companies. 

You might use OpenTable to book a restaurant reservation and then visit the restaurant in-person to dine. Or you might call a customer service department for assistance and the rep sends you a helpful follow-up email.

You probably don't give channel switching a second thought when it works well. 


Where Channel Switching Goes Wrong

Companies like Lyft succeed because they make channel switching seamless and natural. Many companies do not.

I recently decided to close an account with a local credit union. You would have thought I was requesting the most unusual transaction in history. Here's that experience:

  1. Website: searched for instructions or necessary forms (couldn't find any).
  2. Phone: Called for assistance. Was told to visit a branch.
  3. In-Person: Visited the branch to close the account. Was told it would take a day to process.
  4. Phone: Employee from branch made a follow-up call to verify account closed.

Like my Lyft experience, this credit union experience featured three channels (website, phone, and in-person) and three channel switches.

It was not a good experience because the channel switches felt forced and unnatural. It still doesn't make sense why I couldn't close my account online, given I could do just about everything else on the credit union's website.

The one positive part of the experience was the branch employee who made a follow-up call. She was technically switching channels, but that part was fine because it felt like a continuation of the conversation.

And that's the key. Good channel switching is seamless and natural. Bad channel switching just feels like the company doesn't have its act together.


Master the Moments of Truth

Jeannie Walters is the CEO of 360Connext. She's an expert in identifying and optimizing key moments in a customer's journey.

Walters suggests companies should think about a customer's real life rather than design touch points around a process. She gives a great example from retail clothing stores.

"Nordstrom and other retailers determined how customers like to order clothes online, but wanted the choice to return or exchange them at a store. Once these retailers saw the need for seamless channel switching, they were able to make returning via any channel easier. Now customers have the choice of returning by sending back with a pre-paid label, going to a store, or even calling a special phone line."

You can do something similar. 

  • Experience your products or service like a customer would.
  • Contact your customer service department, just like a customer might. 
  • Talk to real customers and gather their feedback.

The goal is to find pinch points that harm the experience and find a way to make them seamless and natural for your customers.