Over recent decades, traditional business practices have been increasingly disrupted by technology-empowered business models. Technology and innovation — from online shopping and mobile connectivity to social media- and data-driven marketing — have reconfigured the business landscape and brought new opportunities and challenges. Yet, the basics of the customer experience remain: Consumers recognize a need to be fulfilled, then interact with companies and their offerings to seek a satisfying way to fulfill this need. This core motivation for creating a meaningful customer experience is unchanged.
What has changed, however, is how customers seek ways to fulfill their needs and interact with company offerings. These changes are, to a large degree, driven by technological innovations, including ubiquitous online communications and social media, constant mobile connectivity, and the growth of ecommerce. Collectively, these advancements have greatly increased the efficiency of a company’s marketing actions.
The problem is that when focusing on efficiency, many companies overlook the emotional aspect of the customer experience — how customers feel when interacting with the business. Moreover, when managers explicitly consider the emotional aspect of the customer interaction, they tend to focus exclusively on creating positive emotional experiences.
While generating positive affect is essential, it often is even more effective to minimize negative customer experiences. This can be achieved by addressing the two main detractors of a customer’s emotional journey: frustration and boredom.
Avoiding Frustration: Streamline the Customer Experience
Frustration in the context of customer experience means an unexpected increase in effort, time, or money when interacting with a company and its offerings. Even relatively minor frictions can evoke surprisingly strong emotional reactions that taint the overall customer experience.
Digital technologies have greatly enhanced customers’ ability to find offerings that match their needs. Yet they have also intensified choice overload. The paradox is that though consumers generally like to have more options, they are often less confident in their decisions, less satisfied with their selections, and more frustrated when choosing from larger assortments.
The challenge, then, is to design assortments that provide customers with sufficient variety while minimizing choice overload. One approach to achieve this is to tailor the assortment to customers’ needs while prioritizing specific choice options that fit their preferences. Data analytics have enabled managers to better understand customer needs and preferences and curate customer-specific assortments while presenting available options in a way that simplifies buyers’ decisions. And while large digital players like Amazon, Netflix, and Google have used this preference-matching approach for years, recent advances in data-analytics and the proliferation of data-processing platforms have made this tactic feasible for a wider range of consumer-facing companies.
Apart from curating available options, another approach to manage choice overload is providing a default option — an alternative that is automatic unless the decision maker makes an active choice. For example, studies show that participation in retirement-savings plans is significantly greater in companies where employees are automatically enrolled than in companies without default enrollment.
What makes defaults particularly effective is that they give consumers a way to make a choice and progress toward their goal without the rigors of making the decision themselves. This is why defaults have become an increasingly prevalent aspect of the customer experience, from consenting to be contacted by companies for promotional purposes and agreeing to allow browser cookies, to selecting offerings tagged as “Customers’ favorite,” “Recommended for you” and “Editor’s choice.” Customer insight coupled with marketing automation can greatly facilitate designing assortments that facilitate streamline consumer choice by offering a viable default.
Another frustration-generating friction in the customer experience is a company’s desire to gather as much customer information as possible. Indeed, the effectiveness of a company’s digital strategy depends largely on its knowledge of customer needs and behaviors. Yet, asking customers to provide personally relevant information is not without a downside: beyond requiring extra effort, customers often construe this as an invasion of their privacy. A manager’s goal, therefore, is to streamline customers’ interaction with the company in a way that seamlessly integrates the data gathering and clearly articulates how collecting this information benefits the customer.
Consider the plight of a large electronics retailer that discovered many shoppers added items to their cart but never completed their purchases. The problem did not seem to be the complexity of the checkout form, which had only two fields (email address and password), two buttons (login and register), and a forgot-password link. The issue was that shoppers were asked to provide personal information and register with the company at the very beginning of the checkout process, when the only thing they wanted to do was to pay for the chosen items. It was not that customers were unwilling to share personal information, since they had to provide it anyway to make the purchase; the issue was the timing of the ask.
The solution: replacing “register” button with a “continue” button and moving the “register” button to the end of the purchase process, after shoppers had already entered the required personal information and needed only to create a password to register. This simple change made registration a benefit rather than a barrier to purchase, resulting in a 45% increase in the number of shoppers completing purchase and generating an additional $300 million in revenue in the first year.
Reducing Boredom: Sustain Engagement
Customers’ emotional experience with a company’s offerings tends to evolve over time, as do most experiences. We get used to things — cars, clothes, toys — and tend to enjoy them less. This is a result of hedonic adaptation: Initially strong emotional experiences tend to fade. This inevitable decline in the intensity of emotional experiences is a key challenge to creating long-term customer value.
Consider the consumption experience following the purchase of a new car. The first month, everything about the new vehicle is very exciting: you enjoy the “new car smell,” discover new features, and likely feel a proud sense of ownership. A month later, the new car is still enjoyable but the feeling of excitement is not quite as strong. A month after that, you may appreciate having a new car, but your attention gradually shifts to other important things in life. Before long, the initial thrill is gone, and driving feels routine again.
A company can break the hedonic adaptation pattern by energizing customers with interactive experiences that create excitement and generate a deeper sense of connection to the offering. There are two basic ways to engage customers on an emotional level: generating excitement and creating flow.
To excite customers and reengage them with a company’s products and services, many managers are redesigning their offerings by adding interactive experiences aimed at connecting with customers on an emotional level. The convergence of multiple technologies — including powerful computing, ubiquitous sensors, and machine learning — provides companies with an ever-increasing ability to craft compelling interactive experiences. For example, Tesla keeps its car customers engaged by constantly updating its software to add new functionality and, by doing so, manages to “reset” the customer experience repeatedly, infusing variety into interactions and dramatically reducing habitual adaptation. It even introduced a “Car-aoke” feature that enables drivers to choose from a wide range of sing-along music and song lyrics.
Another effective approach to engaging customers on an emotional level is to create a sense of flow, also referred to as “being in the zone.” Flow is the mental state in which a person is fully immersed in an activity and derives great enjoyment from it. Being in a state of flow is associated with a hyper-focus on a single activity and tunnel vision, as often experienced in creative pursuits like writing fiction or music. Consumers in the state of flow are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so fulfilling that it becomes self-perpetuating.
The entire videogame industry is based on the principle of flow. It explains why videogames like Super Mario Brothers, Minecraft, and Grand Theft Auto are so addictive: there is a clear goal, immediate feedback, and sense of progress. This is a perfect formula to avoid hedonic adaptation; as soon as players get comfortable with a particular level of the game, they move to a new level that requires greater skill and attention.
Candy Crush Saga, for example, has become one of the most successful videogames ever, with nearly 3 billion downloads. The basic version is free, but players must pay to create more challenging scenarios, with the game generating over $1 billion in revenue at peak. The game became so addictive that it started to interfere with some players’ daily lives, and Candy Crush addiction clinics began popping up worldwide. This extraordinary level of engagement is achieved by following the principle of flow to create an immersive experience that offers a sense of progress toward goals that constantly increase in difficulty.
In sum, sustaining customer engagement to reduce boredom, coupled with streamlining the customer experience to avoid frustration, can help managers connect with customers on an emotional level by creating meaningful experiences. Customers’ boredom and frustration vary over the course of their experience. Frustration is often greatest at the initial stages of interacting with the company’s offering, because of the uncertainty associated with its features and benefits. Boredom, on the other hand, sets in later, when customers become more familiar with the offering, and it no longer provides sustained levels of emotional stimulation.
Therefore, to provide an engaging customer experience, a company should strive to make the new things familiar and the familiar things new. Streamlining the customer experience to make the new experiences familiar helps reduce the initial friction in customer interactions. Providing interactive experiences to make familiar things new, in contrast, helps reduce boredom and facilitates continued enjoyment of the offering. This dual-minded approach can help attenuate and even eliminate negative emotions, ultimately contributing to creating breakthrough experiences that drive customer loyalty while contributing to the company’s bottom line.
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