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Customer service vs. customer experience

A contact center agent sits in a row of agents, smiling while talking on her phone headset.

Having the best product, for the best price, is no longer enough to guarantee success in today’s retail landscape. Among many ongoing shifts in the industry, customer centricity is emerging as an important differentiator of success. Customer experience and customer service are now top priorities for businesses wishing to build customer loyalty, grow their brand, and maintain their market share.

But what makes a good customer experience, or memorable customer service? And what is the difference between customer service and customer experience to begin with?

Service vs. experience: What are they and how do they differ?

Confusion between these two terms is understandable: there is some overlap, and they are often used in confusing, occasionally interchangeable ways. Let’s define their most common uses.

Customer experience

Customer experience, also known as CX, is the more wide-reaching term because everything that touches your brand informs customer experience. From the first time a customer hears an ad to their latest conversation with support, customer experience is the sum of all interactions a customer has with your brand. 
Customer experience can occur in digital spaces, through advertisements or an online store; it can also occur in a physical location, like a brick-and-mortar shop; it can even happen through interactions with a product.

Customer experience clearly has a human component. Interaction with employees, whether in-person, over the phone at a call center, or via chatbot or chat are all human aspects of the customer experience. This is where customer service comes in.

Customer service

Customer service has a few recognized definitions in the industry, but it can really be summarized as any part of that brand interaction where a customer needs or wants some support. A call center agent tracking down a lost package, a fast-food worker taking an order at a drive-through, or a store clerk scanning someone’s purchases are all examples of a customer receiving assistance to solve their problem or add convenience to the experience. Chatbots, interactive voice response (IVRs), and other automated tools can also be valuable to providing customer service and helping customers solve simple issues.

Of course, customer service doesn’t have to be centered around a problem or issue. Customer service can also just be that extra human touch in the customer experience.

Customer service can make or break the customer experience

Customer service is just one aspect of customer experience, and an integral one at that. Customer service helps customers accomplish what they need any time they need a hand. Customers will remember how easy they found it to accomplish their goals by interacting with your employees—or conversely, how difficult and frustrating it was.

What differentiates good customer experience in retail?

Arguably the most important aspect of great customer experience in retail today is omnichannel capability. True omnichannel capabilities, instead of just disjointed multi-channel experiences, provide a seamless customer experience across apps, stores, webpages, call centers, and anywhere else customer experience can occur.

A truly frictionless omnichannel experience is one where the digital and physical components fit together seamlessly. A retailer that has a good connection between their app and retail stores, for example, can let a customer know if a specific product is available at a certain store or if they are low on inventory. A customer can be reasonably confident that their buy online, pick-up in-store (BOPIS) order won’t come with the dreaded “Sorry, we’re out of stock!” email a few minutes later. A good omnichannel experience can build trust and, over time, win customer loyalty.

What differentiates good customer service in retail?

Good customer service in retail is much like good customer service in any other industry: it’s removing friction from the customer experience, being attentive to the customers’ needs, and giving the customer the solution they are asking for.

Great customer service is marked by going above and beyond. It’s solving a problem in the way a customer wants an issue to be solved — or giving them a solution that solves a deeper need than what they are explicitly asking for. The difference between good customer service and great customer service comes down to empathetic, attentive, and empowered employees.

I can give you a personal example. I was at Disney World a few years ago with my family. Our plan for the day was to go on specific rides and visit a different Disney Park the next day. We ended up being thrown off our schedule by an unexpectedly long wait time, so I decided to convert our tickets to park hopper passes so that we could come back the following day before moving on to the next park. When I made my request to guest service, the cast member asked if I would prefer being given a few extra FastPasses for that day. FastPasses admit you into a special, shorter queue at the head of the line and shorten your wait time. Using FastPasses the rest of the day would save us enough time to keep to our original itinerary.

That’s a great example of an empowered employee providing great customer service. The cast member listened to my problem, heard my suggested solution, and realized that they had the tools to solve the deeper root of the problem. Their solution saved me time and money and left a lasting impression. Good customer service builds your brand, but great customer service makes customers want to come back again and again.

How to succeed at customer experience and customer service

Companies that are currently excelling in customer experience are making it as easy as possible for people to self-serve as much as they possibly can. If you want to make a return and get a gift card, that is a straightforward request; you don’t really need a human to do that. You can automate that via the app, or with chat bot or IVR.

The truth is that consumers, even consumers who are less tech savvy, would usually rather have a convenient self-serve option. Whether it’s changing their seat on a flight or returning clothing in the wrong size, the majority of consumers are fine doing it by themselves. If you’re making self-serve easier, more efficient, and more accessible, then all that’s really left for human interaction is the stuff that’s a bit more complex to navigate. In those cases, you have to give your employees guidance on what it looks like to bring your brand to life: ‘Here is how we are going to interact with our customers, here is the full suite of tools and tricks to solve a problem.’

This is where service profit chain comes in, or the idea that employee experience must come first. Your employees are never going to treat your customers any better than you treat your employees. Whatever your brand is — whatever your positioning is, or what your brand stands for — you must live that with your employees first. Train them to solve more complex problems in alignment with your brand principles, and empower them to go above and beyond.

Back to my experience at Disney World: there was no way for me to self-serve that specific solution. But their guest service representative knew what was within his tool kit, and he was empowered to use his discretion and decide the right course of action. It didn’t cost Disney anything, it didn’t cost me anything, and it vastly improved my experience.

Great experiences lead to loyalty.

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