Customer service vs. customer experience: what’s the difference?

Aimee Giese | August 9, 2016

What is the difference between customer service and the customer experience, and why does it matter?

An interesting discussion on the LinkedIn Customer Experience Professionals group centers around the distinction between two terms all too often used interchangeably: “customer service” and “customer experience.” What is the difference between the two? And more importantly, why does either one matter?

While some group members weighed in to say that there is no difference or that one is a subset of the other, I put together a quick summary of some of the thoughts on the topic to see how customer service experts tend to view the differentiation:

Custserv vs custexp

Point of service vs. sum total of experience

For a less subjective definition, I turned to Wikipedia. Wikipedia defines “customer service” as the provision of service to customers before, during and after a purchase, while “customer experience” is  defined as the sum of all experiences a customer has with a supplier of goods and services, over the duration of their relationship with that supplier.

From that definition alone, the point/line analogy is an accurate one. Customer service is limited to specific, measurable sale-related instances, while the customer experience is, well, everything the customer has ever experienced, believed, thought, loved or hated about the brand. By these definitions, customer service is indeed related to transactions and customer experience is related to transactions and a lot more, over time.

Cust exp timeline

And from the differentiation proposed by various experts, those definitions are fairly accurate.  Perhaps the most informative comment was by Ian Williams, who pointed out two key differences from a marketing point of view as well as a timeline point of view:


Customer Service is
part of Customer Experience. From a marketing perspective Customer
Experience covers all 7Ps (product, price, distribution, promotion,
people, physical evidence & process) whereas Customer Service only
covers the last 3Ps above.
The other discernible difference is time. CS focuses predominantly on
one particular point in time, whereas CE focuses on the customer
lifetime. CE can, of course, focus on a particular point in time too,
whereas CS almost certainly isn’t focused on the lifetime.

Customer experience: depth and breadth of experience

When we talk about the sum total of all experiences that a customer has feeding into the customer experience, we are talking about a myriad of experiences over time. And those experiences might not relate to customer service, as Williams has pointed out. They might relate to promotion or distribution, such as the impression that a commercial, billboard or charity sponsorship made on a customer. They might include meeting a CEO at a golf tournament, a shared story from a friend or a piece they read in the New York Times rating customer service for banks in which no brands were mentioned at all.

No transaction is involved, but those passive or indirect experiences do influence the overall customer experience.

Have you heard the story of the people who gave Nordstrom’s the highest marks in customer service, even though they had no Nordstrom’s store within hundreds of miles and indeed had never had any experience with Nordstrom’s at all? The reputational gossip they heard about the level of customer service was part of their customer experience, even though they were never actually customers.

So I posit that the customer service/customer experience definition looks something like this, with the number and volume of circles constantly growing and shrinking over time:

Customer service vs customer experience

In short, customer service is one element of the customer experience, which encompasses the sum total of a customer’s active and passive interaction with a brand over time.

What do you think? Would you change or alter this definition? Do you use these two terms interchangeably?


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