Customer [Insert Term Here]
What do they all mean?

Here’s an uncomfortable – yet indisputable – truth: you are in business to create and to nurture customers. Without customers – and especially without employees to create your products and to serve your customers – you have no business. Regardless of company size, region, industry, etc., you are in business for the customer, because of the customer.

Ultimately, “create and nurture customers” must come down to helping customers solve their problems, complete the jobs they are trying to do, and achieve the outcomes they desire by using your products or services.

It’s on that note that I think about the alphabet soup of terms that exist when it comes to customers, their interactions with brands, and how we nurture them today. Here’s a look at just some of those terms. (BTW, the title is not a mistake. I didn’t forget to insert the term!)

Customer Experience

Let’s start with the umbrella discipline, the root of all else. Customer experience is the sum of all the interactions that a customer has with an organization over the life of the “relationship” with that company… and, importantly, the feelings, emotions, and perceptions the customer has about those interactions. The Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA) defines it as “the perception that customers have of an organization – one that is formed based on interactions across all touchpoints, people, and technology over time.” And they’ve defined a customer experience professional as “a catalyst who enhances an organization’s results by understanding, designing, and improving experiences across the entire customer relationship.”

Customer Service

Customer service is one of those interactions or a type of interaction. It can change the feelings or perspectives that a customer has about a brand, just like any other interaction. I like to use this thinking  from Chris Zane of Zane’s Cycles to differentiate the two: customer service is what happens when the experience breaks down. More precisely, his exact quote is: “Customer service starts when customer experience fails.” The International Customer Service Association (ICSA) notes that “customer service involves the internal process by which your customers are assisted. Patrons reach out to customer service specialists in order to complete transactions or for technical support.”

Customer Success

I have always defined customer success as ensuring that customers get the value they expect  out of the products they purchased, or more succinctly, that they achieve their desired outcomes. It’s typically a B2B function. The Customer Success Association defines customer success as “a long-term, scientifically engineered, and professionally directed strategy for maximizing customer and company sustainable proven value.” Customer success managers work with the customer post-sale, but more and more they are being brought in during pre-sales to work on proof of concept engagements and more. If we compare it to customer experience, I view customer experience as the umbrella. Get the experience right – listen to customers, understand the problems they are trying to solve, innovate, and design and deliver a better experience that delivers value and desired outcomes (for the customer and for the business) – and customer success management becomes obsolete, no?

Account Management

Account management has typically been a role that takes over post-sale to ensure not only customer renewals but also to drive or handle upsell and cross-sell opportunities. They have sales quotas with regards to renewals and those additional opportunities, which is a big differentiator between account managers and customer success managers, who have success metrics that are often wrapped around value delivered and customer outcomes achieved. Account managers are in a more reactive role, responding to the customer success managers’ proactive work of onboarding customers, ensuring product adoption and usage, and helping them to achieve the value and the outcomes they expected when purchasing the product. Customer success managers often identify the opportunities that account managers then pursue and close.

Customer Improvement

And finally a new term from Gartner, customer improvement, is defined as “the degree to which account managers provide customers a new perspective on how they might operate their businesses (i.e., new ways to make money, save money, mitigate risk, etc.), a vision forward for their business, and the value of a commercial relationship with the supplier.” They claim that a focus on customer improvement can increase your likelihood of growth by 45%. In addition, they note that teams that “practice customer improvement deliver future-focused, supplier-neutral messages about how customers can improve their business, securing both retention and growth.” The prerequisites to this happening lie in executive commitment and a culture where customer insights are shared and used by all employees to deliver a better experience for customers. Customer improvement efforts blur the lines between what account managers and customer success managers do. I have always said that the folks who consult with the customer or who ensure adoption, usage, and value should not be the ones who also ask for the next dollar. It is – or can be viewed as – a conflict.

Customer Engagement

Customer engagement (like employee engagement) is the emotional connection that a customer has with the brand. An engaged customer will go above and beyond (buys more, advocates, etc.) with/for the brand because she’s achieved that level of emotional connection, or engagement. I view engagement as an outcome, i.e., having a great experience – consistently – leads to that engagement.

There’s another way customer engagement is used, and that’s all about how you interact with your customers. It’s typically used in marketing conversations. So, engagement in this sense equates to interactions, not the emotional connection or outcome.

Customer Understanding

Customer understanding is an important concept. I call it the cornerstone of customer-centricity because, well, it is! Customer understanding is all about learning everything you need to know about your customers, i.e., their needs, their pain points, the jobs they are trying to do, etc., and their current experiences in order to design and deliver the experience they expect going forward. I define it as “seeing, feeling, experiencing, and learning through the eyes of the customer, through the customer’s heart and mind.” It builds empathy for the customer and, ultimately, informs your customer experience strategy.

Customer [Insert term here]

That’s a lot of terminology and a lot of roles within the organization that focus on the customer. There’s nothing wrong with that! But here’s how I’ve always viewed these roles, and it’s not far from Chris Zane’s thinking: If you got everything else right (i.e., the experience), perhaps the customer wouldn’t need to call customer service; perhaps you wouldn’t need customer success managers to ensure customers achieve value; perhaps customer improvement is really part of what you do to improve the customer experience.

Let’s dive a little deeper into customer experience for the moment. Customer experience is very human – it’s about emotions, feelings, and perceptions of the brand based on interactions, which can vary from simple to complex and detailed. It’s more emotional than rational, even in B2B because people buy from people; people have relationships with people.

Technology is not the experience. It supports and facilitates the experience, but it is not the experience. Customers can use your technology to help achieve their desired outcomes, and employees can use technology to understand their customers and to facilitate and enable the delivery of the experience they expect, the experience that helps both customers and the business achieve their outcomes.

Scaling Customer Success

Interestingly enough, with artificial intelligence, we are now able to blur the lines a bit between human and tech touches through apps like Cast, which automates, visualizes, and personalizes data via audio and video content generated directly from your customer data, at scale, in order to inform and inspire customers to take action. For account managers and customer success managers, Cast helps to automate their goals by enabling end-users to take recommended sales actions directly within – and as a result of – Cast videos. For customer success managers, Cast helps with onboarding, usage and adoption, and more. And for your contact center, Cast can minimize wait time and offer intelligent, humanized responses and solutions based on customer inputs and requests.

There’s a PwC statistic that states that the more technologically advanced brands become, the more customers crave human interactions. The flip side of that is that automated solutions have to learn from human interactions and be used to take menial and repetitive tasks off your employees’ plates so that they can spend more time focusing on meaningful, valuable, and value-add work, including building customer relationships. This translates to a better experience for employees, as well. As Simon Sinek says: “Customers will never love a company until the employees love it first.” Meaningful, impactful work is what employees crave.

I’ll write more about humanizing automation in a future post. I think there can – and must – be a balance between the two that ensures that the customer gets the experience she wants and that the business achieves its desired outcomes.

We have no problems, only situations. Not all problems have solutions, but all situations have outcomes. -John Edward Gray
Annette Franz

Annette Franz is an advisor at, founder and CEO of CX Journey, and an internationally recognized customer experience thought leader, coach, speaker, and author. She recently published her first book, Customer Understanding: Three Ways to Put the “Customer” in Customer Experience (and at the Heart of Your Business); it’s available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats.

She is a one of the Top 3 Customer Experience (CX) influencers, one of the Top 100 Strategists in Customer Success for 2020, and one of 100 B2B Thought Leaders and Influencers of 2021. This article originally appeared on