In 2015, I saw the future one Friday morning on Cromwell Road in London. The day before, I had been to a Retail Customer Experience conference at a run-down Hilton hotel on the outskirts of Notting Hill. In fascinating speeches by British supermarket chains, I had heard about how new technology would change the whole market. I now stood in front of a supermarket on Cromwell Road with the intention of experiencing the future for myself. Technology would revolutionize the buying experience. Everything would become much easier for you and me as consumers. Because it is important that it is easy to be a customer.
"easy" can be your business model
I will continue my story from England in a moment. Let me first stress: This does not just apply to supermarkets. In my work with everything from international industrial giants’ customer satisfaction to a small trade union's members, Customer Effort makes a difference. Customer Effort is CX nerd slang for whether it is “easy” to be a customer. The theory is that the less effort that is required to be a customer, the better. Here, I simply call it “easy.”
A number of years ago, CustomerThink did a survey of what global brands with the highest customer satisfaction were particularly good at in the minds of customers. “Easy” was high on the list.
The always interesting digital CX expert Steve van Belleghem says companies need to be “friction hunters.” In other words: Hunting down anything in the customer journey that creates friction for the customer. Steve is generally a wizard with words, and “friction hunter” is a great expression, because it encompasses both the problem (friction) and the solution (hunter) in your organization.
In fact, you can go as far as making “easy” your
Simply making something “easy” may sound mundane. And, in fact, it is. But the mundanity ends the minute you understand what “easy” really means to customers of your company:
- Question 1: Main role or secondary role. What role does “easy” have in delivering the core service to your customer?
- Question 2: Exciting or boring. To what degree are your customers interested in your core service?
- Question 3: What value does “easy” create for the customer? What specifically should your having made something “easy” for the customer give them?
Over the years, I have learned to ask myself those three questions when preparing to advise a company prior to an analysis of customer experience among their customers.
Question 1: Does “easy” play a main role or a secondary role?
First, let's start with a little in-the-box thinking. Where does your business “live:”
- “Easy” as a core service. “Easy” is basically your “product.” You take one process and make it easy for the customer. This could be my example above. Or Momondo with an easy overview of the cheapest air fares. Or Hellofresh. Or Ubereats. And not everything has to be digital. We can go all the way back to July 1774, when the U.S. Postal Service was established.
- “Easy” as a “Easy” is something you need to focus on so your customer can reap all the benefits of the product that constitutes your core service. For example, many of my B2B production company customers work to constantly make it easier for customers to start using the product – because, without start-up assistance and installation, the product cannot be used.
- “Easy” as a reinforcement. If you have an iPhone, you have likely experienced that unboxing your phone the very first time is easy and feels great. The phone is the product, but the process of “unboxing” is designed to reinforce precisely that sense of aesthetics and ease that the phone itself gives you (at least
Which category does your company fall into? And more importantly for commercial success: Do your customers agree?
My experience through the years has been that it is especially challenging when you as a company want to switch from one category to another. In the end, it is the customer who decides if they will accept the change. To illustrate this, let me go back to my story about that Friday morning on Cromwell Road. I stood there thinking about what I had heard at the conference the day before.
The supermarket chain Morrisons had developed an advanced data-driven loyalty program intended to topple Tesco by making it even easier to shop for everything, inexpensively, and all in one place. Books have been written about Tesco's iconic loyalty program; read, for instance, Scoring Points*. But Morrisons loyalty program sounded really smart. Much smarter than Tesco. Morrison’s advanced algorithm ensured that customers always shopped least expensively in their stores over time. Perhaps a little hard to understand.
Another example is Waitrose, which had a strategic cooperation with Ocado. Ocado was hellofresh.com version 1.0 at the time. Ocado sold Waitrose's products online, but was losing many, many millions each year. That was on purpose, they said. They planned to put in place a huge infrastructure and technology first, e.g., thousands of robots. They could then sell the technology and concept to other countries afterwards.
Wow. To me, the British retail market was truly exciting. That morning after the conference, I saw an Ocado van pull out of the local Waitrose for the first time. Or at least I first noticed the Ocado vehicles the day after the conference. Suddenly they were everywhere, I felt.
Morrisons wanted to be in category 2. Ocado perhaps even in category 1. But that is not how things turned out.
Question 2: Exciting or boring?
Morrisons genius idea, which – on paper – really made it much easier to shop best and cheapest, failed. Customers didn’t get it. They preferred a loyalty program that was perhaps less smart and more expensive, but easier to understand. And they didn't want to shop for everything all in one place.
Things didn’t go quite as expected for Ocado, either. Business took off the first couple of years. I read in British newspapers about how Ocado was finally making a profit, and in 2020 during Covid, had a market value of GBP 21.7 billion. Marginally more than the giant Tesco, with over 4,000 stores in the UK. And Ocado doesn't have a single store! But in May 2023, Ocado’s value fell to GBP 3.1 billion.
So what went wrong?
The full answer is probably extremely nuanced. And outside my remit. But there is likely one thing that both forgot. In their hunt to make everything easy and get the customer to do all their daily shopping in one place (to make it easy), they overlooked the fact that “easy” for grocery shopping is complex. “Easy” can be a prerequisite (box 2) for some product categories, but simply reinforcement for others (box 3). It depends on how customers look at each product. For lack of a better description, I will call it boring versus exciting products:
- Boring products For boring products, it is definitely an advantage if it is easy. Milk and oatmeal for a typical morning. Boring products should be easy. Perhaps even arrive by subscription. A gallon of milk, a carton of oats and four rolls of kitchen towels on your doorstep automatically every Monday morning at 6AM. Friction hunters can go to town here.
- Exciting products Wine on Friday evenings. Cheese for lunch on Saturdays. Good bread on Sunday mornings. The chocolate that sweetens a cloudy Monday evening. For the exciting products, we can accept a little friction. During the drive to my cheese shop, my anticipation grows ahead of the sensory experience (literally) I get from the cheese shop. It makes the cheese taste better.
It's difficult to make it “easy” for the customer. That's why it is important to understand what customers really think and want. What's interesting is that Morrisons
And that leads me to my last question about working with “easy” or being a friction hunter:
Question 3: What value does “easy” create for the customer?
Remember to think about the entire customer journey – what should your having made something “easy” for the customer given them? As an example, let me conclude with a short story of my own.
I rarely shop for groceries online. I know that I am spared the drive. I know that I won't have to chase my (otherwise lovely) daughter around the store with her little shopping cart in which she uses a watermelon to test the strength of a package of berries at the bottom of the cart (in case you're wondering, the watermelon wins).
But my daughter and I also miss out on something if I shop online.
We love to go for a drive in our light blue car while listening to Christmas music (including out of season). We lose all that online.
We love the experience of looking at all the exciting products together and talking about what they can be used for. We lose all that online.
And most importantly: When we are done shopping, it's fun to sit together on the edge of the trunk and enjoy an ice cream in the sun and talk (nicely) about all the people who go past. On an otherwise busy day, it can be the highlight of the day. We lose all that online.
That's why I shop in my local grocery store. It's clean, tidy and the goods are rarely moved around, so I can find the “boring” products – and have more time to find “exciting” products I can enjoy with my daughter on the edge of the trunk in the sunshine.
Steve is absolutely right. When we work with CX, we need to be “friction hunters.” But we need to consider the entire customer journey – what making something “easy” for the customer gives them. It requires the right customer experience solution.
All in all: It's my belief that “easy” is a discipline all its own within CX. Some things you have to work on mastering as an organization. It takes considerable customer insight to understand what is truly important to make easy for the customer. Because a trip to your local supermarket or Morrisons can be about much more than the drive. But you only know that if you check it.