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What’s the Real Difference Between Customer Success and Customer Experience?

Written by

 Jeremy Gallemard

There are so many words to describe how brands manage customer relationships today that you’d probably find it handy to have a glossary of terms to help sift through all of the jargon. Two terms that you probably hear often are ‘customer experience’ and ‘customer success.’ While they represent two different aspects of the journey that customers have with your brand, many people, unfortunately and incorrectly, use them interchangeably. Here, we’ll take a closer look at what both terms mean and why this distinction matters.

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Customer success and customer experience, defined

Using ‘customer experience’ and ‘customer success’ interchangeably is akin to confusing a trip with its destination. While they may be two parts of the same coin, they certainly don’t mean the same thing. One describes the end-to-end journey that customers take with your brand while the other taps into the value customers get by being loyal to your brand or using your products or services.

Here’s an easy way to define them both:

  • HubSpot defines the customer experience as the “impression your customers have of your brand as a whole throughout all aspects of the buyer's journey. It results in their view of your brand and impacts factors related to your bottom line, including revenue.” While one part of this equation is all about feelings and emotions—and everything else that appeals to a customer’s aesthetics and senses—the other and perhaps more important part of this equation is how that experience can translate into a meaningful conversion. Think of it like a vote of confidence: When a customer buys your product or service, it means you’ve successfully created an experience for them that effectively pushed them through the funnel.
  • On the other hand, HubSpot defines customer success as the “process of anticipating customer challenges or questions and proactively providing solutions and answers to those issues prior to them arising. Customer success helps you boost customer happiness and retention, increasing your revenue and customer loyalty.” This is less about the journey a customer takes and more about a brand’s ability to provide products, services, and support that helps them do something they couldn’t have done before (i.e. without the help of your brand). In many ways, it is a proof point that measures how well your products and services live up to the experience that got your customers to transact with your brand in the first place. Therefore, customer success is about “walking the walk” while customer experience is about “talking the talk.”

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A tale of two different, yet interrelated approaches 

While it may be true that both concepts work hand-in-hand, how they come to life is a bit different:

  • Customer experience requires an interactive approach. Brands must create a unified experience for their customers across all touchpoints, all channels, and all platforms: web, mobile, digital, social, in-store, email, customer service, and beyond. Your brand is up, front, and center at all times, creating an experience that has the power to pique the interest of your customers and engage them at every point along their journey with your brand.

    In this way, your products and services simply reinforce and substantiate the brand image and the brand promise you’ve created throughout this end-to-end customer journey. This experience essentially defines how customers perceive your brand as well as their relationship to it.
  • Customer success, on the other hand, requires a proactive approach. Unlike customer experience, customer success is much more product- and service-focused. Once you’ve moved a customer from consideration to purchase, you need to live up to everything you’ve promised them—and more. This is what customer success is all about. Selling customers on the value your products and services can bring them is only half of the battle; ensuring that they are able to do or achieve something that they hadn’t been able to do before—without the help of your brand—is the true definition of their success.

    However, just because customers are successful early on in their relationship with your brand doesn’t mean they’ll always be successful down the road, especially as new competitors come to market to lure them away with new innovations, features, and more. Therefore, you must always have a pulse on what your customers want, need, and expect from you. You must listen and adapt your brand, your products, and your services to meet those needs to ensure customer success and satisfaction for the long-term.

Striking the right balance to build a stronger customer relationship

Oddly enough, there is not a proverbial passing of the baton between customer experience and customer success; in other words, one doesn’t start where the other ends. Quite to the contrary, customer experience is something that lasts throughout the customer relationship. It’s ephemeral. But there can be moments of customer success that punctuate this experience.

For example, purchasing a product or service is a moment of customer success. It essentially means that the customer experience you offered had done its job well enough to convince a customer that your brand’s products or services were superior to a competitor’s. Similarly, a positive customer service interaction, —whether it’s via email, chatbot, or phone—that helps a customer resolve an issue or answer a question is a moment of customer success, too, one that’s likely rooted in a positive customer experience as well. Finally, after customers have made a purchase, creating a positive support or help-based nurture program, helping them to get as much value out of your products or services, is an example of customer success deeply rooted in all of the customer experience foundations you’ve already established.

Therefore, when you look at it this way, you start to see just how much both concepts are truly interrelated and complementary. There’s no start to one and stop to the other. In fact, customer success is amplified by strong customer experience just as much as a positive customer experience can shift perceptions around products and services that may actually be inferior to your competitor’s.

The same can be said for customer self-service solutions. They are a perfect example of the intersection of customer experience and customer success—and especially pertinent at a time when it’s been shown that the majority of consumers (51%) will never do business with a company or brand again after having a single negative customer service experience. In this way, by providing your customers with ways to get information and answers on their own—and being able to do so without needing customer support to intervene on their behalf—you create a space for customer autonomy that has been proven many times over to boost customer happiness, satisfaction, and loyalty.

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Measuring customer experience and customer success is interconnected, too

Different brands may choose to measure success in different ways. To say that there is a standard set of KPIs for both customer experience and customer success, respectively, would be a lie. For example, you might think that measures for customer satisfaction, customer churn, or the volume of inquiries into customer support might speak squarely to customer success. However, you’d be wrong to assume that. Much of that plays into how brands measure customer experience as well. So it’s really important to look at these metrics and KPIs within the context of what both customer experience and customer success uniquely mean for your brand. The truth is, not all two brands are the same, so how they measure performance against a number of customer-centric goals and objectives will ultimately vary, too.

Your customers are always the unifying factor 

Regardless of how you approach both customer experience and customer success for your brand, there is always one thing that remains constant: your customers.

As a rule of thumb: Whenever you place your customers at the heart of everything you do as a brand—from how you communicate to the products and services you offer—you position yourself, almost by default, to create better customer experiences that drive long-term customer success.

Again, it’s important to reiterate here that a strong customer experience leads to customer success while ongoing customer success can fuel a customer experience that boosts customer loyalty and satisfaction.

It really is a virtuous cycle. As interconnected as these two concepts are, especially in how they both revolve around your customers, you really can’t have one without the other these days. Dropping the ball on customer experience isn’t going to make your customers successful, much less loyal to your brand for years to come. Skimping on customer success, on the other hand, will simply create a negative customer experience that will eventually push them away towards your nearest competitor.

So if you keep your customers’ wants, needs, and expectations top-of-mind at all times—using that to guide every aspect of the end-to-end customer experience—you will succeed. And when you do, you’ll drive up the lifetime value (LTV) of every customer relationship you broker. Because at the end of the day, even when we talk about things like ‘experience’ and ‘success,’ your business won’t succeed if you can't keep your customers loyal to your brand for the long haul. You must make both customer experience and customer success top priorities.

Two sides of the same ‘customer relationship’ coin 

As you can see, although there are a number of differences—rather, nuances—between customer experience and customer success, they really do go hand-in-hand. That doesn’t mean you should start throwing these terms around interchangeably. That would be incorrect in many ways. But to suggest that one is wholly independent of the other would be erroneous as well.

When building customer relationships, only one thing matters: Putting your customers at the heart of everything you do as a brand. By stepping into their shoes, you can create experiences, products, services, solutions, and so much more that will give them myriad reasons to love your brand for the long-term. So don’t get hung up on jargon. Get hung up on your customers. Your business depends on them, just as much as they depend on your brand to deliver on its promises.

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Jeremy Gallemard

Hello! I'm Jérémy, President & Co-founder of Smart Tribune. With my background in the digital & customer experience space I'm happy to share my insight & practical advice on customer experience today & what it might look like tomorrow. Happy reading!

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