What do frictionless experiences and the Loch Ness monster have in common?

Published in Latest blogs for ZDNet
4 days ago

Aarron Spinley is one of my favorite guest bloggers. Aside from his day job at SAP as a growth and innovation evangelist in the APAC region, he is one of the most insightful and gifted writers I've had the pleasure of running across. His voice is clear, his thinking clear, and his definition and direction are clear. So, the man is just outright clear. This post is particularly important because it goes after the idea that a completely frictionless set of interactions is not necessarily the best thing -- because it doesn't rise to the level of a memorable experience. A curious thought, one that I haven't been giving any thought to until now, but one that he makes a genuinely cogent case for. So read and enjoy and listen and remember it. 

Take it away, Mr. Spinley.

Oh, we just love a good buzz term, don't we? And there is probably no bigger buzz term right now than "frictionless experience." Sounds grand. The problem is they are about as real a giant sea-bathing monster rocking a Scottish accent.

No, they don't exist. This error in thinking that they do (and I'll explain why they don't shortly) results from the lack of knowledge when it comes to experience economics. The sad reality for sales and marketers is that the industry doesn't (yet) teach it. And that's a huge opportunity. Really, seriously, huge.

So, if you're into marketing and revenue and CX et al, please, lean in.

Truth be told, I reckon 'experience economics' is one of the most important subjects in the customer engagement field. I couldn't do it justice in one piece, so I won't try, but let me focus on a headline mistake being made by so, so many.

We've all seen statements like, "we have invested heavily in our customer service to make the most of the experience economy" or "we created world-class frictionless experiences."

(These are actual quotes).

Yes, they are trying to convey the right sentiment around delivering better customer engagement, but if you are literate in experience economics, you immediately see the error in the thinking and predict the error in execution that may follow.

Services and experiences are two very different things. Truly.

The services revolution first emerged in the mid-1950s and represented a progression in economic value over products (e.g. we paid more for them). Then, several decades later, we started paying more for experiences (at scale anyway) than we did for services. It follows that if you work somewhere in customer strategy, and want to generate and sustain revenue, you should be very concerned with these economic distinctions -- and what it means for your customers.

Joe Pine -- who, along with Jim Gilmore, first sighted and then researched and wrote about the Experience Economy (in fact they coined the term) -- made the point when I interviewed him on Evolve this year that they are part of a "stack" (which also includes commodities and goods, but we'll leave those two alone for the moment).

Now, the circumstance that you can stack one on top of the other, should tell you straight away that they are not the same thing.

When you understand that, then you realize that the way we think about customer service, must be completely different from how we think about customer experience.

Let's color in the lines a little.

You are going to a theme park. You need to find a space to park your car, go through security, line up for food vouchers and ride coupons, make the payment, and get one of those mighty cool wristbands.

But you didn't go there to enjoy the car park or the queue to get in, right?

That part of your visit should be super easy to navigate and over as quickly as possible.  You want the process to be frictionless. You want time to speed up!

Those, my friends, are service attributes.

Once you are inside though, you want time to slow down. You want to soak up the atmosphere, enjoy the rides, take in the occasion, maybe flirt with your date. You don't want that to be over quickly at all!

Those, my friends, are experience attributes.

As Pine and Gilmore define it: Services are about 'time saved.' Experiences are about 'time invested.'

From our customers' point of view, there is a massive psychological difference, which is super important to clue into, because it speaks to how we establish brands today, how we maintain trust, and how we grow customer value through engagement.

Consider this.

Whilst services allow us to fulfill a function (like a query or a payment), experiences are more personal. They are the birthplace of memories, which are the birthplace of feelings, and this starts the domino effect for either value creation or value destruction.

When you stack up enough great experiences, you also stack up great memories and over time, that builds great customer engagement and brand sentiment. All of that translates to loyalty and economic reward. Of course, the reverse applies if the experience is bad. Customers remember those too, and that translates to churn and economic decline.

That is why fields like experience design are so important, and why brand personality, is so important.

By contrast, anything that is "frictionless" is entirely forgettable.

Now, unless for some bizarre reason you actually want your brand to be forgettable, I suggest that rallying your strategy around being frictionless, is a very, very bad idea!

So why do marketing and CX folk repeat the term like they're on commission?

Well, a funny thing about us humans (amongst a vast sea of funny things), is that when enough people say something, the rest of us decide that it must be true. It becomes "accepted wisdom." We stop thinking.

Now, aside from being entirely forgettable, here's the other fundamental problem with "frictionless experiences":  

Just like sea monsters from Scotland, they don't exist!

If something is frictionless then it doesn't rise to the level of being an experience.

So, I submit the big strategy misstep is that we keep ascribing service attributes to conversations about experiences. Dumbing down experiences is indeed dumb. Let us never forget that brands are not carried in marketing plans, CX strategy, or design studios.

Brands only exist in the hearts and the minds, the very souls, of human beings. That is where they are born, live, and if you're not very careful, that is where they die.

Frictionless services are still super important.

Every transactional point of your customers' journey, like parking, queuing, querying, purchasing, etc (the service layer), does need to be nice and easy. It should be frictionless and forgettable.

After all, who wants to remember paying for something?

By the way, if a customer does remember a service interaction, it is because you forced them to. And, trust me, that is usually for the wrong reasons.

There can be another reason, related to what I call the "Novelty Principle," where the service was simply so much better than the industry norm that it was novel and therefore memorable. But that is not sustainable as an experience. It reverts quickly to a service.

The way I see it, the Novelty Principle is the exception that proves the rule.

In most cases though, you have forced a customer to remember the service interaction because it took too long, or was confusing, or something else that the customer thinks is bad. You've created a memorable experience alright -- a terrible one!

That, of course, is the friction that you absolutely want to avoid. Let us never forget that personalization -- which I wrote about it in this column previously -- works in both directions, for good, and for bad when we get it wrong.

Cool. How?

If it is indeed a "stack" as Joe says, then how do you stack services with experiences within customer journeys?

I'm super pumped you asked! Here are a few examples.

Uber makes it easy to hail a ride at the start of the process, and payment is entirely frictionless at the end. What it tries to do is create an experience in the middle of the customer journey -- e.g. the interactions with the driver, the free water, the phone charging, etc.  

Think about it for a second. No one ever tweets about how they paid for the ride (that's not novel anymore), but they do tweet about the cool driver they met this morning.

One user journey. Two forgettable services. One memorable experience.

Now, think about a website. The design ambition for 'adding to cart' and 'checking out' et al should be such that the visitor is virtually on autopilot. In design terms, it's called "low cognitive load." Designed properly, the transaction should just happen.

But what about the rest of the web journey? Should that be experiential?

Story Time

Well, I used to advise a company that sold arts and crafts for hobby enthusiasts and the like. Research showed that their customers were both very community-minded and exhibited a propensity for hoarding their favorite materials. So, the team created a "My Stash" section on the website where they could digitally hoard much-loved products and a "My Story" section where they uploaded videos or stories about them making things -- kind of a "how-to" for their co-crafters to share in. Ala, community.

These experiential journeys, leveraging those deep personas, were designed to look and feel completely different from the catalog and cart (e.g. transactional) sections of the very same site. The idea? Get customers to invest time in the more fun space and help co-curate the experience, and in doing so, the transaction takes care of itself.

Here's another approach.

Instead of differentiating between service and experience journeys within a website (or any other "channel" for that matter), you may decide (and many businesses should) to make the webstore a transactional service only, surrounded by other designed experiences in separate but connected channels in the overall user journey.

Think about a brand activation at a carnival with some interactive physical competition that rewards participants with exclusive products or free swag or whatever. The competition and the social buzz--– that's the experience. It takes time and is fun and memorable.

The exclusive barcode they get for participating takes them straight to checkout page pre-loaded with their goodies and all they do is hit 'Confirm.' That's the service, which is not, ever, memorable.

Friends, there are so many variations in execution for both B2C and B2B, but these key principles should be helping to inform customer engagement strategy. Here's a little pro-tip: No matter what kind of project you are working on, always ask, "Are we delivering a service interaction, or are we creating a brand experience?"

Close the door on the way out

Buzz terms are often wrong, especially the popular ones. They hark from our leaning to heuristics (mental short cuts). They're kind of lazy and not entirely rational.

And sooner or later, they buzz off.

It would be nice if "Frictionless experience" saw itself out, closing the door quietly as it slips into the night, but I suspect it will linger a while yet. Please ignore it.

Focus instead on the actual economic and design fundamentals of the Experience Economy to drive growth customer growth. Frictionless service and dramatic experience can absolutely co-exist, but never, ever, confuse them.

To be entirely frictionless is to be entirely disruptable.

Author's Footnote

We are living through crazy times. Through health, economic, and social upheaval we are witnessing a new dawn. For many among us, it is a time of distress and uncertainty, and the bar of corporate responsibility has moved. It's not just about turning up with great experiences anymore. It's about how we show our hearts when we do.

Thank you, Aarron.

On another note

The CRM Watchlist 2021 due to the COVID-19 crisis has been canceled for this year. I realized that no matter how many people registered, if we have even a possibility of second wave coming in the fall, then the likelihood of enough concentrated time with no distractions to complete the Watchlist questionnaire, likely remotely, is about zero. 

It will return in 2022 (meaning 2021).

But, in lieu of the Watchlist... 

The CRM Watchlist and CRM Playaz proudly announce:

The CRM Watchlist Doing Well by Doing Good Award

This award will go to three companies who have shown themselves to rise above the norm and respond to a crisis in an exceptional manner over 2020.  There will be no registration, and no need to nominate your company. There will be no questionnaire. The three companies will be chosen by a small panel of judges (Brent Leary and I) for their efforts at the end of the year. We will be tracking a list of companies, which we will have ready by no later than the end of July. If you feel that we are not likely to see your efforts, feel free to email me at paul-greenberg3@the56group.com about your company. You do not have to make a case. Put in the subject line "CRM Watchlist Doing Well By Doing Good Awards" and give me the name of your company, and you're on the list. Guaranteed. More on the award will emerge throughout July.  Do not be shy about nominating your company.

OK, everyone, that's it. Remember CRM Playaz Playaz Place Bar and Not Grill Happy Hours are every Wednesday at 3:30pm ET until the end of the year (at least as of now). They are a blast, they are free, and they are sold out routinely.  Here's the link to register.  

We'll see you there.


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