The perils of blindly using customer effort score as a CX metric


Customer effort score is now one of the three most important customer experience metrics along with NPS and CSAT. But in the wrong circumstances it can drive negative consequences. 

27th Sep 2021

Customer effort score (CES) is a popular service metric that measures how much effort customers put in to interact with your business. These interactions could be, for instance, how much effort is required to use your product/service or how easy it was for your service team to resolve a customer query. 

But despite its popularity, customer effort score could be destructive under two conditions: using CES as a key metric for your critical touchpoint experiences, and when your brand promise is not about providing effortless service.

In these circumstances it could generate negative consequences:

  1. Drive a disremembered experience.
  2. Damage your brand loyalty.
  3. Reduce customers' pleasure.

The original application boundary of CES was customer service

In the Harvard Business Review article Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers, the Corporate Executive Board’s Dixon and colleagues say: “When it comes to service, companies create loyal customers primarily by helping them solve their problems quickly and easily. Armed with this understanding, we can fundamentally change the emphasis of customer service interactions.”

The CES creators suggest the following strategy to minimising customers’ effort on service issues: “Reduce the need for repeat calls by anticipating and dealing with related downstream issues; arm reps to address the emotional side of customer interactions; minimize channel switching by increasing self-service channel “stickiness”; elicit and use feedback from disgruntled or struggling customers; and focus on problem solving, not speed.”

So the original mission of the customer effort score, as far as I understand it, is to drive effortless service interactions.

Why its extension into CX is a serious problem

Reducing or eliminating customer effort in the service environment is a win-win to both customers and company. Customers save time and hassle; companies reduce costs and become more efficient. So it is no surprise that CES has become a popular performance measurement metric in numerous organisations since its launch in 2010.

But nowadays the application of CES has been extended from service to CX – from driving effortless service interactions to driving effortless experiences. Indeed, CES is now one of the three most important CX metrics along with NPS and CSAT.

However, while service is part of CX, service ain't CX (see the Harvard Business Review Know the Difference between Customer Service and Customer Experience by Bruce Jones, senior programming director, Disney Institute), and that's the underlining cause of a serious problem.

Let me explain why driving effortless experience is a serious problem, with the empirical data derived from the Global IKEA In-store Experience Research [1].

Based on 3,384 valid responses from the research, the following are the three common pain points shared by the IKEA customers around the globe. Here are a few customer quotes:

Pain point #1 - forced round tour

  • Forced use of round tour, difficulty getting directly to desired area.”
  • You can't really go in for one specific item, you have to make your way around the entire store...”
  • Feeling like part of the herd grazing through the store.”
  • The shop layout is designed to force you to maximise unnecessary browsing...”
  • Even though IKEA has added shortcuts, it is still a navigation nightmare."

Pain point #2 - availability of staff for on-site support

  • Can be a pain trying to ask the service staff for assistance.”
  • Never enough sales help, I waited almost 45 minutes for help.”
  • Always need service but can't always get someone who is available to help.”
  • Trying to locate our items in huge warehouse with confusing signage, very few people around to ask for assistance.”
  • Staff are usually too occupied to answer questions… probably staff-customer ratio is small...”

Pain point #3 - queuing time at checkout counter

  • Checkouts are an awful experience!”
  • Way too crowded and line-ups are too long at checkout.”
  • Very crowded and long check out queues, especially on Saturdays.”
  • Check out lines are generally long compared to other stores.”
  • Too complicated... long line-ups... not enough staff. Feels like you have to carve out a lot of time to buy from IKEA...”

Sweat is painful

Emotion curve


After hearing from IKEA's customers, let's take a look at the Emotion Curve [2] of IKEA the Netherlands.

Based on 511 responses from the Dutch consumers through the Global IKEA In-store Experience Research, we generate their Emotion Curve. For simplicity's sake, only the relevant sub-processes are shown here.

Out of the total 34 sub-processes of the IKEA in-store experience, the three most severe pain peaks are ‘Forced round tour’, ‘Availability of staff for on-site support’, and ‘Queuing time at check-out counter’, and we found similar results in other regions; it also echoes with the voice of customers – 'Sweat' is painful.

So, with reference to the voice of customers and Emotion Curve, it is crystal clear that IKEA's customers just hate to 'sweat' which begs the question: Should IKEA eliminate the three common pain points and strive for an effortless experience?

Branded pleasure and good effort

The mission of IKEA’s founder, Ingvar Kamprad, is to make quality furniture that everyone can afford [3]. Their brand promise is reflected at the pleasure peaks: price, product, product display and trial, cafeteria and ice cream. Even the cafeteria and ice cream communicate the consistent message of “good value for money” and align with IKEA's brand promise. As these pleasures are reflecting their brand promise, we call them Branded Pleasures.

IKEA never says Service is a brand promise. They hang up big posters inside the store, telling customers that, to further reduce prices, customers will be performing even more DIY (do-it-yourself) services. As expected, customer service is very limited, and once you have selected items from the huge storage area and managed to put them in or on your cart, you still have to wait in the long queue to check out and arrange delivery and installation – we call these 'sweats' as Good Efforts.

Why they are Good Efforts? Because by allowing those efforts which don't reflect IKEA's brand promise – more DIY services and fewer staffs for on-site support – a substantial amount of resources could be saved to further enhance their Branded Pleasures.

The existence of Good Effort is to support Branded Pleasure.

Good effort may help driving business result

I might have convinced you that the inadequate on-site staff support is a Good Effort, as it could save significant resources for the Branded Pleasure – price. But how about the other two common pain points – it doesn't seem IKEA could save much by forcing customers to tour around the entire store or by creating a long queue at checkout.

In another IKEA research [4], we asked 518 customers on the spot at the exit of IKEA's store, to compare their ‘planned purchase’ (before the visit) versus the ‘actual purchase’.

We then correlated the satisfaction rating of each sub-process during the IKEA in-store experience to the difference between the planned and actual purchase given by the on-site respondents, to derive the X-VOC Data [5]. (For more about the X-VOC Data, see my article Starbucks: Simplify and Operationalize Customer Journey Mapping.)

The results may surprise you: the number three instant purchase driver is ‘Forced round tour’, while the number one is ‘Queuing time at check-out counter’. Both are negatively correlated; which means that the more suffering on the forced round tour and the longer it takes to queue up, the more items customers purchased on the spot.

A wise leader makes customers 'sweat' with a reason

Well, the above unexpected results can be explained.

Some customers from the research mentioned that they had bought some items they didn't prepare to buy, but when they were going through the round tour they found these items interesting or irresistible. In alignment with the theories of "sunk costs" and "social proof," the customers feel it justified to buy more when in a long queue as they were already there; it must be something really good to have so many people willing to spend time waiting for payment at checkout.

While I suspect Ingvar Kamprad ever conducted the same research as ours to derive instant purchase drivers, his judgments to tolerate those pain points, grounded with over half a century learning-by-doing experiences and first-hand observations on on-floor operations, could be made more accurate and reliable than the quantitative data rendered by any correlation analyses.

A wise business leader would never let customers suffer for nothing – these are Unnecessary Efforts. Ingvar makes customers 'sweat' with a reason: allowing Good Efforts to generate significant Branded Pleasures.

"Zero-defect" drives a forgettable experience

Mark Stanley, senior principal business consultant of Genesys, once said, "For years companies do not take time to focus on identifying their own Branded Pleasures and Good Pains. Only a handful of leaders at the top of the company understand this."

Kamprad is a minority. The majority of business leaders, in the modern era, have been brainwashed by the sacred beliefs of pursuing excellence, customer-centricity and continuous improvement. They are determined to eliminate any pain points, efforts, frictions, imperfections and defects out of an experience. The rise of CES in CX is not a coincidence.


zero defect


Their companies try to make every single detail good and eliminate any effort on the customers’ part, from the beginning to the end of an experience, in order to satisfy their customers. The red Emotion Curve represents the conventional approach. They are working hard to raise the entire red curve higher and higher still.

It is, however, an ineffective experience.

Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman suggested that only the peak and end moments have significant impacts on how we feel about the experience [6]. The problem of the red curve – a zero-defect or an effortless experience – is that you dilute your limited resources on too many things. As a result, insignificant peaks and ends are generated. You are simply wasting your company’s resources as the experience is not remembered by your customers. Would you regard a forgotten experience be effective? No, you wouldn't.

An effective experience has to be remembered.

Why pleasure – not pain – peaks are recalled

pleasure and pain


Now, allow me to take you through a paradigm shift – allowing pain point or imperfection – to deliver a dynamic blue Emotion Curve. It focuses on the critical few moments – peak and end. This approach creates a memorable experience with significant pleasure peaks, while spending fewer resources.

Kahneman does explain how an experience is remembered – the peak and the end; he, however, does not explain which peaks – pleasure or pain – are recalled by customers. The decisive factor is: Do you keep your promise, i.e. are you delivering a branded experience?

When you deliver your brand promise, customers remember the pleasure peaks. On the other hand, when you fail to deliver on promise, they recall the pain peaks. 

Personally, I share my sympathy with the research respondents. I hate the forced round tour, the never enough on-site manpower, and the forever long waiting time at cashier. Whenever I shopped at IKEA, I swore I wouldn't be back. But for the past three decades, I buy from IKEA again and again. Why? Because IKEA is delivering a highly memorable and branded experience. What I recall from my memories are the significant pleasure peaks, which reflect their brand promise: Good value for money.

"Frictionless" harms your brand loyalty

The essence of brand loyalty is, customers have to remember you and what you stand for. To achieve that, you have to deliver the dynamic blue curve experience consistently and repeatedly, with your brand promise reflected at the pleasure peaks, i.e. your Branded Pleasures.

Think of how you make your buying decisions. For example, if you want to enjoy a relaxing afternoon, away from your home and office, for a decent cup of coffee. Starbucks is probably the first thing that comes to mind – because you recall their significant pleasure peaks from your memoriesthe 'new coffee experience' and the Third Place.

Bob Thompson, CEO of CustomerThink Corp., commented on Do you really want to create a frictionless customer experience? written by Adrian Swinscoe, "I'm seeing Starbucks and other premium coffee shops offer mobile orders. In the short term, could be nice for those in a hurry. Longer term, will it result in consumers saying to themselves “Why am I paying $4 for a cup of coffee when I’m not spending any time in the store to enjoy it?” Next step: drive thru?"

What if Starbucks focused their resources driving full-force to deliver a frictionless experience? Their significant Branded Pleasures would turn insignificant, and their brand promise would become blurry in customers' memories. Ultimately, their brand might not be recalled.

When you are delivering the flat red Emotion Curve – an effortless or a frictionless experience – there will be no brand loyalty at all. Brand loyalty is, literally, determined by our memories. No memories, no brand loyalty.

"Painless" eliminates pleasure peaks



Similar as Starbucks, if IKEA listened to the voice of customers, and followed the conventional approach, to adopt CES to eliminate the pain points and strike for an effortless experience, what would happen?

Pain points and efforts will be minimized or eliminated, and so too the pleasure peaks. Because no company has unlimited resources, the dynamic blue Emotion Curve would turn into a flattened red one.

As a result, customer's pleasures are reduced, resources are wasted, and the brand is homogenized. The branded experience turns into a no-branded experience.

Both the customers' pain points and pleasure peaks are gone.

Great brands make customers 'sweat'

Great brands have one thing in common: they make customers sweat.

  • IKEA makes customers sweat with DIY services to generate unmatched pleasure on good value for money.
  • Starbucks makes customers sweat with premium pricing and waiting time to create extraordinary pleasure with their “new coffee experience” and the Third Place.
  • Louis Vuitton makes customers sweat with the different service levels to deliver unprecedented pleasure with exclusivity.
  • Southwest Airlines makes customers sweat with no meals, entertainment, upgrades or reserved seats to offer knockout pleasure with cheap airfares.
  • Jiro’s sushi restaurant makes customers sweat on most aspects of the dining experience to render the utmost pleasure with the best sushi in the world (see my article Why Great Brands Have a Large Pleasure Pain Gap).

By making customers 'sweat' – allowing Good Efforts – resources can be channeled to their Branded Pleasures. That is why IKEA, Starbucks, Louis Vuitton, Southwest Airlines, Sukiyabashi Jiro and other great brands are able to deliver a highly memorable and branded experience.

Don't get me wrong! CES could be a good metric

Despite my emphasis on the potential damages caused by CES in driving an effortless experience, I do totally agree with the CES creators that customer effort score is a good metric when using in a service environment driving effortless service interactions.

At the beginning of this article, I said "Deploying Customer Effort Score could be destructive: use CES as a key metric for your critical touchpoint experiences." But it could be equally constructive if you apply CES in non-critical touchpoint experiences.

Take, for example, a banking experience. When withdrawing cash from an ATM machine, doing a simple online transaction, or calling hotline to report loss of the credit card, customers simply need a frictionless or an effortless experience. No more, no less.

The majority, say 90% (just a ballpark figure, it varies from industry to industry, and company to company) of the interactions with a brand fall in that category: customers don't need any significant pleasure peaks, they merely want to ‘get things done’.

Don't get me wrong! CES could be useful: CES is the right metric for a pure service environment and the non-critical 90% touch-point experiences.

Adopt CES blindly is a wrong strategy

For the remaining 10% interactions are the true differentiators of a brand – touch-point experiences that deliver their promises and drive customers to buy from them in the first place – e.g. the IKEA in-store. Unless your brand promises are about effortless, faster and easier, like Amazon, McDonald's or 7-Eleven; otherwise, CES is definitely not the right metric to use.

I understand that customers are increasingly intolerant of inconvenience and slow service. Even IKEA has added shortcuts and fast lanes for checkout at some of their stores. However, slightly raising the pain points in order not to drive customers away, is entirely different from driving full force for an effortless experience. Don't mix them up.

Strategy is about resource allocation. The effectiveness of a strategy is judged largely by the effectiveness in resource allocation. Adopting CES is not only a bad strategy – putting your resources to poor use – it's a wrong strategy. It is wrong because it delivers the opposite of what you desired: driving a disremembered experience, damaging your brand loyalty, and reducing customers' pleasures. Instead of a win-win, it becomes a lose-lose outcome for both customers and your company.

Perhaps you should ask yourself this: why would you invest money and resources to create effortless experiences, which comes at the cost of memorable experiences, your brand loyalty and customers' pleasures, just for the sake of enhancing customer effort score?

My advice

Here is my two cents for different scenarios that you may encounter:

  • Let's say effortless is your brand promise, then CES is a perfect metric for all your touchpoint experiences, no matter critical or non-critical.
  • Given that your brand promises have nothing to do with faster or easier, if you are already deploying CES, you should seriously consider narrowing down the scope to cover only the non-critical 90% interactions.
  • If your company is thinking of adopting CES as a key performance metric for the critical 10% touch-point experiences, you should pause and consider "What are my brand promises?" before a final decision is made.
  • When your major rivals have applied full-scale CES in their CX, and their brand promises are unrelated to effortless, you should do two things: open a bottle of champagne to celebrate, and pray that they never get their hands on this article.

I do believe, that it’s simply a matter of time before the sensible leaders are able to rectify their mistakes with the aid of common sense and critical thinking: to stop pursuing frictionless unmemorable experiences (the flat red line) and start creating Good Efforts and Branded Pleasures (a dynamic blue curve).





  1. Global IKEA In-store Customer Experience Research, Global CEM, CustomerThink (U.S.) and TOTE-M (Netherlands), December 2008-February 2009.
  2. An Emotion Curve is mapped by linking all the satisfaction levels of the sub-processes (touch-point experiences) and attributes that are encountered or perceived by customers and affect their emotions in a natural time sequence during a touch-point experience (total customer experience). I created the Emotion Curve in 2006. See Sampson Lee, One Cup of Coffee, 20 Experiences: Take a Tip From Starbucks (Customerthink.com, 4 June 2006).
  3. “To create a better everyday life for many people by offering a wide range of well-designed, functional home furnishing products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them.” See Ingvar Kamprad, The Testament of a Furniture Dealer (Inter IKEA Systems B.V., 1976).
  4. Mainland China IKEA In-store Customer Experience Research (On-site), Global CEM, December 2008-February 2009.
  5. X-VOC (Voice-of-Customer @ Experience) Data are generated by customer research to obtain the satisfaction ratings and derive the importance levels of each of the sub-processes (touch-point experiences) and attributes during a touch-point experience (total customer experience).
  6. Daniel Kahneman (born 1934) is an Israeli-American psychologist. He was awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work in prospect theory. The Peak-End Rule is a psychological heuristic by which people judge experiences largely based on how they felt at their peak and at their end, rather than based on the total sum or average of every moment of the experience. According to the heuristic, other information aside from that of the peak and end of the experience is not lost, but it is not used. This heuristic was first suggested by Daniel Kahneman and others. Originally, the Peak-End Rule was applied to the evaluation of pain, see Donald A. Redelmeier and Daniel Kahneman, Patient’s Memories of Painful Medical Treatments: Real and Retrospective Evaluations of Two Minimally Invasive Procedures (Pain 66, 1996), 3-8. Later studies supported the idea that the effects found in retrospective evaluations of pain are applicable to evaluating pleasure, see, for example, Amy M. Do, Alexander V. Rupert, and George Wolford, Evaluations of Pleasurable Experiences: The Peak-End Rule (Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 2008, 15 (1)), 96-98.


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Replies (4)

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27th Sep 2021 14:32

Interesting article and great insights. Thanks for sharing.
I have used CSAT, NPS and CES together and found the first two highly correlated while CES follows a different logic. In my experience CES is a very useful measure in particular in the B2B segment when related to the overall experience rather than particular touchpoints. If the overall score is low than you should look into into the root causes and find ways to improve as there will certainly be areas where your customer experience is clearly falling short. The other way around, just tracing the interactions with a low CES would indeed direct attention and resources into areas that could be improved, but that would not actually improve the overall satisfaction or loyalty behaviour of your customers. The gauge to CX improvement initiatives should be how the overall experience is affected in function of the brand promise you are trying to make.

Thanks (2)
Replying to KKMacG:
Sampson Lee, founder of Global CEM and creator of PIG Strategy
By Sampson Lee
05th Oct 2021 02:41

Hi Kim, thanks for sharing your experience. I agree with you that it is important to look at the big picture (total customer experience) before making any resource allocation decisions.

I trust that the TCE (total customer experience) Model stated in “Why CX must not be the responsibility of customer service or marketing” (https://www.mycustomer.com/experience/engagement/why-cx-must-not-be-the-...) can achieve your goal. I believe you have some similar model in use. Would you mind sharing it?

Thanks (0)
Rob Lancashire, CEO, Opinyin - Customer Satisfaction Survey Software
By Rob Lancashire
05th Oct 2021 07:38

Very interesting article. My guiding principle in business has always been to deliver what we said we would and then find ways of adding unexpected value to give the best customer experience. At a high level this article resonates with that. The challenge though, is finding what's of value to customers quickly enough, especially as this tends to be fluid. Real time monitoring and aggregation of the pain and pleasure points from across your customer base gives you intel on where you are not delivering on your brand promise and where the opportunities lie to use your resources as efficiently as possible to add unexpected value. As the article says these are things customers will remember.

Thanks (2)
Shaun Smith
By Shaun Smith
03rd Oct 2021 08:47

Sampson, I quite agree with you. Matthew Dixon's original research leading to the Customer Effort Score was largely done in contact centres where it makes some kind of sense- we want the experience to be as frictionless as possible. However the way to creating a great branded customer experience is not to eliminate effort so much as to maximise engagement. When we think of the brands we love- Lego, Harley Davidson, Burberry, Disney, IKEA etc we willingly engage with them and invest effort in becoming part of the brand experience. So, unless your brand promise is all about speed and efficiency think very carefully about making CES your only metric. When Smith+Co worked with Estee Lauder we focused on moving from a contact centre that was solely focused on efficiency, to become an Experience centre that was all about creating a memorable experience of the brand. as a result, consumer NPS increased by 30 points and agent NPS by 32 points.

Thanks (3)