Are retailers confusing customer service with the customer experience?

Oct 09, 2017

Presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article published with permission from Knowledge@Wharton, the online research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. 

According to the authors of a new book, “Woo, Wow, and Win: Service Design, Strategy and the Art of Customer Delight,” companies carefully craft the products they sell to customers, but rarely do they give the same thoughtfulness to designing what could be the most critical part of the sales process: customer experience.  

The authors — Patricia Stewart, a former editor of the Harvard Business Review, and Patricia O’Connell, president of Aerten Consulting — argue that companies commonly confuse customer service with customer experience. 

“Customer service is something you do,” said Ms. O’Connell in an interview with Knowledge@Wharton. “Usually it’s designed around when something has gone wrong. Customer experience is the totality of my interaction with you, from the moment I first come across your name … to when I’m done, whenever our business is finished.” 

Indeed, one of the common principles the authors list in designing effective service experiences is understanding that while “the customer is always right,” it’s essential to “make sure the customer is right for you.” 

Said Ms. O’Connell, “If I want a luxury shopping experience, I should not go to TJ Maxx, just as if I’m looking for a bargain, I shouldn’t go to Barneys. So, in those circumstances, I am not the right customer.” 

Other core principles are “Don’t Surprise And Delight, Just Delight,” and “Great Service Must Not Require Heroic Efforts” on the part of the business or the customer. Said Ms. O’Connell, “I need to know what I’m doing, and I should be able to do it reliably, repeatably, scalably and profitably.” 

The authors said that while the “ahhh” moments when the experience is working are often celebrated, more attention needs to be placed on the negative “ow” experiences that may indicate the business is attracting the wrong customers or that services aren’t being designed efficiently. Said Mr. Stewart, “Are you easy to do business with? I mean, it’s a simple question and most companies don’t actually systematically ask it.” 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONSDo you agree that retailers confuse customer service with customer experience? Do axioms such as “the customer is always right” and “surprise and delight” often work against delivering dependable customer experiences?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"When user and customer experience are on target, customer service can stay in the quiver."
"I predict 2018 will be the year when the much-reported chatbot technology will emerge as truly delivering one-to-one great customer experiences."
"Making it easier is key; making it perfect is not the goal."

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31 Comments on "Are retailers confusing customer service with the customer experience?"

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Max Goldberg

I like the question, “Are you easy to do business with,” and wish more retailers would ask it. Too often needless hurdles are put in the way of making a sale and delighting a customer.

Ben Ball

Hear, hear! My first reaction as well, Max. It doesn’t matter whether your “experience” is bargain or the best — you have got to make it easy for the customer to get it.

Kim Garretson
4 years 8 months ago

I agree, and of course the reason why has to do with the cost and difficulty of delivering experiences versus dealing with service issues. But I predict 2018 will be the year when the much-reported chatbot technology will emerge as truly delivering one-to-one great customer experiences.

Phil Masiello

I absolutely agree that retailers confuse customer service with customer experience. Most retailers measure customer service in terms of complaints, time in line, in-stock position and other KPIs. But that does not speak to engagement.

I always hated expressions like the customer is always right. The customer is not always right. BUT they are always the customer! It costs too much money to get new customers, don’t lose them over stupid decisions.

Tom Dougherty

The confusion is a major issue. Retailers LIKE customer service— because it is quantifiable. Customer experience is something completely different. It is an emotional response. An attachment. In fact, there is no such thing as customer service without enthusisticaly embracing the customer experience.

Ken Lonyai

BRAVO! The authors really got this right. I’m always stating that customer service is mostly reactive while customer experience is proactive and preemptive. Practically all retailers have a service desk, but it’s not visited as a standard part of the customer journey. It’s visited when something is wrong or an issue needs clarification. In fact, if the shopper journey worked extremely well for most consumers, their experience would be delightful and strengthen their brand relationship, while the folks at customer service would have to hang with the Maytag Man due to loneliness issues.

When retailers understand that customer service is no more than a fix to problems/issues that are lacking in customer experience, they have the key to unlocking better customer experiences and those experiences are the only real driver of profits as described here.

Lee Kent

Excellent Ken! Customer experience is what the brand does to and for the customer throughout the shopping journey. Customer service is only a piece of that and often tied to mishaps. Whatever the brand can do to eliminate those mishaps would improve the customer’s experience dramatically. If Starbucks can get me to the head of the line AND get my order right? That is the big picture of customer experience. They make my life easy, smooth and the interaction successful. I will go back! And I will tell my friends. And that’s my 2 cents.

Shep Hyken

Customer service is part of the overall customer experience. Sometimes it’s how a customer is treated throughout their entire experience. Other times it is what happens after the experience goes bad. It’s the difference between treating customer service as a philosophy and customer service as a department.

As for the concept that the customer is always right, that’s just not true. The customer is NOT always right, but they are the customer. So part of the CX is to let them be wrong with dignity and respect. And the concept of “surprise and delight” is a lofty goal. It’s easy to do when there is friction or problems. But for the typical interactions, just give the customer a positive experience — even just a little above average. That could be a smile, positive attitude, etc. It’s a positive focus on the customer — all the time.

Bob Phibbs

You’re known by your compromises, not your exceptional “wow” moments. Hold up a brand’s customer experience in-store against what most C-level executives say in conferences and you find they frequently are two different worlds.

Anne Howe

If more retailers could work on the experience, the service aspect would still be a critical element but would fold into a more integrated whole. Making it easier is key; making it perfect is not the goal. And the opportunity to design the process around the right type of shopper really helps to crystallize a strategic approach.

Brandon Rael

This is a very common issue. There is a very clear distinction between doing what is expected (customer service), vs. providing an outstanding customer experience. In today’s experience-first economy, the retail store operations team has to have the customer experience at the forefront of all of their strategies.

It’s not simply providing a compelling bargain or a faster checkout that will provide a memorable experience. These are the the bare minimum and simply not enough to draw and retain customers. The customer experience is not easily measurable, but will provide significant long-term dividends in terms of a sustainable, meaningful relationship between the retailer and consumer.

Jeff Hall

The reason so many retailers mistakenly view customer service and customer experience as being one in the same is they’ve not taken the time to adequately envision and define what an ideal customer experience looks like for their brand.

Customer experience should be an outcome of a retailer’s brand promise — of the expectations it creates in the minds of its customers, then delivered in a highly intentional and authentic manner.

The key is to define a customer experience that can be delivered consistently across every channel and customer touchpoint, in such a way that every brand associate has the ability to effectively influence and control the experience being delivered. Another way to look at it is through the lens of brand authenticity — is your retail brand promise aligned with both actual experience delivery and customer perception?

Effectively measuring and understanding actual experience delivery (quantifiable operating standards) and customer perception (voice of customer feedback) are two exceptional tools for retailers to embrace in order to achieve customer experience objectives.

Carol Spieckerman
Carol Spieckerman
President, Spieckerman Retail
4 years 8 months ago

If you ask Jeff Bezos, customer service is something you have to give when customer experience fails. Perhaps he was the inspiration for the book. Many don’t draw a distinction between customer service and customer experience and certainly not to the point of deeming customer service an undesirable back-up system. He has a point though and I would throw in user experience as yet another spin-off that warrants attention. When user and customer experience are on target, customer service can stay in the quiver.

Nikki Baird
Nikki Baird
VP of Strategy, Aptos
4 years 8 months ago

Yes, retailers confuse “experience” and “service” all the time. I think of experience as before the sale and service as after the sale, as a general way of distinguishing the two — customer service doesn’t always have to be in the context of “wow.”

But I don’t think axioms are the issue — the whole structure of retail is designed to make it difficult to deliver dependable — great — customer experiences. From the low-cost, cookie-cutter employee model in stores, to the technology decisions that have created inflexible siloed processes — yes, it requires heroic effort on the part of the business AND on the part of customers, to create great experiences and sometimes even to get great customer service.

That’s why it’s so hard to change. Yeah, T.J. Maxx isn’t going to implement the same kind of employee model or customer experience strategy as Barneys. But neither should they (or any company, for that matter) be complacent about whether the experience their customers are getting right now is good enough.

Dick Seesel

Customer service is part of (but not all of) the customer experience. The entire experience includes the store’s “silent salespeople” (store atmospherics, design, etc.), the interaction with e-commerce, the pricing strategy and above all the merchandise.

Meeting or exceeding customers’ expectations for “good service” depends on the type of store, as other panelists rightly point out. Good customer service in a high-touch atmosphere like Nordstrom is far different from what the Target shopper expects: Merchandise in stock, easy to find and easy to pay for quickly. But getting this right is only one piece of the puzzle for any retailer.

Gib Bassett

I would say so. I have a lot of sympathy for what retailers are going through. In the past with less competition your experience could be very broad, almost indistinguishable from others, to attract a large audience. Today the mantra is all about knowing YOUR customer really well and crafting an experience for them. The challenge with that is targeting a particular customer while ensuring that a base of customers is sufficiently large enough to drive your business forward. And so you get trapped between trying to craft a compelling experience for a targeted customer and simply bolting on new service concepts to try and better serve that larger, but shrinking, diverse audience. Finding the middle ground to own and build upon is really challenging.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

I have seen customer experience used in many ways — none of which I consider to be customer experience. I have seen it equated with customer journey, consumer satisfaction, customer service, etc. Experience involves the opportunities that the customers have to see, feel or do during the shopping process. “The customer is always right” has nothing to do with customer experience. Surprising and delighting the customer could relate to the product, the price or the experience.

Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)

The two are not synonymous but concomitant (each impacting the other). Customer experience can be built in or “bolted on” and is tactical while customer service is more attitude-driven and operational. CS is easier to score than customer experience, but scoring is based on consumer mood and expectations. CX scoring tends to reflect a comparison to alternatives. The notion of being easy to do business with reflects the table stakes of being in the retail sector, where the critical success factor in CX and CS is now “are you worthy of the time?”

Cynthia Holcomb

The real question should be, are customers confusing the customer service they receive from retailer X as THEIR customer experience with retailer X? In other words, how much does retailer X VALUE you personally, as their customer?

Richard J. George, Ph.D.

Looks like an insightful book that I plan on reading. Much of what the authors say resonates with my books on delightful customer service. In one text I identify “12 Steps to a Better Bottom Line”:

  1. Decide on your core business;
  2. Create your vision;
  3. Evaluate your competitors;
  4. Benchmark everyone—borrow, borrow, borrow;
  5. Find out what it takes to delight customers;
  6. Find out what they think of you;
  7. Design the system and set the stage;
  8. Understand that people do make a difference;
  9. Deliver a delightful performance;
  10. Work on the next sale;
  11. Profit from complaints;
  12. Don’t become complacent.

The key is customer delight not disappointment.

Seth Nagle

This is a great question as I think it really depends on the retailer’s category and what your needs are when entering the store. I agree with Ms. O’Connell as every shopper is different and some want all their questions answered while others don’t want to be bothered.

One company that really jumps out to me in the world of experience and service is Best Buy. Over the past few years they have revolutionized their sales floor and transformed it into a variety of showrooms.

Jeff Sward

I think it’s a function of what decade or century you are operating in. Customer service may have reigned for many decades up until recently. But now, if the retailer is not consistently providing a good customer experience across the many channels of business, then somebody else is. A good customer experience is a couple of clicks or a couple of yards down the mall away. Evolve and prosper, or …

Lesley Everett

I agree that retailers confuse the two, but also that they often do not give the whole customer experience element anywhere near adequate attention. The experience the customer has with your company and how they feel as a result IS your brand today, and it gets talked about more than any other element. I call it Personality of the Brand.

Kai Clarke

Customer service begins with the customer. It includes everything that interfaces and embraces the customer purchase, from before they enter the store to after they leave. Great retailers have always built their reputation on this and we often forget services or service/product combinations (like car repair) that require this level of excellence.

Peter Luff

Yes, they mix them up! One key reason is that customer service is easier to measure. Did they meet and greet inside 30 seconds? Yes. Tick, done. Unfortunately, this does not mean it’s a great customer experience. The spirit of the meet and greet may not have been what was desired. But measuring experience is a little trickier so customer service is therefore used as a pseudo measure of customer experience.