“Don’t Bother Wowing Your Customers” – Really?


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The recent HBR Management Tip (“Don’t Bother Wowing Your Customers,” October 20, 2011) and the larger article on which it is based (“Stop trying to Delight Your Customers,” HBR, July/Aug 2010, Dixon, Freeman and Toman) is both eye catching and thought provoking – and totally misleading.

The authors present data illustrating that their Customer Effort Score (CES) outperforms satisfaction and NPS as a predictor of customer loyalty. Responsible researchers and marketers, however, have long recognized that satisfaction is a necessary but not sufficient hurdle for loyalty, and the weaknesses (and strengths) of NPS are well documented. Outperforming these measures is a straw man performance and not much of an accomplishment.

I see two fundamental problems with their line of thinking. First, they fail to differentiate between the customer service experience and customer loyalty and actually seem to flip-flop between the two for their own convenience. Loyalty is a relationship concept (and measure) that is greater than the sum of the experience or contacts. Each and every customer interaction is an opportunity to strengthen the relationship, as well as a risk of undermining or weakening the relationship. But the interaction or experience is not the same as the overall relationship.

Satisfying or “wowing” customers on any one experience is important only insofar as the experience contributes to the larger equation of the customer relationship. Experiences are discreet events, although the customer’s memory is more cumulative. The value and importance of experiences are in their aggregated impact on the relationship.
More importantly, their argument is flawed because it sees the world in a linear manner in which it is assumed that improved performance on each and every performance measure (inputs or independent variables) drives ever higher levels of delight or loyalty ( the outcome or dependent variables). Dissatisfaction – the failure to deliver on basic expectations or table stakes – is the flip side of satisfaction and not the inverse of customer loyalty or delight. They present a feeble argument: simply fixing service problems that might disappoint and alienate customers never has been the equivalent of delighting customers any more than removing the proverbial fly from the bowl of soup makes for a delicious meal.

We do not live in a linear world. Performance criteria that are dissatisfiers or negative drivers of satisfaction need to be analyzed and managed separately from the enhancers or positive drivers of customer loyalty and delight. (See http://www.gfkinsights4u.com/insights4u.cfm?articleID=425) The dissatisfiers need to be remedied, as these are the basic performance expectations of customers. Dixon et al are right in that “wowing” customers on dissatisfiers is a non-starter without a positive ROI. But this is because these are not criteria that lead to differentiated customer experiences or delight, not because it isn’t worth delighting customers. Companies, in other words, have to wow customers on things that matter to the customer. Dissatisfiers, by their nature, have clear points of diminishing returns, and over-performing against customer expectations on these fundamental must-dos is an investment with little or even negative return (negative because this might pull resources away from more important service dimensions).
Dixon and company touch on the distinction between dissatisfiers and enhancers with their “two pies” analogy of drivers of loyalty and disloyalty. They introduce this concept – and then promptly totally ignore the positive drivers or enhancers that REALLY WOW customers and deliver meaningfully differentiated service experiences and drive customer loyalty. Companies DO NEED TO DELIGHT and WOW their customers on the enhancers that build loyal, enduring relationships that maximize customer lifetime value. The fact that every interaction with the contact centers (on which Dixon et al focus) does not necessarily contribute to loyalty is not proof to the contrary. So while companies may not need to “wow” their customers on each and every interaction, they need to deliver operational excellence to plug the leaks on those issues that might dissatisfy or disappoint customers, while truly WOWING their customers on those enhancers or differentiators that drive loyalty. The trick is to differentiate between the two type of drivers and ensure organizations apply the appropriate performance-improvement efforts and align their training/reward systems accordingly.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Howard Lax, Ph.D.

Supporting better informed decision making with technology, research and strategy. With a focus on CX/VoC/NPS, Employee Engagement and emotion analytics, Howard's domain is the application of marketing information and SaaS platforms to solve business problems and activating CX programs to drive business objectives.


  1. CES was originally introduced in mid-2009 by the Customer Contact Council (CCC) of the Corporate Executive Board, in a presentation titled “Shifting The Loyalty Curve: Mitigating Disloyalty by Reducing Effort”. A client asked me to review it at the time; and, among my three pages of comment were:

    “There is no holistic view of customer experience in CCC’s conclusions represented in the CES or effort reduction/mitigation focus. With specific respect to the multiple CES methodological challenges, we (Harris senior methodologists and I) feel that a customer effort score is too one dimensional to capture the overall customer experience or, more narrowly, the customer service experience. Again, customer experience means looking at the overall perception of value through use or contact. It involves the entire system. CCC, for instance, is using callback tracking as a ‘standard proxy for customer-exerted effort’; and very much like NPS, building their case on a single question (“How much effort did you personally have to put forth to handle your request?”, on p. 71 of the presentation), and then taking it to the next level by having a CES Starter Kit (p. 73). Our approach is to validate the impact of customer service within the overall experience and, as well, more around actual behavior than anticipated behavior.”

    If we’ve learned anything from the Kano Model since the 1980’s and early 1990’s, it’s the recognition that dissatisfiers can hurt loyalty behavior and enhancers can help drive more positive downstream customer action. Those receiving customer service will not be particularly energized by having their problem solved or questions answered, because these are table stakes expectations. Positive service differentiators, though, can have a beneficial impact on customer experience and brand perception, informal peer-to-peer communication (offline and online word-of mouth), share of wallet, etc.

  2. There is an air of desperation about the CCC article. Its almost trying too hard to justify what is little more than a CSat measure. As you’ve pointed out: its very one dimensional and seems to only address drivers in the dissatisfaction area rather than cover the more holistic approach of NPS.

  3. Having (finally) taken a closer look at the HBR paper I agree with Howard and the comments here.

    The leap from a customer-service process, which is by its very nature about fixing problems, to a new general purpose loyalty metric just doesn’t hold water.

    But, sad to say, in situations where customer service really does suck, CES could work — at least to make customers less disloyal and likely to leave. In this situation executives could have some success with CES for a time, and then hit the wall when the dissatisfiers have been removed, and they can’t figure out how to build real loyalty. Because CES doesn’t measure that.

    I do love Amazon.com, and the reason why is it’s so darned easy. I’m not delighted on any individual interaction, but the culmination of lots of experiences leaves me with a good feeling. Isn’t it possible that some brands could engender that same feeling, by making their interactions really easy?

    Bottom line for me — it seems like customer effort should be part of the mix in loyalty research. Maybe in some companies (or industries) CES really would work, where (low) effort is a loyalty driver.


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