The business world loves easy answers, but the secret to success is often shrouded in nuance. Take the current trend in customer experience (CX): Effortless and frictionless experiences. In a world of “unexpectedly high call volumes,” complicated return policies, and mobile apps that make us want to hurl our phones, it’s pretty clear that most brands tend to make it unnecessarily difficult for customers.

It is also evident that brands that remove unnecessary friction improve their ability to foster strong customer relationships. But take note of those qualifiers in those last two sentences—“unnecessarily difficult” and “unnecessary friction”—because the proper CX for your brand demands you make smart decisions about where and when customer effort is not only necessary but even a good thing for the customer and your brand.

Being effortless is not a simple goal for you to strive for in every touchpoint of your customer journey. There are times effort is good. Effort sometimes produces feelings of pride and accomplishment. Effort can imbue a product or brand with emotion. Effort can reduce risk and costs. And one customer’s effort can add value for other customers. There are times when the customer and brand both benefit by having the customers get their hands (metaphorically) a little dirty.

For example, which is more effortless: Buying a teddy bear off the shelf or spending an hour crafting your own at a Build-A-Bear Workshop? The reason children (and parents) love their Happy Hugs Teddies Bears and Kabu Catlynns is that they take the time to personalise the product, adding clothes, shoes, sounds, and scents. Each bear is special, like no one else’s, and that is thanks to the customer’s effort. A completely tricked-out Build-A-Bear plush will cost you time, effort, and a 300 per cent or more premium on the teddy bears sitting waiting on the shelf, but your kids will treasure it forever.

Which is more effortless: Having a TV stand delivered to your home or spending two hours making an IKEA BESTÅ? The “IKEA effect” is so well known, it even has its own Wikipedia entry. It is described as “a cognitive bias in which consumers place a disproportionately high value on products they partially created.” IKEA has said that having customers build their own furniture is a reason for their attractive pricing, but it is also true that your effort constructing IKEA furniture provides a sense of “stolthet” (which is Swedish for pride), and it’s a big part of IKEA’s success. In one study of the Ikea effect, researchers found people who built their own products were willing to pay 63 per cent more for the product than would non-builders. (Of course, not everyone wants to put in that effort, so IKEA has partnered with TaskRabbit to provide assembly services—an important reminder of the need to understand your personas and craft different journeys for different needs.)

Which is more effortless: Being done with your transaction once you get out of a cab or taking time to rate and review your rideshare driver’s friendliness, cleanliness, and skill? While transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft have been effective at removing friction from the on-demand transit experience, there are key moments when they add, rather than subtract, effort. Rating your driver gives you a sense of control, makes you feel valued, and encourages a sense of community where every rider helps out everyone else to weed out bad drivers. The Lyft experience would be less without the customer effort required to rate each driver.

The science on the benefits of effort to brands is not new. Almost 70 years ago, sales of cake mixes were beginning to flatten, so General Mills consulted Ernest Dichter, known as the “father of motivational research.” He found that “the very simplicity of mixes — just add water and stir — made women feel self-indulgent for using them.” He not only encouraged the company to remove eggs from the mix so that customers would feel more involved in the final product, but he also encouraged ads that suggested homemakers do more to personalise their creations with special frosting and trims. Dichter encouraged making the product more effortful to increase customers’ engagement, emotion, and pride in the outcome.

The problem with effort isn’t that effort is inherently bad; it is that brands add effort for the wrong, often careless reasons. Frequently, friction occurs because brands don’t want to pay the costs of reducing effort (such as staffing their call centers to pick up the phone quickly when you call). At other times, effort is created to discourage customers from actions that reduce profitability (such as strict limitations on returns). And marketers can be masters of increasing effort provided it gets the consumers to think about the brand—pop-up and pre-roll ads, overly frequent offers in your inbox, and other “brand engagement” strategies are all ways marketers increase friction to benefit the brand rather than the customer.

While few brands are at risk of this, there can be risks with being too effortless—your brand can simply disappear. Some utilities are struggling with this challenge–reliable delivery of gas and electricity, smart meters, and automatic billing have made many utility companies completely effortless and completely forgotten. (True story: Two years ago my electricity went out and had to check my bank app to see to whom I pay my bills because I could not recall my utility provider.) The problem for utilities is that they face new forms of competition, such as services to help people manage their energy usage and smart home products that help reduce energy costs. At risk of being disintermediated in a marketplace that is becoming less regulated, utilities are finding ways to be more visible, such as positioning themselves even more as customers’ partners in managing their energy. Their key to success is to increase engagement (and thus effort) in ways customers will welcome and allow them to decrease their costs or feel pride in reducing their carbon footprint.

Your goal isn’t merely to be effortless; it’s to provide what customers want. That is what great CX is about—putting the customer at the center, recognising their wants and needs, and being effortless where and when it benefits customers. And, of course, there are many times effortless is exactly the right call. My friends at CEB, now part of Gartner, pioneered great research and guidance on effortless experiences and customer effort score.

In CEB’s research of how customer service performance drives customer loyalty, it found companies underestimate the value of meeting expectations in customer interactions and overestimate the change in customer loyalty resulting from exceeding customer expectations. It found that the way to prevent greater customer disloyalty is by ensuring a low-effort customer service experience. But not every experience is a customer service interaction or one in which customers may seek effortlessness, where customers mostly want to get back to the more important stuff in their lives (e.g., building a teddy bear with their kids). As a result, brands need to be smart about how and where they pursue effortless, frictionless experiences.

Effortless and frictionless may sound good, but as a northerner, I also know the challenges of driving on an icy and frictionless surface. If your brand wants to get traction and drive your customers in the right direction, a little bit of the right friction can be important. My peers on the new Gartner for Marketers team (now including the experts from the former CEB and L2) help our clients understand where and how effortless experiences matter most, how brands need to manage perception, best practices for CX, and innovative ways to create the right customer experiences.

*This article is reprinted from the Gartner Blog Network with permission. 

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