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Reducing customer effort is not the panacea for customer experience

22nd Jul 2016
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Reducing customer effort, we hear from many in the customer experience world, is the latest “magic ingredient”. “Making things easy” and delivering “effortless experiences” is the big and latest untapped field of business opportunity so some would have you believe, or is it just the path to least resistance in unlocking corporate budgets? 

Is standing out really only about being the company where things go wrong the least? Is being no frills for all your customers enough to get you where you want to be?

The reducing customer effort case often centres on the idea that customer experience success is simply about businesses getting back to basics by reducing the effort their customers make, the business case is simple, and customers will be happy because all they want is to put in the least effort. I would suggest that for all the good intentions it’s not that simple. Unless you connect your efforts to customer value you will NOT end up improving the customer experience and you may even find increasing costs in places you didn’t expect.

Some of the biggest, most successful companies in the world right now are requiring customers to arguably make more of an effort not less. They are guided by insight, led by a desire to be better and they’ve understood it is distress that people don’t want, so they focus on avoiding distress and delivering consistently. The most successful companies are embracing a design thinking mindset, practicing more integrative learning and they are working tirelessly to create mutual value. They are thinking about relationships rather than just consumption, or cutting costs and re-shaping the way they think, interact and deliver.

Some of the biggest, most successful companies in the world right now are requiring customers to arguably make more of an effort not less.

I’m not totally discounting the need to reduce effort just suggesting caution. The path of customer effort reduction may or may not lead you to the customer; it depends where you start from and why. It is, however, your generosity towards your customer, your desire to build something worthwhile, something better, doing that will keep that customer from your competitors or indeed keep them coming back for more.

Human traits

Dr Kit Yarrow is an award-winng consumer research psychologist, in her 2014 book “Decoding the Consumer Mind” she notes: "The 50 brands showing the fastest financial growth from 2000 to 2010 were all associated with one of five human traits - eliciting joy, enabling connecxtion, inspiring exploration, evoking pride or impacting society". So, making things easy or reducing effort didn't make the top five positive traits. 

Consider this:

  • You can’t hail an Uber on the side of the road you’ve got to use their App, yet their customer base is growing….
  • You can’t walk into an AIRBNB at the last minute you’ve got to book online and wait for a response, AIRBNB continues to grow in reach and use. 
  • You can’t try before you buy your ASOS outfit, you’ve got to buy it and then wait for it to arrive, yet their customer base featuring many so called impatient young folk keeps coming back for more.
  • You can’t buy a fully made up table at IKEA, you have to put it together or pay someone to do it for you, yet they are one of the most profitable retailers in the world.
  • You can’t even buy from Costco online or without membership, yet they have just exceeded $1billion in sales in their new market of Australia.

The human traits mentioned by Dr Yarrow all connect to building relationships. For relationships to flourish requires both sides to put in an effort. The question is what effort is it, valuable or upsetting? Only your customer can answer that, but are you willing to listen deeply? Are you willing to change accordingly?

Look: I get it, we as customers shouldn’t have to make effort for stupid things. I shouldn’t have to call a contact centre and then write in because a toy retailer takes my money but doesn’t deliver the goods after 1 month with no communication. I shouldn’t have to enquire about my order to find out that the product is actually not in stock and they aren’t sure when it will be. That sort of thing is distressing and not the sort of effort any customer should have to make. It’s the kind of painful effort that the acclaimed business thinker, John Seddon would call “Failure Demand” and yes I do agree failure demand will ruin your bottom line, but it’s not about reducing all effort a customer makes. We don’t need to create vanilla, automated vending machine like companies.

For relationships to flourish requires both sides to put in an effort.

The Uber’s, the Costco’s, even companies like Cummins and American Express are realising relationships are built on mutual value and that requires effort from both sides. The difference is that they are requiring effort from customers so they share in something valuable. The companies mentioned above are not resting on their laurels, they are trying to change and improve their whole operations so that the focus isn’t simply on the effort you make to consume something, and it’s more emotional.

I would suggest it’s less to do with effort and more to do with the principles of consistency, continuous improvement and mutual value; it’s those things that build and sustain relationships. Part of the solution is mindset; the successful companies have embraced the idea of changing and getting better rather than the mindset of defence, where you protect the status quo and effectively stay the same.  

Without effort from both sides you are ill-equipped for a relationship of any longevity. So maybe as you’re working to reduce effort you should also be working to develop some consistency in how you deliver on your promise. Maybe it’s about working to continuously improve all aspects of your operation, and maybe it’s about remaining interested and curious enough to be able to create mutual value, maybe there’s more to it than just effort.


Replies (8)

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By Tibor Kazimir
21st Jan 2016 11:08

On it's own customer effort may not be panacea but surely it would be a good metric as part of a wider dashboard that contains other measures like satisfaction, NPS, customer attrition and so on. I think there is a place for effort but would not use it as a standalone.

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By Blessed25
21st Jan 2016 16:58

I agree - most of your examples offer value over effort, although I'd argue Uber is the odd one out - it may ask you to dowload an app but after that, its arguably much less hassle and quicker than trying to hail a cab on a wet wintery wednesday evening in central London.
ASOS is a good example - ecommerce is definitely at a point where it needs to work out how to offer the same 'tangible' experience that physical stores offer if it is to continue being considered for value over effort.

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Aki Kalliatakis Photo
By aki.kalliatakis1
25th Jan 2016 15:10

Not sure if you are trying to be controversial, but I'm very disinclined to agree with your arguments and examples. After 30 years of consulting in the world of customer management, (mostly promoting the ideas of relationships and experiences, of "eliciting joy, enabling connecxtion, inspiring exploration, evoking pride or impacting society,) when the original, well-researched and credible findings on Customer Effort Score were published in the Harvard Business Review and subsequent book, it felt completely right. For the majority of businesses in the majority of industries that force their customers to jump through hoops, (B2C and B2B,) the FIRST place they need to look for opportunities to improve customer loyalty is by reducing effort. This gives them the right to then build the stuff that creates emotional bonds. The majority of examples that you give exactly prove my point: UBER and IKEA challenged their stuck-in-conventional competition rivals in their industries shudder in fear - because for customers it was now easier and cheaper to do business. The value (similar to,) lies in reducing how hard it is, (physically, intellectually, emotionally and in terms of time effort,) to deal with a company or an industry. The seminal work by Kim and Mauborgne on Blue Ocean Strategy also proves that in many areas we have to simplify as we challenge."Another great example is AMEX: while thousands of other banks just don't get it, AMEX creates a sense of comfort and safety - for a very high fee, I might add.

I don't want to hog the conversation, but, like I said, are you just trying to be controversial, or do you really think customers today will pay more for their lives becoming more complicated?

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By pkraju
26th Jan 2016 06:52

Good article. Examples mentioned though are less relatable. For instance, if you mention Uber, then we need to evaluate how easy or difficult it is to book a cab once you open its App. There are easy ways for the customer to book the cab using the App and there are difficult ways to book the cab. In that context, does the path of least resistance make sense? Would be great if we list examples where customers get more value by doing things the 'longer' way, though there are easy ways to do the same.

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By ebanful
27th Jan 2016 03:45

Thanks for the comments, some interesting perspectives shared. Aki, The main reason was to present an alternate view whilst encouraging debate and discourse because I believe that is where learning happens which hopefully leads to better outcomes. I was have also been frustrated and want to challenge some of the "dumbing down" of customer experience that I see coming from some vendors.

Customer effort can take different forms and it’s not all forms that you need to reduce and reducing effort is not all there is to customer experience.

In my article I suggest that customer effort is not necessarily unfavourable and that some sources of effort can even lead to improved outcomes.
They way I’m increasingly seeing it, is like this, Customers consider effort a bit like an investment, so if the return is not valuable of course they want to invest less, but if the return is valuable they will invest more to get more.
Is it really easier and less effort to shop at ASOS if your big department store has an online shop and a store in a mall with clothing shops aplenty 15 minutes away? How is it less effort to book accommodation on 1 website or app that makes you wait hours or days to confirm? How is it less effort when you arrive in city late at night and weary to fire up that website or app to find accommodation as opposed to simply walking into a hotel/motel and asking for a room? How is it more effort to stick out a hand and flag a taxi car? It's only perceived as easier to buy from the brands like Asos, uber, and Airbnb because you can trust on the balance of probabilities it works and their competitors disrupted themselves by being decidedly mediocre
The examples businesses are all capitalising on the frustration of customers in those markets and focusing on creating value. I would suggest that people are tired, Tired of taxi cars that won’t pick up despite their light for hire being on. Tired of mediocre hotel rooms that are lacking personality, dirty, dated and expensive. Tired of retail stores that are homogeneous, constantly out of stock in the desired range and lacking in useful information about the products they are trying to sell you. Customers are tired of the lack of reliability; the lack of improvement; the lack of mutual value that hampers many businesses still obsessed with the old industrial model of business. Customers are tired of the lack of value, not tired of making an effort where there is value to be gained.

Keep the comments and thoughts coming please.

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Replying to ebanful:
Aki Kalliatakis Photo
By aki.kalliatakis1
27th Jan 2016 15:24

You make some excellent points, and of course you are right when you say that the best learning takes place from debate. An ancient Greek ancestor of mine was hot on that topic! Good post.

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By LinkedIn User 1
25th Jul 2016 09:33

This comment from the MyCustomer LinkedIn group by member David Kohler:

I feel that customers are willing to expend reasonable effort for their part of the relationship or transaction. Investing effort also can lead to a higher appreciation of the value of the product or service consumed (e.g. the IKEA effect). The important thing is to make that effort consistently rewarding and delightful.

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By EJohn Morris
26th Jul 2016 10:48

Its like a hygiene factor, it's important to make the service straightforward but its equally important to make it relevant, practical and valuable. Thanks for posting

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