• November 1, 2021
  • By Jon Picoult , founder, Watermark Consulting

The Great CX Debate: Should Customer Experiences Be Effortless or Exceptional?

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In a provocative Harvard Business Review article, researchers from the Corporate Executive Board (CEB) argued in 2010 that companies should Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers, because “wowing” customers was a losing strategy. The key to building customer loyalty, they claimed, was to simply make it effortless for people to do business with you.

Seven years later, in their book The Power of Moments, Chip and Dan Heath asserted that the key to engaging customers was to delight them with exceptional moments of interaction that they would remember forever. In stark contrast to the CEB research, the Heath brothers urged readers to transform the ordinary into something extraordinary.

These two contrasting approaches to customer experience design can create conflict and confusion for business leaders. Should managers encourage employees to go the extra mile for their customers—to create exceptional, loyalty-enhancing moments? Or should managers orient their staff around the seemingly less inspirational rallying cry to just make it plain easy for people to do business? When choosing between these two strategic alternatives, the right answer is yes.

That’s because, while many people view these as competing schools of thought, the two customer experience strategies have a lot more in common than meets the eye.

This revelation became apparent through a new consumer study my firm conducted to gauge people’s expectations with business interactions. We sought to explore where the customer experience “bar” is set in people’s minds, to better understand just what is required to surprise and delight the typical consumer, with exceptional moments they won’t forget.

We discovered that customer experience disappointments have become so prevalent, consumers are hardly surprised by them. In fact, if anything does surprise or delight them, it’s the rare business that is consistently effortless to work with.

The study found, for example, that nearly half of consumers are not at all surprised when they have difficulty contacting a business to get assistance. And once they make contact, more than half of consumers are not even moderately surprised when employees fail to be helpful or follow through on promises. 

The mere act of a company representative doing what they said they’d do is something consumers don’t take for granted these days, because it’s unusual if they consistently see that behavior from businesses.  That’s how low the bar is set.

And it’s not just in live interactions where consumers have become accustomed to aggravation. Nearly half express little surprise when they struggle to navigate a company’s website or when they receive correspondence from a business that’s difficult to understand.

But how does one reconcile these findings with the prevailing sentiment that, if anything, consumer expectations have risen—driven to new heights by CX-leading companies such as Amazon? The answer lies in the difference between what consumers expect and what they anticipate

We have a logical expectation, for example, that when a customer service representative promises to call us back to resolve an issue, we’ll actually hear from them. But on an intuitive level, one shaped by our past experiences (good and bad), we anticipate a different outcome. 

Consider this: Are you really surprised when that claims representative at your health insurer promises to call you back and then doesn’t follow through? Are you really surprised when you have trouble finding someone to help you at a big box retail store? Are you really surprised when the cable company technician fails to show up as scheduled?

According to Watermark’s research, the answer is no—these scenarios don’t surprise many people, even though the logically accepted “script” for these business interactions would suggest otherwise (i.e., if someone promises to call you, they should of course call you; if you go to a retail establishment, staff should be available to help you; if you make an appointment with someone, they should show up at the agreed-upon time).

The fascinating thing about this dichotomy between what we logically expect but intuitively anticipate is that it often involves interactions that arguably fall into the category of “table stakes”—basic experiential elements that are central to creating an easy, effortless customer experience (e.g., the accessibility of staff, promptness of service, or ownership of contact resolution). 

In the Watermark study, the absence of those elements was not surprising to many people, but their presence was. In essence, we as a society have come to anticipate poor, unfulfilling customer experiences, because, sadly, that’s what many businesses deliver. 

To test this thesis, imagine your reaction when that health insurance claims representative calls you back exactly when promised, or when you seek out a retail store associate for assistance and find a helpful one just steps away, or when the new piece of furniture you purchased comes with assembly instructions that are actually easy to follow. Would you not be pleasantly surprised in these scenarios, given what you typically encounter?

The respondents to our survey certainly were. They overwhelmingly agreed (more than 80 percent of them) that when a company makes it easy to do business, the resulting experience is delightful.

The lesson for business leaders, then, is that the strategic choice between delivering an effortless customer experience versus an exceptional one is a false dilemma. 

While truly differentiated experiences are born from a variety of design tactics (with ease of doing business being just one), there is no shame in orienting an organization around the effortless concept. Staff should not view such a strategy as a tempered aspiration, one that is somehow inferior to all the businesses that aim to delight customers with exceptional, over-the-top experiences.

That’s because the calculus around what it takes to delight a customer has changed. Exceptional, peak moments do matter and companies should strive to create them. However, given the abysmal state of customer experience in many industries – and the resulting influence on what consumers anticipate as a result—it turns out that an effortless experience can often be an exceptional one, too.

Jon Picoult is founder of Watermark Consulting, a customer experience advisory firm that helps companies impress customers and inspire employees, creating raving fans that drive business growth. A sought-after business adviser and speaker, Picoult has worked with some of world’s foremost brands. His new book, From Impressed to Obsessed: 12 Principles for Turning Customers and Employees into Lifelong Fans, will be published by McGraw-Hill in October 2021. Follow Jon on Twitter or Instagram.

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