Why brands must stop trying to eliminate customer effort

31st Mar 2017

Deploying customer effort score (CES) could be destructive under two conditions: using CES as a key metric for your critical touchpoint experiences and your brand value is not about being effortless. It would generate three negative consequences:

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

The original application boundary of CES - service

In the Harvard Business Review article Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers, the CEB’s Dixon and colleagues stated, “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 suggested 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; minimise channel switching by increasing self-service channel “stickiness”; elicit and use feedback from disgruntled or struggling customers; and focus on problem solving, not speed.”

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

The extended coverage to CX - 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 reduces costs and become more efficient. It is no surprise that CES is fast becoming a popular performance measurement metric in numerous organisations since its launch in 2010.

Nowadays, the application of CES has been extended from service to CX - from driving effortless service interactions to driving effortless experiences; CES, along with NPS and CSAT, are the three most important customer experience metrics.

However, the truth is, 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 at Disney Institute), and that's the underlining cause, and the beginning, of a serious problem.

Voice of customers: just hate to 'sweat'

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

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. I display just a few of the voice of customers here:

Pain point #1 - forced round tour

  • Forced use of round tour, difficulty of 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 short-cuts, 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 check-out counter

  • Checkouts are an awful experience!”
  • Way too crowded and line-ups are too long at check-out.”
  • 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...”

The emotion curve echoes: 'sweat' is painful


After listening to the voice of IKEA's customers, let's take a look at the Emotion Curve of IKEA the Netherlands. An Emotion Curve is mapped by linking all the satisfaction levels of the sub-processes (touchpoint experiences) and attributes that are encountered or perceived by customers and affect their emotions in a natural time sequence during a touchpoint experience (total customer experience).

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 strike for an effortless experience?

Branded pleasure and good pain

The mission of IKEA’s founder, Ingvar Kamprad, is to make quality furniture that everyone can afford. Their brand values are 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 “good value for money” and align with IKEA's brand values. As these pleasures are reflecting their brand vales, we call them branded pleasures.

The inadequate on-site staff support is a good pain, as it could save significant resources for the branded pleasure - price.

IKEA never says service is a brand value. 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 pains.

Why they are 'good pains'? Because by allowing those pains which don't reflect IKEA's brand values - 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 pain is to support branded pleasure.

Good pain may help driving business results 

I might have convinced you that the inadequate on-site staff support is a good pain, 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, 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. (For more about the X-VOC Data, see my article Starbucks: 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.

A wise business leader would never let customers suffer for nothing.

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 check-out.

While I suspect Ingvar Kamprad never conducted the same research as ours to derive instant purchase drivers, his judgments to tolerate those pains, 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 pains. Ingvar makes customers 'sweat' with a reason: allowing good pains 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 pains, efforts, frictions, imperfections and defects out of an experience. The uprising of CES in CX is not a coincidence.


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 human beings only remember two moments of any experience - the peak and the end. 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


Now, allow me to take you through a paradigm shift - allowing pain 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 values reflected at the pleasure peaks, i.e. your branded pleasures.

If Starbucks focused their resources driving full-force to deliver a frictionless experience their brand might not be recalled.

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 memories - the '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 values 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?

Pains and efforts will be minimised 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' pains and pleasure peaks are gone.

Part two of this article: Customer effort is good: How successful brands make their customers sweat



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