The Effortless Experience, by Matthew Dixon, Nick Toman, and Rick DeLisi, is a really good read for pretty much anybody who runs a customer service organization, and parts of it are worthwhile for anybody who leads people working in a customer service organization. The authors strive to make a pretty solid case for a Customer Effort Score framework that their research has led them to develop; I don’t intend to push too hard for the introduction their framework in my organization, but I still felt like a lot of what the authors share makes good sense and can contribute to providing better customer service. Several times, I found myself kind of smacking my head and thinking “we should be doing a better job of that.”

The authors start with a consideration of the cases you hear of every once in a while in which a customer support representative goes many extra miles to delight a customer. These are appealing as viral stories, but based on a lot of research the authors did, this sort of story is more of a flash in the pan. It’s expensive and unsustainable. Instead, the authors propose, we should scrap the notion of delighting our customers and instead work to make their experiences be (or at least seem) as low-effort as possible.

The authors’ research has turned up four headlines:

  • A strategy of delight doesn’t pay.
  • Satisfaction is not a predictor of loyalty.
  • Customer service interactions tend to drive disloyalty, not loyalty
  • The key to mitigating disloyalty is reducing customer effort.

The authors think of customer loyalty in terms of whether customers continue to buy things, how much they spend, and how much advocacy they perform for the company (do they talk the company up to friends and family?). A customer who scores high marks across these dimensions is a loyal customer. Loyalty correlates with lower-effort experiences.

The big drivers of customer disloyalty are as follows:

  • Having to contact the company more than once to resolve the problem
  • Generic service (feeling treated like a number, having no personalized experience)
  • Having to repeat things (your story, your account number…)
  • Being bounced around a lot to different departments, or channel-switching (going from FAQ to chat to email to phone, etc.)

The four best practices that are common to low-effort service organizations:

  • Minimize channel switching by making it easy for people to self-serve, so that they never have to leave that self-service channel.
  • Don’t just resolve the current issue, but set agents up to prevent future calls by using next issue avoidance practices.
  • Set agents up to use advanced “experience engineering” tactics to manage the customer interaction and create a good emotional experience for the customer. This can be as simple as phrasing things better (you hear this sometimes called “turning a can’t into a can”) but can also be a lot more involved.
  • Incentivize agents to optimize for quality of the experience over speed and efficiency, which also tends to include giving agents some autonomy (untether them from the long, rigid checklist).

The practices above that are in the customer support representatives’ hands are pretty trainable.

The perception of effort has more to do with how the customer feels about it than what steps they actually had to take. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we should just be nicer to customers, but rather that we can plan next steps and language carefully to anticipate pitfalls and think of outcomes that, while not the initial desired outcome, might be agreeable to the customer. The book offers a really good example of the way one company manages this alongside helping the customer feel like they’ve had a really personalized experience.

The authors write about Control Quotient (CQ), which they define as the ability to “exercise judgment and maintain control in a high-pressure, complex service environment.” Most reps already have high CQ, but organizations inhibit it by, for example, limiting people to using rigid checklists and generally opting for standardization over autonomy. The drab name aside, CQ as portrayed in the book does a good job capturing a lot of what I’ve seen in very good customer support representatives, so the idea here passes the sniff test for me. Traits common to people with high CQ:

  • Curiosity
  • Creativity
  • Capable of critical thinking
  • Experimental

And a further set of skills common to these folks:

  • They demonstrate product knowledge.
  • They demonstrate technological expertise.
  • They communicate confidently.
  • They communicate clearly.
  • They ask good questions.
  • They’re capable of multitasking

There’s another set of skills and traits categorized as emotional intelligence that, when present in customer service representatives, tends to correlate with an even bigger performance lift than those listed above:

  • They’re empathetic.
  • They can flex to different personality types.
  • They have a customer service ethic.
  • They’re extroverted (they’re comfortable interacting with strangers).
  • They advocate for the customer.
  • They’re persuasive.

And finally, there’s a set of five skills and behaviors that lifts performance yet further:

  • They’re resilient.
  • They’re able to handle high-pressure situations without becoming burned out.
  • They take responsibility for their own actions.
  • They respond well to constructive criticism by managers.
  • They’re able to concentrate on tasks over extended periods of time.

Now that we know a lot of great traits and behaviors, how do we unlock them? There are three environmental factors that we can influence:

  • Trust customer service representative judgment.
  • Make sure they understand and are aligned with company goals.
  • Assure that they have a strong peer network.

The authors write about the distinction between training (which is very common and tends to be kind of negligent in practice because people read it once and move on) and coaching, which is often focused more on being corrective after the fact than instructive in the midst of an interaction. Training of course can be useful, but more hands-on (vs. retrospective) coaching leads to better outcomes.

The book talks a bit about change management, which is perhaps useful for organizations making a big shift in how they approach thinking about customer satisfaction and success, but it was a pretty shallow treatment of the topic and probably is useful for a small segment of the people to whom the book might be more broadly appealing.

I’ve offered a lot of highlights here. If they’re enticing to you and you’re in a position to implement some of the changes they might inspire you to make, a deeper read than this glimpse provides might be in order, as the authors do go into more detail and offer stats and a few case studies to clarify their argument.