A Contingency Model of CX: The Right Experience for the Right Time


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Photo by Rosie Steggles on Unsplash

I once wrote an article about how the future of shopping would all be automated. In this new world, we would shop online and a series of robo-delivery vehicles would whisk our products right to our front doorsteps without the trouble of leaving our homes.

I asked a friend about what she thought of the article.

“I thought it was horrible!”

“What, the article?” I asked.

“No, your dystopian future of shopping!” she said.

She went on to explain that she took her daughter to buy clothes as a way to bond and used grocery shopping as a method of relaxation. This was not the first time I have been astonished by another’s point of view.

I mostly hate shopping.

I say “mostly” because there are certain stores that beckon me when I pass by. I cannot resist a musty bookstore or roadside antique store full of forgotten marvels. They beckon.

The truth is sometimes people want to shop casually, and other times they are more mission-based, looking for specific items. Good salespeople can sense this and will attempt to cater to this wander vs. acquire disposition.

Beauty and cosmetics retailer Sephora decided to try and have customers make their preferences explicit. In some stores, they tested two color-coded baskets, used to indicate if they would “like to be assisted” in red and “I would like to shop on my own” in black.

Source: @cwillycx on Twitter

This bifurcation of utility vs exploration is not just the province of retailers selling things, it can also be seen in the post-purchase service space. American Express has long done an excellent job of giving customers adequate access to the mundane and routine world of purchase history and account balances while keeping them only 2-3 rings away from talking to a live agent for more vexing issues.

Knowing when to do what is important, not only for providing a good customer experience but also for back-end cost savings. People are expensive and machines work 24/7 without complaint or need for breaks, but there is a time and place for both. While phone trees and AI chatbots have their place, most companies list way too heavily in this automated direction causing customer angst and frustration.

So, when to do what?

A Contingency Model of CX

When it comes to customer experience, whether in a purchase/acquisition task or a service context, customers have different orientations at the beginning of the task. These orientations can change instantly (as noted by Google’s work on micro moments). The more stable states are likely to be in more task-oriented issues. We can map customer orientation at the outset of the task into two continuums:

    High Risk Level – Is the consequences of their choice (high or low). Will a mistaken purchase result in high post-purchase dissonance (or buyers’ remorse)? Will the failure to resolve the issue result in a high level of anxiety or consequence for the individual? If the answer to either of these is “yes” then there is high consumer risk. High-risk behavior might be buying that “must have” no-returns bridal dress on Etsy or trying to have a taxation issue or charge dispute resolved.

    Goal Orientation – This dimension focuses on the clarity of the task goal. Do customers know exactly what they want or is that still a bit fuzzy? While some people are wired to be oriented one way or another, or may be more inclined in certain categories, usually when customers embark on a CX task they have a specific goal in mind or are more browsing-oriented.

Knowing what customers’ orientation is in either the purchase or service process is important to mapping the most likely tools they want in their experience. “Frictionless and quick” may not be the best goal when selecting the right house to buy. You are not going to find many people receptive to a pitch for a new credit card after landing following a late night 5-hour flight (yet American Airlines does this constantly despite customer complaints). It is important to match the right tools to the right mindset.

High Risk, Exploratory Experiences

This tends to be in the domain of high-risk, high-involvement purchases and high-risk, high-involvement, and complex issue resolution. Think of vacation packages on the purchase side or untangling the complex trust of a deceased loved one on the other. They don’t need to be resolved or bought immediately, but they are in the hopper of “things to get done.”

The first thing to consider is these are likely complex situations that usually require expert help. While self-help can go a long way, a complete absence of human assistance can be highly frustrating.

In these circumstances, high-touch human experiences that are sometimes augmented by technology are most helpful. Apple Stores and Cabela’s/Bass Pro are well-known to provide great customer experiences by allowing customers to explore and ask questions.

Online I have been impressed by several websites. One of my favorites is Apidura which makes the risky and arduous task of determining which kind of bicycle storage is right for you by filtering on pack type, bike type, and a full database of bicycles to ensure their packs will fit on your bike properly. Outdoor e-tailer Backcountry does this well having both an inviting website and the ability to ask for “expert help” at any time. You can even send a SMS text or chat with a “Gearhead” for quick real time information.

Best practice for high-risk exploratory consumer behavior is to have an incredible UX coupled with at-the-ready customer support. In retail, there is nothing better than a helpful person to guide you through decision-making.

Low Risk, Exploratory Experiences

This is leisure shopping and browsing, which can take place anywhere but is probably most common in places like bookstores, antique stores, shoe stores, and other places where one is not looking for anything specific. The customer will know what they want when they see it.

In these circumstances, it is important to allow people to browse but offer help when it is needed. A “technology first” approach is likely warranted, especially for online browsing. Amazon does this very well with its recommendation engine, helping customers to determine what they might like based on other customers. L’Oréal also has a powerful search engine that allows both browsing and targeted searches through a powerful filtering system.

High Risk, Goal-Oriented Experiences

No one likes letters from the IRS.

That’s why tax preparers Jackson Hewitt are present in over 30,000 Walmart stores across the United States, ready to help individuals with what most might regard as high-risk, goal-oriented experiences. The goal is simple; get my taxes done, on time, and correctly.

With high-risk, goal-oriented experiences people know exactly what they want, but may not know if the solution presented is the best one. What they are looking for here is an easy, highly competent, and yes, “frictionless” experience. They also want risk mitigation, and ways to ensure they made the right decision are also important.

This can be done via social proof and ratings (such as those that Hubspot or Airbnb provide), generous return policies (such as Zappos, REI, and Amazon), or other assurances that you made the right choice.

Hyundai did an excellent job of ensuring the right decision was made by introducing their “Assurance Job Loss Protection” during the pandemic. This allowed for up to six months of payment relief for customers who involuntarily lost their job.

Low Risk, Goal-Oriented Experiences

“We are out of toilet paper!”

This is the domain of low-risk, goal-oriented experiences, often referred to as “nominal decision making” in consumer behavior literature. This is where people are just trying to accomplish routine tasks quickly.

Having an excellent UX is the key here, with minimal clicks and an intuitive, visually-based user interface design. While you could argue with the “low risk” categorization, I find iStockphoto.com very user-friendly with the ability to search millions of photos down to the background color and photo orientation. No doubt the AI search engine helps in making this a good user experience.

This is also where “recurring” or “auto replenishment” services are useful. Pet supply company Chewy has a great user interface and helpful, easy-to-cancel subscriptions for recurring items such as dog or cat food. Dollar Shave Club is another example of an oft-forgotten task being handled through auto-reordering. This can be annoying though. For example, my Canon printer seems more interested in having me “auto re-order” print cartridges than working properly.

Secondly, you can go overboard on propagating auto-replenishment with customers. Amazon introduced the Amazon Dash Button with unfortunate timing on March 31, 2015. The idea was you could have buttons around the house that you could press whenever you were nearing the depletion of your favorite dish soap, laundry detergent, or toilet paper and it would seamlessly re-order it for delivery via Prime. Having hundreds of buttons around your house seemed superfluous compared to just reordering on your phone. Dash was discontinued in 2019.

The key to making auto-refill work is to make it clear that customers have control and put the focus on the convenience for them, not the company. Also, making unsubscribing simple and easy is critical. Many companies make this purposely difficult, which is an irritant for the determined customer, as well as the hapless rep who bare the brunt of the customers’ wrath.

Frictionless is Not Always the Way

As I stated elsewhere, if your CX goal is to always be frictionless, you risk become forgettable. However, there is a time and place to be easy, as each customer’s mindset demands a different tactic.

When customers are ready to make an important decision, they want to make sure it is the best possible one they could have made, and then be re-assured after they’ve made it. When ruminating about a decision, education, and information are critical. These should both be typically human-first, technology-augmented solutions.

When the stakes are lower and something needs to be achieved, it should be easy and seamless. This usually means a good technology solution. When browsing is the goal, encourage. That could mean customers moving toward a purchase or extracting more value from their current ownership experience. Either way, by assisting in this area, you help customers get the most from your products or services.

One might be tempted to break exploratory into “research” and goal-oriented into “purchase” phases of the journey. This may be the case, but not always, as those “stages” are not as linear or stage-gated as previous models have held. Also, this contingency model works equally well for path-to-purchase, as well as post-purchase, retention strategies. The two are the different sides of the same coin.

The Right Experience for the Right Time

While there are people who tend to be more shopper-oriented and more task-oriented, individual states for most are transitory and are usually directed by their task goals. As CX professionals we need to assess what the most likely task is in a given use case and design accordingly. Most people getting a rental car want to get in and out quickly without dealing with lengthy paperwork and waiting around for a walk around with an associate. In this instance “frictionless” is key. Browsing for a new set of headphones at Best Buy is more exploratory.

There are some circumstances where you need to provide an experience that can pivot quickly from one state to another. Downloading your insurance cards from the website is a very different use case than just getting in an accident and not knowing how to make a claim. One is low risk and mundane the other high risk and rare. The latter has higher demands on human guidance than the former.

Great companies know this and design accordingly. What can get in the way of this approach to design is greed by trying to make everything ‘digital’ to cut cost or inertia, resisting moving people from jobs that might be best automated. Knowing when to do what sets the good apart from the great.

Dave Fish, Ph.D.

Dave is the founder of CuriosityCX, an insights and advisory consultancy for Customer Experience. Formerly he was CMO for MaritzCX, now an InMoment company. He has 25+ years of applied experience in understanding consumer behavior consulting with Global 50 companies. Dave has held several executive positions at the Mars Agency, Engine Group, J.D. Power and Associates, Toyota Motor North America, and American Savings Bank. He teaches at the Sam Walton School of Business at the University of Arkansas. He is the author of "The Customer Experience Field Guide" available on Amazon and BookLogix.com.


  1. David, love your examples and the 2×2 framework for sales and for support CX. I’m going to dig into some of your citations like for Sephora’s different baskets signaling interest in getting help or “leave me alone”.


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