Tethr Blog
Matt Dixon

Beyond customer effort score – The four flavors of customer loyalty

The research that eventually became The Effortless Experience began in late 2007 and our research team at CEB presented our first set of findings—specifically that companies are far better off trying to eliminate effort from the customer experience than trying to “wow” and delight their customers—to a group of 25 CX and service leaders in a conference room at the Key Bridge Marriott in Rosslyn, Virginia in 2008.  

Suffice it to say, the reaction wasn’t initially positive.

The executives we had assembled to preview our findings were less than enthused about what we were proposing. They asked lots of hard questions about the data. They wanted to know how we ran the analysis and what we did and did not control for. They said that they knew that delighting customers and going above and beyond was the right thing to do…so they rejected our argument out of hand. Some understood the findings but lamented the idea of communicating to their frontline that they should aspire to “be average.” And many pushed back on the suggestion that they use a metric like our newly invented Customer Effort Score (CES) over traditional measures like CSAT or NPS.

Like the stages of grieving, we worked through the anger and denial…and eventually got to acceptance. By the end of a long day hunkered down in that hotel conference room, they were asking themselves and one another some pretty hard questions about whether they needed to fundamentally rethink what they were focused on…whether they’d gotten it wrong.

A couple of years later, in 2010, the team at CEB introduced the idea of effort reduction and the CES to the broader CX and service world in a Harvard Business Review article entitled “Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers.” As you can imagine, we took some flak for the title alone. But, the article started to get passed around and began to make some waves in the market.

In 2013, as we continued to explore the effort reduction story, we were approached by a publisher about writing a book that would package up all of the research and our recommendations for companies. That book became The Effortless Experience and over the next five years, our team would spend an inordinate amount of time—and rack up an unseemly number of air travel miles—telling everybody about the research. I’m reasonably certain that over that period, we didn’t turn down a single opportunity, no matter how small, to get the word out. This was an important message and we wanted CX and service leaders around the world to hear it because we thought it could genuinely change the fortunes of businesses and positively impact the lives of their customers.

Only now, a decade after the original research, has the idea of effort reduction and delivering effortless experiences really come into its own and become a truly “sticky” concept in the CX world. It seems everywhere you turn, practitioners and thought leaders alike have embraced the idea of reducing customer effort.  [It’s in many ways deeply ironic that Dan Heath, author of Made to Stick—the definitive guide for how to create sticky ideas—wrote the foreword to The Effortless Experience because the idea itself was anything but sticky for a very long time.]

The Customer Effort Score is today considered one of the three major CX metrics (along with NPS and CSAT) that organizations track. At the recent Qualtrics X4 Summit in Salt Lake City, 700 CX leaders packed the room late in the day to hear the presentation of the Effortless research—and a few dozen hung out for another hour to ask questions and to tell me what their teams had done with the effort concepts. And last year, none other than Shep Hyken, a renowned customer service guru, added his own seal of approval with the release of his book, The Convenience Revolution, further expanding on the idea that “making it easy” is not just an important goal for companies, it might be the most important goal to pursue.

All in all, it’s exciting and gratifying to see the concept of effort reduction taking hold in the market. But, the one thing that troubles me is the way I see companies going about the task of reducing customer effort—namely, it seems many organizations are exclusively focused on “chasing the number” of CES rather than trying to understand what’s really driving it.

While CES is a powerful tool to help organizations track effort and spot at-risk customers, like any CX metric, it’s just a number and an exclusive focus on the number can mean that leaders miss the bigger picture story behind the number.

To help explain, I’ll use a simple, but powerful, framework that my colleague Ted McKenna created recently.

Think of customer loyalty in two dimensions. On the one axis, you’ve got “stickiness of the brand/product,” ranging from low to high. Stickiness gets to how embedded is the product in the customer’s life, how hard it is for a competitor to dislodge. On the other axis is the “effort of the experience,” ranging from high to low.

To be clear, some products offer only “captive stickiness” to their customers—that is to say, customers would switch if it was easy…but it’s not easy to switch, so they end up staying. Put differently, they stay not because they choose to, but because they feel like leaving is too difficult or painful. Of course, there is “willful stickiness” too—for products so compelling and valuable that customers stay by choice. Even if another option comes along, the customer is so in love with the product that they stay.

The upper left represents those companies that earn customer loyalty strictly as a result of the easy experience they offer. For me, this is my neighborhood grocer. Candidly, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s offer a far better product and brand value proposition—better selection, better prices, you name it. But, my neighborhood store is right there. The parking lot is never crowded and you can get in and out of the place quickly. So, I keep going there.

The bottom right is for products that are hard to use but are nevertheless compelling and sticky (e.g., the German luxury car I had a number of years ago that was awesome to drive but a pain to maintain) or customers who feel captive to a company and, despite the high level of effort they deliver in the customer experience, switching is just too costly or too much of a pain. I’d put my bank and my airline in that latter category. My bank is a pain to do business with—especially when things go wrong. I remember being in Mexico on vacation with my wife (our first vacation in four years that didn’t involve the kids) and being on hold for more than an hour because they shut off my credit card, suspecting fraud. And, their digital banking capabilities are way behind that of other financial institutions. But, my paycheck is direct deposited there, there’s a branch down the street and they have ATMs all over my area. And my airline…I’m a top-tier customer…but I still get treated like everybody else. That said, all of my miles are with them and I’m so close to hitting a million miles, which will earn me elite status for life.

The top right is obviously the holy grail. There are certainly some companies for whom most of their customers would put them in this box because they deliver an incredibly sticky product or brand and a low-effort experience. I can think of only a few companies that fit this category for me: Apple and Amazon come to mind. For me, Amazon Prime is a great example—it’s so incredibly easy (especially when things go wrong) and phenomenally sticky and woven into my life. Honestly, Jeff Bezos could increase the cost 3X and I wouldn’t even look at the bill.

But for companies on the effort reduction journey, we recommend that the first thing they do is not to come up with a plan to shift to the top right, but to eliminate the bottom left from their value proposition. The bottom left which is the death zone, the lose-lose box of customer loyalty and, even if there aren’t a ton of customers who would put you in that box, it doesn’t take many to completely undermine all of the good work the company is doing.

To be clear, there aren’t a whole lot of companies for whom the majority of their customers are in this box—and that’s for good reason: you won’t be around for very long if your product and brand have no appeal and you frustrate your customers with a high-effort experience.  But all companies—even the best brands—have some customers who would put them in this box and it’s imperative that they identify those customers and act quickly to remediate the situation. This is where the individuals most prone to committing “brand arson” reside. They feel they’ve been wronged by the company and, it many cases, they take their feelings to social media. They feel it’s their duty not just to stop doing business with the company, but to take as many current and prospective customers with them.

Great brands can weather these negative customer situations better than others. There are clearly customers who loathe Apple or Amazon out there (after all, they have greater than zero-percent churn), but those brands have built up so much positive equity that their relatively few vocal detractors cannot do much damage to their overall brand equity. But great brands are also listening enterprises who dig deep into what’s driving product stickiness and customer experience issues in order to stop these one-offs from becoming more widespread.

How you identify these customer situations so that you can act quickly to remediate and learn from them has always been a challenge for companies. Historically, organizations have relied on surveys to help them spot these trouble spots. But, given their low response rates, surveys fail to capture many at-risk customers until much later, after customers have already churned and publicly aired their grievances. Even a highly negative response to the CES question on a survey won’t tell the whole story here. A bad CES result could just be a reflection of this interaction (i.e., dealing with this issue was a pain…but in general, you guys are pretty good) or it might mask a very sticky product or brand proposition (i.e., “I love your product…when it works”).  These are bad situations, to be sure, but I wouldn’t characterize them as lower left situations.

At Tethr, we’ve trained our machine learning platform to pick up the warning signs that a customer may be in this “lose-lose” box. As with any new training set, we started by listening to calls that were the worst of the worst. If you take out the colorful language, what you find is pretty fascinating.

The recurring feeling in all of these calls was that the customer just felt like the company was wasting their time.  This goes well beyond simple effort drivers like repeat contacts, channel switching, transfers or repeating information.  And it seemed to be something more concentrated and dire than customer anger, frustration, confusion or any other sentiment we’d detected previously in our efforts to teach our machine to understand and identify sources of customer effort.  It’s almost like having all of these effort drivers wrapped up into one.

We gave a name for this new category: reoccurring effort. But even that doesn’t fully capture the depth of what’s going on here for a customer. It’s not just that the experience itself is high-effort. It’s that it feels to the customer like their relationship with the company is just one horrible high-effort experience after another. And, to make matters (far) worse, the product and brand aren’t compelling, differentiated or sticky—which makes the fact that the experience is so high-effort that much worse.

When you listen to these calls, they are like train wrecks. You can hear the anger and vitriol oozing through the call. For one cable company we work with, we heard a customer spend 15 minutes—barely keeping his cool—explaining to a rep who started the call by asking the seemingly innocuous question, “How can I help you today?,” that he’d already spent roughly 12 hours combined trying to fix the issue he was having with his wireless router. He spent hours on the company’s website. He went to the router manufacturer’s website. He went to YouTube and various online support communities. He had called a half dozen times over the course of three days reexplaining his story every single time he called. “YOU GUYS ARE WASTING MY TIME,” he seethed, and then went on to threaten cancellation, move to a competitor (who, he noted offers the same internet speed for less per month) and to tell everybody he knows not to do business with this company.

We shared it with one CX leader at the company who came up with a better description: chronic suck. In many ways, it seems appropriate. It’s the sum total of what you get when you mix an extremely high-effort experience with a dangerously low level of product or brand stickiness.

When we took completed surveys from this company and paired them up with customer voice data, we found that reoccuring effort—when you combine it with other sentiments that tend to co-present (namely, frustration and churn mentions) drove a 31% increase in likelihood of an NPS detractor score. And, unfortunately, there was a significant number of interactions that fell into this category…which means not just losing those specific customers, but leaving them in a state where they want to go out and tell the world about their horrific experiences.

What’s more, reoccuring effort happens often enough that it’s a real issue for most companies.  For one wireless carrier we work with, we took a random sample of 50,000 sales-related calls and found that reoccuring effort appeared in roughly 2,200 calls (4.4%). That’s 2,200 customers who are likely not only to churn, but to spread negative word of mouth about the company to friends, family and coworkers.

Do you know where your customers would place you on this grid? And, more importantly, do you know why?

Next time, we’ll talk about the broader issue of repeat contacts—the bane of CX and service leaders’ existence and one of the biggest contributors to high-effort experiences.

Contact us at Tethr to learn more about how our enterprise listening platform can help you understand the “why” behind the “what” of your survey scores.

The Effortless Experience team at CEB that I mentioned earlier is now part of a standalone company named Challenger. This team is a great resource for anyone looking to learn more about the Effortless Experience research—and how to develop effort-reduction skills at the frontline. They work with organizations around the world on this sort of stuff every day and have a wealth of experience and insight to share.

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