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I originally wrote today’s blog for LiveNinja; it appeared on their blog on November 24, 2014. The topic is one I’ve written about before, but it’s definitely worthy of repeating.

One of the biggest mistakes that I see made by well-meaning folks in an effort to shift organizational thinking toward a greater focus on customers is the inability to distinguish between customer service and customer experience.

“There’s a difference?” You ask.

Yup! And it’s a big one. One that is well worth noting, remembering, and evangelizing.


When we use these two terms interchangeably, we cause confusion. We confuse employees, and we confuse the marketplace. It’s important to know that they are not one and the same.

I spend a lot of time talking to prospects and clients about how to sell the value of focusing on delivering a great customer experience to their company leaders. It’s so disheartening because it seems so obvious. Instead, I hear a lot of misplaced ideas and excuses; one that I hear often is: “But we have a customer service department. We spend time and energy making sure we get customer service right.”

I also see job postings where titles erroneously refer to the position as a “customer experience” role. First we fight to get recognition for the CX profession, and then everyone jumps on the bandwagon, making it trendy to put “customer experience” in every title, e.g., calling a call center agent or a retail sales associate a “customer experience representative.” Again, more confusion.

They’re not the same thing.

What, then, is customer experience? In its simplest definition, it is (a) the sum of all the interactions that a customer has with a company over the course of the relationship lifecycle and (b) the customer’s feelings, emotions, and perceptions of the brand over the course of those interactions.

Customer service? It’s one of those interactions or a type of interaction. It is just one touchpoint along the customer’s journey with your organization. As Chris Zane says: Customer service is what happens when the customer experience breaks down. I love that definition and way of distinguishing the two.

Think about this: If you got everything else right, perhaps the customer wouldn’t need to call customer service. The experience (the “everything else” plus service) starts long before the service event. Keep in mind, too, that not every customer experience even includes a service event.

Another way to look at the difference? Customer experience is proactive, while customer service is reactive. Customer experience is proactive because we intentionally build or design the experience that we want our customers to have – and that they want to have. (Hopefully that means it’s based on customer understanding – we understand who they are and what they are trying to achieve, which guides CX design.) Customer service is reactive in the sense that we’re constantly responding to issues and needs as they arise. It’s a bit like Whack-a-Mole, while customer experience is more like Monopoly. A sprint vs. a marathon. A point in time vs. a lifetime.

Another approach: customer experience is what the customer feels; customer service is what the company does (for the customer)… both as a department and how we interact or help customers (we service them, regardless of department).

And one more: customer service is a department, while customer experience is not; it’s a discipline.

And finally, another consideration: think about the difference as a journey vs. a touchpoint. Customer experience is the journey; customer service is a touchpoint. Why is this viewpoint important? When we focus on the entire journey, not solely on individual touchpoints, we deliver a much better experience overall for the customer – and, as a result, for the business. When you just consider touchpoints and single moments of truth, you’re focusing on transactional relationships, not on trusted, long-lasting relationships.

Still not sure? How else can you tell the difference?

Map the customer journey – from the customer’s perspective – and plot all the ways in which the customer touches or interacts with your organization. Yea, the touchpoints. They are parts of the experience – a point in time – but they alone are not the sum total experience – a lifetime.

Have you had to make this distinction to your co-workers, executives, or clients? How did you describe it? How do we get organizations to think about these two concepts in a different way?

If we are not customer driven, our cars won’t be either. -Donald Peterson, former CEO, Ford Motor Company