I’ve come across the following concept a number of times in the past few years:
“Customer service is a failure of customer experience.”
For some customer experience practitioners, the concept seems to stem from a worldview that customer service is obsolete — that the ever-important idea of a complete customer experience successfully executed makes traditional customer service unnecessary.
This notion may be useful, but by predicating the existence of customer service on the failure of customer experience, it sends a dangerous message that the skills needed for customer service are “backup skills” and that investment and priority should be centered on customer experience enhancement.
Of course the line between customer service and customer experience is already a specious one, as customer experience by definition includes customer service.
For the purposes of this post, we will adopt the rather general framework I used in Be Your Customer’s Hero:
“CX differs from customer service (CS) in that CX entails the entirety of the customer’s interactions with the company. …There’s no consensus about where the line between CS and CX truly is, but the best way to look at it is that CX represents the customer’s entire journey, whereas CS is what happens at specific points along the way.”
To take it a step further, customer service can be viewed to include traditional reactive service concepts such as conflict resolution skills, issue resolution systems, and dedicated customer service departments.
To understand why customer service will always be necessary, one need go no further than the fundamental understanding that customers are humans, each with their own individual perceptions and desires.
Here are three major ways that customer service can be required without any failure of the customer experience (there are many more):
As the customer service saying goes, the above items are “not your fault, but they are your problem.”
Enter customer service.
I’ve seen some fantastical retorts from experts to the above list, particularly to the first point about differing expectations.
“Failing to meet expectations is a failure of the customer experience,” you might hear. “If you took time to know your customers better, you would personalize each experience to account for differing preferences and individual attitudes.”
This sounds great for a small percentage of organizations, but how is Target or a convenience store supposed to do that for someone who walks into their store? A retinal scan that links to the NSA?
In those business models, the company can’t even identify repeat customers prior to checkout much less identify the “preferences and attitudes” of first time customers.
Failing to be omniscient and omnipotent is not a failure of customer experience.
In addition, you have service triggers, pre-established hot buttons that set customers off.
For example, you create a greeting for your company to welcome customers when they walk in the door. 95% of customers feel welcomed by it, 3% see it as contrived and fake, and 2% are annoyed that they were spoken to.
Did your customer experience fail?
Technically yes, but in reality, no, because your greeting works on the great majority of your customer base, and there is no practical way to do much better.
Finally, even when you are able to customize the experience to a customer’s needs and wants, many customers don’t really know what they want, and even when they do, many have a hard time communicating their wants and needs effectively.
You think you delivered what they asked for, but they come back and say, “That’s not what I meant. I would never have thought that was how you schedule deliveries.”
Not every communication failure is the fault of the organization.
The list above only scratches the surface. From unrealistic expectations to unhinged mental states, there are a host of reasons why you will always need customer service, regardless of the experience you provide.
This post argues for a lack of absolutism, not a lack of accountability. Yes, most customer service interactions are predicated by a failure of the customer experience.
We failed on some level to deliver the customer experience the way it should have been. The breakdown might have been technical, logistical, or all too often, human. Either way, customer service (the reactive form at least) was necessary because our customer experience was not up to snuff.
It’s on us, plain and simple.
But to view all customer service as the failure of customer experience is wrong. It makes us accountable for that which we can not change. Even if we could design perfect customer experiences and execute them flawlessly, they would never be perfect for all customers.
As long as we still have humans for customers, we will always need customer service.
Don’t let your CEO forget it.
By Adam Toporek. Adam Toporek is an internationally recognized customer service expert, keynote speaker, and workshop leader. He is the author of Be Your Customer's Hero: Real-World Tips & Techniques for the Service Front Lines (2015), as well as the founder of the popular Customers That Stick® blog and co-host of the Crack the Customer Code podcast.