Four ways to remove friction from the customer experience
- Appoint friction hunters
Lately, I’ve been playing with this new theory. I believe that a lot of companies would benefit from hiring friction hunters: highly inquisitive, critical, people-sensitive and data-driven investigators who are responsible for chasing down the types of corporate processes that historically grew into a certain shape but are no longer relevant in that way. I’m talking about the type of rigid process or structure that everyone follows, but no one remembers why. I have seen so many companies that have unintentionally installed these types of barriers that prevent customers from having a nice experience. Purchasing or using something has become like this race where you have to avoid all kinds of crazy obstacles.
The mission of the friction hunters would be to identify those and remove them one by one in such a way that everything starts to run exceedingly smooth. If this happens in the right way, if the company succeeds in creating a strong customer-obsessed culture, I believe they will be able to build “an offer you cannot refuse”: something that presents itself in such a natural and simple manner that it becomes irresistible compared to all the other mediocre offerings out there.
Leslie Cottenjé, CEO of Hello Customer, gave a beautiful example of a company that excels at removing this type of obstacles when I talked to her in our podcast conversation. It will probably not surprise you that it was Tesla, a company well-known for taking nothing for granted and redesigning every little process from scratch. Leslie told me that she entered the “pretty brand” (her words) Tesla showroom with low expectations, secretly believing that the image of the company was mostly hype: “in the end, it’s just a car manufacturer, like any other”. She expected to be hijacked by a sales man for an hour, going through too many confusing options, and their financing. Instead, she was invited to drive the car with the sales man, all the way discussing her questions. And when she asked for a quotation at the end, he said that she could just check the website, as there were only three models with five options and a couple of colours to choose from. Everything was centred around the driving experience, simplicity, self-service and speed. There was no sales pitch, no administration, no waiting for days until you receive an almost unreadable quotation of seven pages.
- The friction-free employee
A really big part of that frictionless ‘magic’ of Tesla has to do with the way it’s organized, in a completely different way than traditional car manufacturers. It’s pure logic. If your employees do not have any control or power over every touch point in their interaction with the customer, they will never be able to remove all the unnecessary obstacles. Tesla really understands that. You can free employees from all the repetitive (cognitive) tasks that you want by using AI, and open up their time to interact with customers on a personal level, but if they have limited decision power, the result will be a zero sum game.
So it’s not just crucial to remove friction in the buying process, it absolutely needs to be removed on the employee side as well, granting them the power they need to help make the customer happy. It’s a step by step process in which, first of all, you need to work on internal culture and really get that customer as a first priority in all the heads. Not just that of the board and the management, but everyone.
- When algorithms start shopping
Of course, one of the cleverest ways to remove friction in the buying process is by discarding it (the buying process, I mean) altogether, like in the case of fully automated buying or a subscription service. People tend to automatically think about consumer goods in the case of the latter, and then mostly about low involvement products. A top favourite example would be: you might ask your virtual assistant once or twice to buy a certain type of toothpaste, but then you’ll gladly surrender that process and maybe just set your preferences to your favourite brand, or to “best price/quality deal”. And that’s it: no more buying. You’ve left it completely in the hands of the machine. As Ken Hughes so eloquently put it in our podcast interview, we are “removing a consumer from the decision-making process” and you’re left with “consumer behaviour without a consumer”.
People seem to believe that you can only replace the shopper by an algorithm, with the type of low involvement product described above. Ken saw that differently, and he gave the example of car or house insurance. No one likes to purchase insurance. We all need it, but we all think it’s boring and complex as hell to find the best option and acquire it. That’s exactly the type of (not so low involvement) product you would like an algorithm to find, and purchase on a yearly basis, without having to be involved. Or your travel assistant might suggest a flight and a hotel for your skiing trip based on all the research that you’ve done in the same area. And then, if the algorithm proved that it can be trusted after 2 or 3 of this type of successful suggestions, you could just ask it to find and book the best flight and hotel for the second week March. That’s no longer a low involvement product. A holiday is quite expensive, and you really don’t want to end up in a seedy hotel during those very few and precious free time days that you have.
So even if your company feels that your products are too ‘high involvement’ to be bought automatically, you might want to reconsider. Automated buying definitely will kick off a lot of other industries.
- Let the data smooth things over
Of course, the very basis of removing friction is by knowing your customers so well that you can offer what they want before they even know they want it. Let their data tell you faster than real time when your products and services will be expected next. The most beautiful examples in the matter can be found in the most customer-obsessed country of them all: China. Talking to Pascal Coppens, I learned so many beautiful examples of friction-free customer experiences. Take Didi, the Chinese Uber, for example: they see it as their mission to use AI to find averages and predict where vehicles should be; even before people realize they need them. Services like Uber have already taken so much friction our of the business of transporting people, but Didi is taking that to a whole new level.
Ctrip does the very same for the travel industry. The top friction messing with a seamless tourist experience are other travellers just like them. “Hell is other tourists”, to severely misquote Sartre. Based on the data of its vast customer base, Ctrip monitors and predicts where streams of tourists will want to go and when. If a popular destiny like Venice is in danger of being saturated, they redirect the crowd to other ones, through for instance reward systems. With the fast-rising numbers of Chinese tourists, it’s crucial to manage peaks in tourism, so as not to spoil the experience for everyone. And Ctrip does that beautifully.
In an age where customers will stick to the companies that are easiest to interact with on a product, service or communications level, striving for convenience and zero-friction is crucial. So any way you adapt your strategy towards structurally combating friction will keep your company relevant in these challenging but exciting times.