You might not be able to recite the exact definition of “customer friction,” but you know it when you see it.
It’s the extra couple of clicks to do something that should just take one.
It’s a confusing user interface.
It’s “call our sales team for pricing.”
Most companies spend a lot of time thinking about customer service. Very few companies spend time removing customer friction. But even companies with excellent customer service can be susceptible to losing both existing and potential customers to friction.
While gaps in customer service can be difficult to overcome, at least they aren’t difficult to identify, i.e. “our customer service reps are straight-up jerks and need better people training.” To even begin to remove customer friction, you first have to identify it, and then you have to weigh the benefits of removing it against the costs to your business.
None of that is simple.
What is customer friction?
Customer friction is any step in the customer experience that impedes the customer from buying the product, having success with the product, or finding value in the product. That might sound a little complex, but think of it as basically any hurdle that gets in the customer’s way.
“I wanted to buy their product, but it was a hassle to order.”
The difference between customer friction and poor customer service
While poor customer service and customer friction can both result in a poor customer experience, the root causes are usually different. Customer friction is created by flaws in either the product design or the purchase and delivery processes. Poor customer service is marked by flaws in execution.
Let’s say your product is a software application for businesses. Maybe you’ve fortified your phone-based technical support with a one-touch button in the app that instantly opens a chat session with a live technical support agent.
That’s a great example of removing friction; it eliminates the need for the customer to pick up the phone, call a number and give all their details to the agent. However, if the button doesn’t reach a live agent quickly or the agent is ill-prepared to handle the issue, that’s poor customer service, and it negates the removal of friction.
Sometimes customer friction is something that just happens
We live in a world of increasingly instant gratification. Customers have an expectation that products should know what we want, when we want it and even how much we want and how we want it delivered. We’ve only got ourselves to blame for this.
Customer friction isn’t always something we accidentally inject into a design process. Sometimes customer friction catches up to us because we’re not proactively keeping up with customer expectations.
The world changes whether we’re paying attention or not, and it takes a concerted effort to keep up. The most successful products and services — the ones that persist — are the ones that remove huge chunks of customer friction from an existing product or service.
Amazon is usually thought of as the all-star of the frictionless customer experience. From the early days of one-click ordering to now, Amazon has become very good at figuring out what the customer wants and how quickly they want it delivered. Amazon Prime — a huge and ongoing investment in frictionless two-day and even same-day delivery — changed not only the way we think of eCommerce, but the way we think of commerce.
Starbucks didn’t invent the app-based order and pick-up process, but it definitely perfected it. My colleagues are still surprised when I walk into a Starbucks, pass the always-long line, grab my coffee and sit down to meet with them. And yeah, I’m usually late for that meeting. More than half the time, the person I’m meeting with downloads the Starbucks app before we even start the meeting.
Uber isn’t just a cheap ride; it’s a low-friction ride. No looking up a reputable cab company, no calling a dispatcher, no direction-giving, no in-car transaction. Less waiting and up-front-pricing. The company took so much friction out of the taxi-hiring process that it’s actually removing the need for car ownership in a lot of places.
Chipotle has quickly become the standard-bearer for order selection. While Starbucks is very good at fulfillment, it still takes a few too many clicks if I pivot from my normal routine. Chipotle’s app pretty deftly shows me all the options available to me and makes it easy to order exactly what I want while allowing me very little room for error.
Always consider the costs of removing friction
Sometimes simple changes to a product or process can remove a ton of friction. But keep in mind, the true costs are not just how much money is spent, but the total impact to the business. Here’s a look at how those hidden costs can add up:
1. Instant onboarding vs. lack of valuable customer information.
A method of removing friction that I recommend is collecting the minimum amount of customer information at each step in the purchase and onboarding process. Don’t ask for it until you need it. The cost is the loss of information that might be valuable to you later on.
2. Pay now vs. pay later vs. fraud and abuse.
Collecting payment information is usually the biggest source of friction in a purchase. But if you hold off on collecting payment until some or all the value has already been delivered, you’ll have to implement checks to make sure that value doesn’t get abused. If you employ a pay-later option, fraud will find you, and the fewer (expensive) fraud prevention measures you put in place, the more money you’ll lose.
3. Little changes on the frontend require big changes on the backend.
Making things easy for the customer usually means making things more complex for the company. For example, remembering a customer’s preferences means building a database to store those preferences. Acting on those preferences means writing code to trigger those actions.
4. Overcompensating for outliers.
Not everything can be tracked and forecasted. For example, Amazon only offers Prime in the top 50 metros because that covers about 80 percent of overall order volume. To go any deeper would require huge additional costs for very little demand. The same math applies to staffing up to meet customer expectations. If you’re going to guarantee zero wait time for technical support, you’ll have to hire staff to meet that guarantee. And unless you plan perfectly, you’ll be overpaying to be able to meet peak demand.
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Removing customer friction isn’t always about billion-dollar programs and breakthrough apps. There are a ton of little things you can probably do today to remove at least a little friction from your product and process.
Take a walk through your purchase process and product usage as your customer would. Or, better yet, ask a few of them about their experience. Don’t wait until you start getting a reputation for poor customer service. At that point, the dysfunction has already set in.