Customer Experience Defined

If you’re reading this post, you’re someone who cares about customer experience. You might even be one of the professionals who works in the field of customer experience full-time.

So I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that you occasionally get the question, “What is ‘customer experience?’”

Now maybe when you’re asked that question, it isn’t phrased so directly (or politely). For example, I get asked, “Isn’t customer experience just marketing?” And, “How is customer experience different from customer service?” But the bottom line is that people are looking for a definition that’s crisp, useful, and distinct from the definitions of other things that companies do. They are right and reasonable to ask for this — but collectively those of us who work to improve customer experience have failed to answer them.

I mean no offense to the many people out there who have tried to define “customer experience.” I’ve read many of the attempts that are out there, and the ones I’ve seen tend to be longer and more convoluted than necessary.

Not that customer experience is an easy concept to define. The customer experience team at Forrester has been debating the definition of customer experience for a while now, and it took us until recently to reach consensus. We now define customer experience as:

“How customers perceive their interactions with your company.”

Let me tell you how we got there. We started with the customer experience pyramid, which says that good customer experiences are three things from the perspective of the customer. They are useful (deliver value), usable (make it easy to find and engage with the value), and enjoyable (emotionally engaging so that people want to use them). You may recognize this framework as the basis of our Customer Experience Index.

Only your customers can tell you whether they found their experience useful, usable, and enjoyable. And that is totally a function of their perceptions — hence, the first part of the definition.

The second part of the definition zeroes in on interactions — not ad impressions, not even word of mouth. While those two things are important in that they set expectations of the brand, they don’t deliver on those expectations — i.e., fulfill the brand promise. Here’s how we think of that equation:

So what is an “interaction?” It’s when you and your customers have a two-way exchange. When customers navigate your Web site, call into your contact center, go into your retail location, talk to one of your employees, buy your products, use your products, respond to your emails — that’s when they’re making judgments about whether or not you meet their needs, are easy to do business with, and are enjoyable to do business with. That’s when they’re having an actual “customer experience.”

By now, you may be wondering why our definition doesn’t include any mention of time. The answer is simple: Customer experiences happen across many time frames, including the lifetime of customers’ relationship with a company, a set of interactions that may take days or weeks to complete a single goal (like visiting a Web site to do research and then going to a store to complete a purchase), and individual interactions (like a call to customer care).

There is nothing that is inherently a “customer experience” in any of these time horizons. Certainly, companies can and do measure all of them, and most understand the difference between tracking lifetime customer experience and tracking the impression left by a single event. So putting time boundaries around the core definition of customer experience adds noise at best and leads to confusion at worst.

Okay, so why do we care so much about the definition of “customer experience” anyway? (Clearly, I cared enough to write this long post.) It’s simple. The definition frames the discussion around what customer experience professionals should focus on, where their responsibilities intersect with those of other types of professionals (like marketers), what results they can expect to produce for their businesses, and how they should measure success.

So how do you define “customer experience,” and how does that influence what you do? I welcome your comments!


Mostly agree

Great topic, and I mostly agree. My one quibble is that I struggle with the term 'customer'. In the broader sense of customer (user, participant, visitor, guest, citizen etc) I think it is fine. But I know from many conversations with others that 'customer' often seems to viewed as only equivalent to someone completing an interaction with a for profit company.

However, I do agree on the core principles - across time, space, touchpoints, etc and in the eyes of the customer and their perception.

Would you consider advertising an interaction, even if the customer ignores it? I would, because I view the choice to ignore as an interaction. But that could be a question as well. If an ad falls in a forest, and a customer isn't around to hear it?

What is a 'customer' anyway?

Great point about the term "customer." I left out our thoughts on that so as not to make my post run on any longer than it already did.

The way we tend to think about it is customer experience versus employee experience versus partner experience versus citizen experience (for government) get the picture: Just plug in the name of the end user where we have "customer" and you're golden! :-)

Interestingly, for non profits (like the one my wife works for) the terminology can be pretty complex. There is definitely a "donor experience" but NGOs also have lots of other types of relationships. More reasons not to get me started...

On your question, I actually don't consider an advertising impression to be an interaction, i.e., the end user saw the ad but didn't click it (or open the email or whatever). At best I think of that as expectation setting. "If an ad falls in the forest..." indeed!

How are you differentiating

How are you differentiating 'customer experience' from 'user experience' or 'experience design'? If i'm just using your product (as opposed to shopping for it) am I still a customer?

Interesting distinctions

When I started in this game I was focused on "user experience," which is still near and dear to my heart. I think of user experience as a narrower concept, specific to interactive systems like software, Web sites, IVR systems, and kiosks. So I suppose that you can be using my product and not be a customer -- for example, I use Siebel software but I never bought it.

Experience design is a longer discussion and I should probably save it for another blog post. What I will say is that our returning analyst Kerry Bodine is finishing a report right now about "service design," which you should see go live on our site in a few weeks. So maybe I'll ask her to get into the discussion!

Treating users as customers...

Good related posting in UX Magazine:

"Thinking of the customer experience, rather than just the user experience, leads to a more complete product, one where customers' expectations are met before, during, and after their journeys. Thinking of the big picture leads to happier customers, not just happier users."

Experience design

hi Richard –
All of these distinctions get tricky. In grad school, we had nearly endless navel gazing about whether what we did was "interaction design" or "experience design" or [insert trendy design term du jour]. I've even had friends tell me that they've unsubscribed from mailing lists where people just couldn't get past heated discussions on the topic!

But from a practical standpoint, because we're defining customer experience as "How customers perceive their interactions with your company," we're defining experience design as "designing for the interactions a customer has with your company." (Even the use or omission of the word "for" in there is enough to get some people riled up! But that's a subject for another post.)

I'm really excited to be covering this topic, and have a lot of reports lined up for next year. If you have any specific questions about experience design that you think I can answer in my research, please let me know!

Great post and excellent

Great post and excellent insights! Customer experience is a critical issue that many companies just don’t understand or fail to place enough importance on. This video ( offers great insights on how to build a culture of service to help ensure great experiences.

Close, but no Cigar

“How customers perceive their interactions with your company” comes close to the mark. (And you're correct, it is a difficult definition to nail down.) However, you're missing the human element of the company.

“How customers perceive their interactions with the employees, processes, products, and services of your company.”

This definition accounts for the fact that "the company" is a the sum of many parts. Any one aspect that is misaligned from delivering a dependable/repeatable experience can (and will) damage the experience.

Thanks for posting such a thought-provoking article.

I get your point but...

...I subscribe to Alan Cooper's rule that the only viable choices are 0, one, and infinity.

Let me explain what I mean (or what Alan means). I intend "your company" as a single, comprehensive way of referring to all those things you refer to and more. (That's the "one.")

I like to avoid spelling out all the underlying elements of "the company" because that list wants to go to infinity. For example, to your quite accurate "employees, processes, products, and services" I could add "activities," "service" (as supposed to "services"), "physical plant" (or "retail environment"), and "self-service channels" off the top of my head. And I'm pretty sure that I have still not created a comprehensive list even though we would then have a list that's long enough to get us into a taxonomy discussion of which things I mentioned are subsets of other things.

So instead I just made everything a subset of "your company."

Make sense? (And isn't creating definitions fun?)

And BTW, thanks for the comment!