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The Difference Between Customer Service and Customer Experience

By: Marc Gordon

Imagine walking into a new boutique clothing store for the first time. A staff member greets you at the door. He joins you on a walk through the store, casually asking questions about your style preferences. You’re offered a bottle of flat or carbonated water.

You find your way over to a display of shoes. Based on your discussion with the staff member, you learn how a pair of shoes in the right colour and style could save you money by adding a fresh look to numerous outfits.

The staff member brings out various sizes and styles, explaining the manufacturing process and types of leather. Once you find the perfect pair, he asks if you own a matching belt. You don’t. So now you are shown a number of belts in various styles. You find one you like with suggestions from the staff member.

He takes your new shoes and belt over to the counter. As you are a first time customer, you’re asked if you would like to be added to their email list to receive promotions. And as a way of saying thanks for being such a pleasure to work with, a 10 percent discount is being applied to the invoice.

You are handed your bags along with a warm handshake. You leave the store not only feeling like an expert in the field of shoe manufacturing, but knowing all your existing outfits just got a major upgrade in style. In your mind you have just found your new favourite store.

When you arrive home, you open your closet and what do you see? You already own those exact pair of shoes. You must have forgotten that you bought them last season at another store.

No worries. Based on the level of service you received during your last visit, you are confident you will be taken care of.

When you arrive back at the store, a mere couple hours later, you are greeted by the same staff member. You shyly laugh as you explain the situation and why you need to return the shoes.

The staff member smiles and politely shakes his head. You’re told that there are no refunds on shoes as they may have been worn, thus making them unsellable. You agree that the policy makes sense, but you just bought the shoes a couple of hours ago and clearly they have not been worn. You show that the price tag is still stuck to the bottom.

The staff member continues to apologize, saying it’s the store policy and there’s nothing he can do. You take a quick glance around the store and decide that a credit would suffice. After all, there’s always something you can buy. So you suggest a store credit instead of a refund.

Can’t do it, he says, still smiling. No refunds, exchanges or credits. He apologizes again.

By now you are clearly annoyed. His constant apologies come across as condescending. His smile now seems smug. And he no longer appears to be the same helpful person you met earlier that day. More importantly, the positive feelings you had toward the store are now gone, replaced with frustration and resentment.

You turn around to head back home. With a brand new pair of shoes you absolutely despise from a store you swear you will never buy from again.

While you may not have ever experienced this exact scenario, chances are you have encountered a similar experience. One where things went great so long as they were working for both you and the seller. But once you needed something above and beyond, outside of the norm, the experience soured.

For many businesses, regardless of industry, there is a disconnect between the time when the interaction goes smoothly and when it crashes. There are two mains reasons for this.

The first one is pretty straightforward. Most companies have a great deal of difficulty seeing things from the perspective of their customers. Policies are created to protect the business from losing money, using too many resources, or being inconvenienced. When instead policies should be focused on creating opportunities to strengthen the customer relationship. 

This comes down to a core management philosophy that starts at the top. In our story, it’s very possible the staff member may not have agreed with the policy of no refund or exchange, but did not have the authority to change it. But from the customer’s perspective, it’s irrelevant as the outcome is still the same.

The second reason, which is more broad, is the result of misinformation. Over the last number of years, the terms customer experience and customer service have been used to mean a number of different things. In some cases they have been used interchangeably in the same sentence. And this has led many business owners to believe they are providing a great customer experience simply by being friendly and courteous. This is not the case.

The problem is that many consultants and marketers take the term customer service literally, as in how you SERVE the CUSTOMER. If you provide a high level of service much like the staff member in our story did, then it is believed that excellent customer service was provided. Thus resulting in a great customer experience.

But the fact is that customer service is not about general service. It never has been. The term customer service began in the 1950’s when many companies realized that unhappy customers who were converted into happy customers tended to be more loyal and provide positive word of mouth. So customer service departments were established. These often took different forms, many still in use today. Manufacturers of consumer products often have a toll free number on their packaging or manuals for “questions and comments”. Today, more than 60 years later, many retailers still have a customer service counter. It’s the place you go to return an item or to ask questions about a product you already own.

What customer service departments have in common, regardless of the industry or the form they take, is that it’s where you go when you have a problem. You do not reach out to customer service for any other reason. You have a problem that resulted from a product, service, or interaction with the company and need help fixing it. How the company responds to your query decides the effectiveness of their customer service.

Customer experience is the emotional result that encompasses every interaction you have with a company. From visiting their website and browsing their store, to the purchasing process and post sales service, all of these things added together influence your experience. And each single interaction has the ability to reinforce or change that experience. Customer service is one of these interactions.

In our example, by the time you had bought those shoes, you were probably quite impressed. The combination of attention, professionalism, education, and price all contributed to what could reasonably be called an exceptional customer experience.

But upon your return, that’s where customer service takes place. You had a clear and defined problem. You also had a desired solution. However the staff member would not grant your request. To make matters worse, he did not even offer any alternatives. The result was you not getting any satisfaction. And thus terrible customer service.

And this negative interaction contributed to your overall customer experience with the store. In fact you might say that the lousy customer service was so impactful, it offset any of the positive experiences you had prior.

Successful companies from all industries know and appreciate every interaction they have with a customer. From how the receptionist answers the phone to how easy it is to navigate their website, every point of contact a customer has with your company is an opportunity for you to say “we value and appreciate you.”

I have had the pleasure of sharing this concept from the stage with hundreds of companies across three continents. And I often get asked the same question: where do we start? The answer is not that hard. The truth is that customers are looking for one simple thing. A solution to a problem. It doesn’t matter what industry you are in or if you’re selling a product or a service. Every customer is coming to you with a problem. 

Do people join a gym to be healthier? No. Their problem is that they don’t like what they see in the mirror. Do you think people visit resorts because they like beaches and buffets? No. Their problem is that they need a break from the stresses and routine of daily life. Do people return shoes for fun? No. In our example, it was because there was no need.

Finding the needs of a customer who’s in a position to buy is easy. In many cases conducting a needs analysis by asking questions and offering options is often enough. But the real test is when a customer returns with a problem resulting from the purchase. In some cases the problem may be difficult to identify. A combination of emotions, blame, and not wanting to accept responsibility can make it challenging to find a resolution. In my presentation on customer service I provide some strategies. But they will only work if the company has a desire to keep their relationship with the customer. Choosing short term profits over long term sales will only lead to customers knowing you don’t care about them beyond the sale.

Companies that embrace the importance of delivering exceptional customer experiences will usually also provide a higher level of customer service. They understand that customer relationships are built on being able to provide solutions and deliver them with ease and convenience, even when problems arise.

Marc Gordon is a recognized customer experience expert. He regularly appears in print, on TV and radio for his opinions on business events and trends. As a speaker and consultant, he helps organizations build stronger relationships with their customers. He will be a keynote speaker at CX Week Canada.

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