Friction Along the Arc of Customer Experience: It’s Not Only Digital
Like any human, I am subject to dark thoughts. Here is the worst of mine: “I would be so happy if I never purchased anything ever again.”
That darkness occurs whenever there is unnecessary, frustrating friction in my customer experience.
I appreciate that so many companies are focused on smoothing digital friction, and perhaps reaching the new holy grail of “amazing customer experience”. They should be.
However, digital experience represents only a sliver of interactions with customers. The glaring reality is that we as customers live in the real world.
We interact across channels and over time.
To smooth customers’ entire experience, what should be our holy grail, we necessarily must look along the arc of customer interaction. Customers experience companies end-to-end: when they become aware, when they consider and assess, when they purchase and ideally purchase again, as loyalty grows, and perhaps as they exit.
Our customer understanding must be end-to-end as well.
If we focus myopically on one channel, or even a category of channels, perhaps we can smooth certain interactions. But we will fail to achieve the ultimate objective: valuable relationships, customer loyalty, predictable revenue.
Their currency is money. My currency is time.
Worse, if we fail to plan, or lose focus and concentrate exclusively on company benefits (reducing overhead, creating greater efficiency), and don’t factor how we should support customers, then we will fail to meet our objective entirely.
Let’s review a few examples of friction along the arc of customer experience, where one channel saved or failed a customer experience:
Amazing Customer Experience, But Not in Digital
Businesses count on their websites for heavy lifting, and they should. Digital management of marketing and sales steps is cost-effective, it speeds process, increases measurability, and reduces error rates.
That is true when digital channels support customers smoothly. When digital steps are poorly planned, stop working, or worse malfunction, they discourage engagement and purchase, and can create wonderful opportunity for competitors.
As an example, for some time, I was interested in a luxury iPhone accessory that I couldn’t justify. When I found it drastically on sale on an ecommerce site that I hadn’t heard of previously, I decided to purchase it.
I added the item—so excited!—to the cart and dutifully created an account, entering my contact and payment details. I hit the “order” button only to be notified that my cart was empty.
I assumed that the item had sold out. No; still available.
I repeated the process—three times.
I could not conceive that a legitimate company could have such a broken process. I Googled the company thinking that I had given my credit card number to a spoofed site. Legitimacy confirmed, I called customer service.
The wait time was protracted but I assumed every other shopper was having the same bad, frictioned experience.
I was about to abandon the purchase just as I was connected with customer service. The representative could not have been more helpful. He apologized, and kept me engaged while he managed my transaction efficiently.
In this example, the digital experience was a failure. And the failure was by (as I learned) an established company that only does business online.
My delight at finding an item, finally at my strike price, quickly turned to exasperation from frustrating digital roadblock after frustrating digital roadblock. It would have been better if the site was simply down.
This customer continued working hard to reward the company with revenue by looking up their customer service number, dialing, waiting—and admittedly Googling for competitors with the item at the sale price who might not be as frustrating.
It was only when I was past the digital channel that the friction was smoothed—by old school efficient customer service.
Setting Frictiony Expectations Early
I led a consulting engagement years ago to uncover the root cause of early life customer attrition. From that effort, the vulnerability of customers at this critical milestone became clear.
Customers’ interaction—and attachment—at the first transaction is about the product. Any shinier object (or service) is an easy replacement. If customers’ expectations are off, if they experience early friction, become displeased, find a better price, or simply have buyers’ remorse, they can easily undo the deal.
At the first purchase, customers are not attached to the company. They likely have not had the benefit of those “amazing customer experiences”.
The consulting engagement clarified the cost of early attrition also. All marketing and sales investment in acquiring that customer are wasted. Acquisition and revenue targets can be missed, marketing and sales must work harder, and KPI’s report disappointing productivity.
As an example of early life vulnerability, I recently purchased software and after completing the transaction, tried to download it. The system would not respond. I made repeated attempts. Before I could even access the product: digital friction.
I contacted customer service. Their business hours were 10AM – 5PM mountain time. And yet, my business hours are not. I planned to install and begin working with the software that I paid for on my schedule, not theirs. I still did not have access to the product I paid for: now adding service friction.
When a customer service person finally responded, he delivered the software files and instructions through DropBox. I tried repeatedly to install without any success. I reached out again and was tersely told that they are a young company that is doing its best. I still could not access the product I paid for. But I did experience heaps of friction.
When early experience is nothing but relentless friction, this is how companies set expectations for the relationship. In this example, I did not feel the love. The company took my money and then made my experience all about them (their hours, their failure, they’re doing their best). I paid for the product, and I paid for their shortcomings.
This type of friction is why customers cancel quickly, as I did. As I had recently assessed options, it was so easy to go with the second choice.
This young company doing its best fails to understand its business. Certainly, their business is developing software, and marketing and selling it.
But there is such a fundamental lack of understanding of the significance that customers play in their business. If they had even the faintest recognition that customers are the only source of revenue, they would have smoothed digital friction, support friction, installation friction, customer service friction.
And they failed to recognize the root cause of all this friction: their currency is money. My currency is time.
Digital Convenience Undone
Companies aspire to a recurring revenue model: appealing to customers for repeated, even committed, purchases. There is a great payoff for customers too who are spared the inconvenience of remembering, and then shopping for, items they purchase routinely. Often savings are a nice kicker.
As an example, I arranged auto delivery for pet supplies. The transaction process is a breeze: select items including the recurring timing. I am notified prior to and at shipping.
Because this company packs 40-pound bags with the rest of my order, I routinely receive a damaged, broken, leaking, greasy mess. A customer service rep explained that their “computer” tells them how to pack each box, which must reduce their shipping costs.
That’s great for them: they get predictable revenue and can improve their margins by controlling costs.
For the customer, however, all the set-it-and-forget-it convenience is gone because what is delivered, along with damaged product, is a chore. That is friction all over my rug.
The company limited their perspective of customer experience to transactional convenience with a discount. However, end-to-end customer experience does not factor in their planning. They fail to realize that they pushed inconvenience forward, into the delivery step, creating friction as a result.
Chafed from an Overlooked Digital Opportunity
Increasingly companies rely on digital channels to support customers. Customers are free to manage their own orders and accounts. When done well, it is seamless and efficient for company and customer.
When companies fail to plan, or do not factor customers’ benefits into their planning, the objective of customer support is undone.
As an example, I wanted to make a change to my phone service. I logged into my account, provided my password and answered the security question. I navigated to change the feature only to be directed to customer service. Friction begins.
When I reached a representative, he directed me back online. (Candidly, I don’t know why he didn’t just answer the question. We were both already on the phone.) Friction continues from either or all of poor training, incompetence, and/or bad attitude.
When I told the “service rep” that the website directed me to him, he offered to transfer me to a technician. Keep the friction coming!
I didn’t realize the request was so complex—because it wasn’t. The tech told me how to program the change from my phone. I just needed to enter “*” and their super-secret two-digit code. (The tech also told me that the customer service rep could have provided it.) Although she was helpful, the final interaction just added punctuation: FRICTION!
This is a fitting example of customer service information that should be readily available through Google, or minimally on the company website. There was no need to log into my account, or be redirected, then directed back, and finally forwarded.
This little piece of information (and others like it) are the textbook example of how companies can introduce a digital solution that would have an outsized impact. I would have welcomed even a simple list because visually searching that list would have been more convenient that the friction at digital and customer service steps.
The telecommunications company, despite what I imagine are ample resources, has not gone through the effort to understand customers’ needs, and how to best serve those needs. They have not mapped customer behavior and then aligned their resources to support that behavior efficiently.
Loyalty: When Friction Gets Personal
I mentioned earlier that customers can easily attrite in early life because they have no company attachment. The company’s ability to derive customer understanding, turn it into relevant messaging and support, and demonstrate appreciation all have yet to be revealed.
Every company aspires to building a loyal customer segment. And they should: repeat customers are extremely valuable. Depending on the research, the value derived from repeat customer purchase can be 5x or 25x as compared to the one-and-done segment. The costs to cultivate existing customers is lower. Repeat customers spend more on average and are better brand promoters.
However, the challenges to establishing customer loyalty only grow. With so many companies aggregating commodity products and competing on price, company experience that drives loyalty can become secondary to grasping for the next transaction. Tactics often replace strategy, at the cost of customer loyalty.
There is a double-edged sword that comes with loyalty, too. When customers become displeased, their loyalty can erode and any resulting defection can be far more costly. Politics aside, Uber presents a convenient example.
A friend mentioned how impressed he was with Starbucks’ loyalty program’s digital flywheel. He directed me to a video of Starbucks’ executive team presenting the digital evolution they had successfully introduced. It was inspiring. They had clearly defined strategic objectives, factoring company and customer benefits for the digital journey, and then methodically executed the digital transformation. The results were equally impressive: a better program for customers, and efficiency and revenue gains for Starbucks.
I am extremely loyal to Starbucks, but to be honest, I was a passive participant in the loyalty program. After watching the video, I realized that I should take better advantage and decided it was worth five minutes to understand what all those stars are about.
I logged into my account and found I had accumulated quite a nice star balance that translated to free stuff.
Quite coincidentally, I received an email telling me that a big bunch of my stars were expiring and that I had limited time to claim my rewards.
Now motivated—free stuff expiring!—I swung by my local store.
When I later checked my app, I realized that Starbucks had not honored the reward.
Let’s be honest. It was an $8.53 oversight. The price is not the issue. Starbucks had established value about these rewards: that is how they demonstrated their appreciation. They motivated me to act. And then they failed to deliver the promise that they had made so urgent. And they created friction for a loyal customer.
This loyal customer played by their rules; Starbucks did not. And then they heaped on the friction when I was told that stars can’t be extended. Honestly, it’s their program. They can do whatever they want.
Instead, they credited my card slightly more than the cost.
The next time I went in to claim a reward, it happened again.
What Starbucks failed to recognize is that the friction is not about 2x $8.53. They established a value beyond price for promised rewards. Those rewards represented appreciation—and my value to them.
When they fail to deliver on the promise, they negated that appreciation. And when they failed a loyal customer, they added to the burden when she had to work just to get what she should have received at the register. This issue is about setting expectations and providing friction instead.
And it’s about the cost to replace a loyal customer.
Starbucks clearly made great changes to their digital loyalty program. However, that improvement did not extend to an instore experience. Whether a training or adherence issue, it doesn’t matter to the customer.
Amazing Experiences Along the Arc of Customer Interactions
To establish and benefit from annuity customer relationships, the entire customer experience must be considered.
Companies should begin by understanding how customers interact, through what channels with what content—and the outcomes that result.
Once behavior is understood, then context must be created. That requires further analysis and critical thinking. Is the customer kicking tires? Educating themselves? Price shopping? Ready to purchase? Or already lost?
Then customer experience must be strategically planned factoring benefits to both company and customer. Plans must extend to tactical execution—digital and real world.
I have intentionally written “amazing customer experience” in quotes. That is to indicate my skepticism.
I am skeptical because I have been informally polling. The companies that promise “amazing customer experience” offer just digital solutions, and even they seem limited to website creation.
I am skeptical because customers require so much more than embedded video and something that spins.
I am skeptical because the promise is nebulous. What makes experiences “amazing”?
Frankly, my bar for “amazing” is set very low: when I fulfill my side of the bargain (i.e., pay for goods and/or services), it would be “amazing” if they were ordered and delivered without inconveniencing me.
And it would stave off the dark thoughts.
That’s not to say that digital platforms aren’t important—they are vital. But they are not everything. They are not a point solution.
When engaging clients in Hampstead’s Customer Optimization service, I advise that we assess customer behavior end-to-end. Again, that is how customers experience companies, in and out of digital and the real world. We need that necessary perspective to smooth friction everywhere.
It is the strategic, holistic solution required to attract, engage, keep, and grow valuable annuity customer relationships.
Photo credit: Igor Ovsyannykov