To Have Friction or Not To Have Friction Along the Customer Journey

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With the convergence of context, channels, content, and commerce; friction at different stages of the customer journey is considered the worst enemy of customer experience (CX). Regardless of the industry or area, your business operates in; this has resulted in an ongoing debate in experience economy on how to make great products and deliver exceptional services as it is an opportunity to create a lasting and meaningful experience for digital-savvy customers. So one of the items rising as a top priority of CX agenda is to provide a seamless and frictionless experience across all channels.

I am a fan of eliminating the ‘grit and grime and minimizing the moment of collision’ from the customer’s journey. You know…the little things…inconsistencies in the interface, needless actions/decisions, loading time of the website or poor navigation, cluttered or distracted visuals, confusing or never-before-seen function, required to re-state the customer ID and the context every time you speak to someone and so on, that makes things hard or uncomfortable for customers and employees alike.

However, not every brand has deep pockets like Amazon to identify and remove the speed bumps and potential roadblocks to a great experience. Hence, if frictionless CX is to be the new norm and reality, will that not put us inevitably on the path to convenience and price competition, and maybe a brand’s monopoly in the long run? Hence the question – if the intent is to differentiate the brand and standout, is it wise to become clones, and does it make sense to totally remove all the ‘friction’ from the CX?

The article instead of viewing friction as negative that requires to be eliminated, argues friction can also be positive. It explores the different facets of friction and the point of investing in it for – developing, removing and improving it in the CX strategy. The intent is to share my thoughts to use friction to differentiate yourselves and stave off price competition and apply it to your conversations in a positive, honest and respectful manner.

Decoding Friction

Let’ start by defining friction.

The Oxford Dictionary defines friction as – The resistance that one surface or object encounters when moving over another. It also the conflict or animosity caused by a clash of wills, temperaments, or opinions.

Also, many CX gurus are beating the drum against friction right now.

The authors of Waiting for Your Cat to Bark, Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg and Lisa Davis, refer to “friction” is anything that slows the customer down from making a purchase or completing any kind of transaction.

Shep Hyken defines friction as “…anything that makes doing business with someone anything other than easy.”

Based on my consulting experience, friction can be well-understood by the phrase “iron sharpens iron” – when your brand meets the customer, you create heat, and it sparks an internal debate that gets you to defend the logic and engage in the outcome. Most often, the organization’s internal needs create friction and make it difficult to provide the requisite experience.

For example, if your organization tends to view friction as how to deliver service to a customer economically (outsourcing/closing the 24*7 call center), rather than focusing on how the customer can obtain the product/service they require. The amalgamation of these two factors means that the CX projects to reduce friction rarely gets any attention. The pesky IVR options (Press 1 for service, Press 2 for sales, Press 3 to speak to an agent) is a perfect example of how friction is added to the customer while minimizing the cost to the company of handling the call.

Another example is Captcha used by many websites, which make your customers type pointless letters or click on images, to prove they are not a bot, while they are trying to make a purchase. Here you have a customer eager to spend money, and there you are trying to delay the process. The bots are your problem, but for some reason, you create friction by passing on the problem to the customer to solve it.

Should You Have or Not Have Friction?

Based on the definitions and examples provided above, bad friction is anything that makes doing business with you anything other than easy.

Customers by default will follow the path of least resistance. If you want to increase the customer’s wallet share and generate more sales, you have to identify the moments of collisions or friction points in your businesses processes and eliminate them.

The bottom line is that removing friction or adding well-thought friction in exchange for something else for the customer is a valid trade-off and an excellent North Star for the management and product/ service designers.

The Response Is…Create Productive Friction

The Abilene Paradox coined by management professor Jerry B. Harvey in 1974, is a famous story about a family who went on a really long trip because everybody thought that the rest of the family members wanted to go on the journey. In reality, no-one wanted to go on the trip. The paradox is that the family members privately agreed on something, but by trying to please everyone else they decided to do something that is contradictory, that colluded in one another’s misery.

So what does Abilene Paradox have to do with adding or removing frictions and tensions along the customer journey?

To provide a seamless and frictionless experience, it is essential that your organization does not get into a position where ideas to resolve the friction cannot be challenged, pulled apart and improved upon. The team solving the problem should never get personal. Doug Crandall argues in his book, Say Anything: How Leaders Inspire Ideas, Cultivate Candour, and Forge Fearless Cultures, “Mutual Agreement is a detriment more insidious than even organizational conflict.”

Perhaps it is accurate to highlight that most people avoid conflict and friction because it is viewed as an adverse event. Yet, anybody who has worked to build a bulletproof financial and emotional case for change, and engaged the employee’s mind, heart, through a hard but successful CX change program and developed a lasting relationship with customers, will tell you it needed friction along the way to keep it going. Changing CX is more than applying makeup and changing the scenery and the props. It often involves a more vital change in the culture.

To prevent a trip to Abilene, the transition to prioritizing the frictions and tensions in the CX strategy, will not work unless there is a cross-functional approach in place breaking down the silos to create a unified and interconnected company. The buy-in from the board-level ensures that the cross-functional teams act on changes in consumer needs and market forces in the core strategy, objectives and KPI’s.

With the concrete steps typically taken to improve CX and add/remove friction, it still needs to account for the messier aspects of organizational dynamics. Creating productive friction enables your organization to question the status quo and encourages the flow of ideas, alternative solutions, and approaches to be debated and discussed. Constant feedback and iterations by testing in the real-world environment is an essential indicator provide the direction to tailor your services and deliver the exceptional experience.

  • In the early days, special care needs to hear diverse viewpoints in multiple setting where customers, employees, and partners can feel free to express their real opinions or concerns.
  • As change efforts begin, the primary focus of communication is understanding what is changing and why the change is necessary. At this stage, some level of engagement and involvement needs to be cultivated from those who will be living with the outcome addressing the frictions along the journey. If they do not begin to own the change at this point, they never will.
  • Be realistic with timescale and persevere as the efforts are about to launch, The most prominent hurdle your organization may face is introducing employees and get their buy-in. This impacts the timescale towards prioritizing CX to change the employee mindset and requires perseverance. Though this takes time, you save a lot of headache and heartache in the long run.

A well-designed working system enables your key stakeholders to come together on a regular basis to sense the changing needs and pivot on the fly, with the environment supporting collaboration, critique, and improvement and ensure everyone is focused on the end goal. In the end, the frictions you may introduce will not feel like friction. To build the connection and trust with the customer with each interaction, you get to create real customer advocacy. The crux is to maximize the effectiveness of the human-to-human component while curtailing its cost (by using technology to eliminate friction).

Conclusion – Don’t Fear Friction

Whether you are an upcoming startup or an established Fortune 500 company, you are going to have problems, will make a blunder, have a recall or make a refund or have few dissatisfied customers.

How you respond and resolve these frictions will impact the emotional appeal your brand has in your customer’s heart, mind, and wallet. So, don’t be afraid to ask feedback from your customers to take action. Make it exciting or easy, and tell them why it is for their own good. With the simple affirmation of acting on their feedback, they are most likely to stick around for a long time.

Manage the frictions well and join the list of disruptors and differentiators. So, instead of viewing friction as negative or something to eliminate, consider how you can apply it to your conversations in a positive, honest and respectful manner.

The article was first posted in Marketerstouchpoint Blog

4 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Vidya: from your article, I have a strong sense of what negative friction is in the context of CX, but I’m still unclear about what makes friction positive. So here’s my interpretation: anything a business does to create or contrive exclusivity or scarcity that results in increasing customer demand or perceived value. I know – that’s a mouthful, but without the latter clause, it’s just friction, minus the positive. Notable examples:

    1) US Marines – “The few, the proud . . . ”
    2) American Express – “Membership has its privileges . . . .”

    By making their products difficult to attain, these organizations have, in effect, made them more desirable to prospects. There are other examples, but these are prominent in my mind. Kudos to the copywriters of these taglines!

    Does Apple not conjure friction at its retail stores when new iPhones are released? And for Apple customers, does not regaling the thrill of the hunt make conversations more interesting (and captive listeners more envious) whenever the shiny new devices are pulled from pocket, purse, or backpack? To me, that’s positive friction. Note to executives: use “positive friction” at your own risk, because, oh boy!, can it backfire!

    The point you made at the end of the article regarding customer communication, “tell them why it is for their own good,” reminded me of the many times I’ve received information from vendors having similar intent. “We’ve changed our pricing policy to provide greater value to our loyal customers.” Dig beneath the fine print mumbo-jumbo, and what is often revealed compares to a smaller candy bar at a higher price. If a change is positioned as better for customers, it needs to be conspicuously true, or buyers will see through the hype, and credibility will be hard to regain.

  2. I’d counsel a focus on value. Accepting Shep’s definition of negative friction being associated with interrupting ease for the customer, friction in the form of giving some effort with the promise of getting something greater in return may work for the relationship. If the customer can see real, personal, and emotionally-based benefit in any small level of friction involved in value delivery, then it can be built into relationships and/or processes..

  3. Agree with Michael, value is the key. If the customer perceives “friction” as adding value, it’s all good. If not, it’s … friction.

    I think we need another term for positive friction, because friction in the CX realm tends to be viewed as a bad thing, something to be removed.

    The reality is very few companies can aspire to be like Amazon, nor should they. The Amazon business model is built on reducing effort and costs. Very few companies can compete solely on this basis.

    Other “normal” brands need to reduce the effort where it’s not value adding, like routine service interactions, purchasing, etc. But don’t automate all the interactions (friction) … redesign them to be value adding.

  4. Hi Vidya,

    I am so glad to see this post.

    More and more people and organization, like you and Forrester (see the Forrester post “Don’t focus CX improvement on customer pain points” https://www.mycustomer.com/community/blogs/forrester/dont-focus-cx-improvement-on-customer-pain-points), are beginning to realize that the widely held belief in the CX world “Customer pain points are bad and have to be eliminated” is fallacious and no longer valid.

    In my opinion, there are five types of pain points/valleys/frictions:

    1) Inspirational Pain/Valley/Friction: By solving it, you can create innovative solution, product or business model.

    2) Unnecessary Pain/Valley/Friction: There is little or no value generated for customers; customers suffer for nothing.

    3) Good Pain/Valley/Friction: By allowing it, your Branded Pleasure/Peak can be further enhanced.

    4) Bad Pain/Valley/Friction: When the Good Pain/Valley/Friction falls to a level deemed unacceptable by your target customers, it becomes a Bad Pain/Valley/Friction.

    5) De-Branded Pain/Valley/Friction: The attribute (pain point/valley/friction) is supposed to be the pleasure peak because it reflects your brand promise.

    To conclude, only the Good Pain/Valley/Friction should be allowed. For the remains, you should either solve, minimize, or eliminate, and spend different level of resource addressing them.

    I have been preaching the concept of “Pain is Good” since 2006 (Caution: Not every customer pain point/valley/friction is good. Only the Good Pain/Valley/Friction should be allowed). See https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/pain-good-sampson-lee/

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