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Article 6 min read

Customer service vs. customer experience: Here’s the difference

Learn the key difference between customer service and customer experience to instantly improve how you serve your customers.

By Stella Inabo, Contributing Writer

Last updated March 15, 2024

You’re at your desk when you overhear two fellow support agents debating the difference between customer service and customer experience. They ask you for your take, and your palms turn sweaty—you have no idea how they’re different.

Many support agents use customer experience and customer service interchangeably, but the two terms do not mean the same thing. Understanding the difference between them is critical. Why? Because customer service is a key component of your overall customer experience.

If you can see how the two concepts are distinct yet intertwined, you’ll be better able to offer the level of service that strengthens customer perceptions of your brand.

What is customer service?

Customer service is the act of assisting and advocating for your customers before, during, and after the purchase of a product or service.

A brand can provide customer service through human agents. It can also provide self-service options, like a knowledge base or chatbots.

Great customer service is more than sending hastily written one-off responses. The goal is to go above and beyond to solve customer problems and provide buyers with the best solutions available.

Successful businesses understand that customer care can make or break their relationships with customers, so they make sure to offer the type of service their customers expect:

  • They provide fast responses. According to the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report, 60 percent of customers say speed is the most important aspect of good customer service.
  • They keep interactions empathetic and kind. Nearly half of customers want to talk to an empathetic, friendly customer service agent.
  • They offer support on customers’ preferred channels. Fifty percent of customers say they prefer contacting support agents over channels they use with their loved ones, such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.

One company that offers standout customer service is Feed, a food-tech startup. Feed improved its slow email ticketing system with live chat, so it could provide quick answers to customer queries about meals on convenient channels. The brand also ensures that customers are never left in the dark about their orders. Support agents proactively contact customers to inform them about any shipping changes before the customer is inconvenienced.

What is customer experience?

Customer experience (CX) is all the ways a customer interacts with your company and how they perceive those interactions.

“Customer experience is how a customer feels about the sum of their interactions with a business,” says Dave Dyson, a community marketing specialist at Zendesk. “It involves every way a customer interacts with a company, at all stages of the customer journey—including the marketing materials they see before they become a customer, the sales experience, the quality of the product or service itself, and the customer service they receive post-purchase.”

Customer experience is spread across many touchpoints and is always ongoing. A visit to your company’s website, a conversation with a customer service agent or a sales rep, and an ad for your product popping up on Instagram are all parts of the customer experience.

A customer’s experience is shaped by the three Ps: people, process, and product.

  • People: Customers want to speak to helpful and kind employees, whether they’re on a call with a sales agent or live chatting with a support agent.
  • Process: Customers prefer seamless and memorable experiences as they move through the buyer journey. This could be anything from a simplified payment process to an easier way to contact customer support.
  • Product: Customers want intuitive products that solve their problems.

For an example of great CX, look no further than the food delivery service Grubhub. In the height of the pandemic, the company reduced call wait times by answering at least 80 percent of customer calls within 20 seconds.

The brand also automated common processes—such as customers making changes to their orders and obtaining refunds via self-service—to decrease the contacts per order. Grubhub tailored its service to customers’ expectations by offering contactless delivery, too, which aligned with concerns about safety.

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What are the differences between customer service and customer experience?

Customer service is just one part of the entire customer journey, while customer experience encompasses all the interactions between your brand and a customer. Within this high-level distinction, there are even more ways to distinguish CX from customer service.

  1. Level of control

    Your company has complete control over the service it provides to customers. Though you can also shape the CX, your control is more limited because there are so many factors that impact how your customers perceive your brand.
  2. Metrics

    Customer satisfaction score (CSAT), customer effort score (CES), and Net Promoter Score (NPS) help support teams gauge the quality of their customer service. These metrics can also reflect CX, but there are even more metrics teams can use—including customer lifetime value (CLV), customer churn rate, and customer retention rate—to evaluate the customer experience.
  3. Ownership

    Customer service is primarily the responsibility of customer support managers and agents. Other team members may speak with customers, but the support team is accountable for delivering the help customers need (and doing it well).
    CX is a shared responsibility across the organization. Everyone in the business—from the marketing team to the sales team to the product team—is in charge of giving customers the best experience across all touchpoints.

With these differences in mind, you can align your customer service with your CX efforts to build and nurture long-lasting relationships with your customers.

Customer service vs. customer experience: Which matters more?

Now that you know customer service and customer experience are two distinct concepts, you may be wondering which one you should focus on. The short answer is both.

Memorable customer experiences and great customer service are intertwined—you can’t have one without the other. Customer service can make or break your customers’ perceptions of your brand. You might have ticked all the other boxes on the CX checklist, but if customers can’t get the support they need when and how they need it, they may leave for good.

If you’re still skeptical about the importance of investing in both customer experience and customer service, take a look at the numbers from our Customer Experience Trends Report:

  • Seventy-five percent of customers are willing to overlook the prices to buy from companies that offer a good customer experience.

  • Seventy-seven percent of customers are more loyal to a company that gives them a good customer experience when issues arise.

  • Eighty percent of customers will stop doing business with a brand and move to a competitor after more than one bad customer service experience.

  • Companies that rank customer service as a top priority are six times more likely to surpass their customer retention goals.

Successful businesses aren’t dwelling on the customer service versus customer experience debate—they’re leveraging both to improve customer satisfaction and boost their bottom line.

Deliver great customer service and memorable customer experiences

Although customer service and customer experience are different concepts, they work hand in hand when it comes to building brand loyalty. Delivering great customer service along with seamless customer experiences might seem like a Herculean task, but don’t stress—there are tools, such as our customer experience software, to help you oversee both your service and CX. Zendesk helps you provide customer support quickly across various channels and personalize every step of the customer journey.

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