Innovate by Reducing Friction
The Relentless Pursuit of the Effortless Experience
Is there anybody in there?
Just nod if you can hear me
Is there anyone at home?
—“Comfortably Numb” by David John Gilmour and Roger Waters
What is innovation? Does every company need to pursue it? Our minds, fed by media, likely think of innovation as solely the game-changer technologies or business models such as Tesla, SpaceX, or a new Apple product. For most companies with great businesses, high customer satisfaction, and moats around their business model, innovation can largely be in the pursuit of perfection of the customer experience and improving operations. What gets in the way of an effortless customer experience and operational efficiency -- friction.
Friction is the unfinished work we ask our customers or employees to deal with. It leads to the effort, less-than-ideal customer satisfaction, and hidden taxes in our operational costs in the form of efficiencies, quality, and manual efforts. Friction is often in the minutiae or in larger gaps customers have to take to conduct their business with us.
Is There Anybody In There?
Friction is often hidden in granular details of the current user experience we just don’t pay attention to, in the details to which we are “comfortably numb”(thanks Pink Floyd!). Here are a few examples:
Re-entering address or personal details on a website when they have already been entered
Writing the background regarding your order, your appointment, or your warranty claim, and then having to tell the same information to the phone representative (and perhaps a third time if your issue has to be transferred to another agent)
A complex website or mobile app making the “status” of your situation unclear — “where is my order and when will it arrive?” might be the question a customer is asking?
Setup instructions that are vague or incorrect or generally not helpful
Having to call customer service for some aspects of “managing your account” — and customer service is open from 8 AM EST to 5 PM EST and having to leave a message.
Directions to your office or store which don’t clarify where parking can be found
Legal forms which no normal customer could possibly read or gain value from
Making it difficult to cancel an order or subscription
Friction can often be identified by closely studying the customer calls, questions, and complaints that come into your customer service center. These are the signals of friction — pay attention!
The other related type of friction is defined by the boundaries of our capabilities. The relentless pursuit of making it easier for customers to return items has led Amazon to a wide number of options for making it easier for customers (and cheaper for Amazon) to return items. Whether it is a partnership with Koll’s department stores allowing customers to drop off items, or being able to return an Amazon order at Whole Foods, Amazon Bookstores, Amazon lockers. These are bigger capabilities Amazon has built and enabled to reduce the friction of returning an item. These capabilities tend to widen the way we serve customers by pursuing a friction-free experience.
Expanding the boundaries to reduce friction in a customer experience has led many companies to infuse their products with sensors and analytics to allow an understanding of what the customer situation is. My home HP printer re-orders ink automatically when it is close to running out – effortless! I don’t have to figure out that my printer needs ink; I don’t have to remember the model number; I don’t need to know which color I need; I don’t need to figure out where to purchase; I don’t need to make an order. It just takes care of itself.
In a B2B business context, I’ve worked with a large telecom equipment manufacturing business to re-design their client contracting process dramatically lowering the negotiation and legal efforts (aka friction) with both sides bearing the costs, time lag, and negative sentiments that come from a traditional legal contract mindset. This led to many benefits including a better ability to forecast when deals would close, less invitation to negotiate business terms, and an overall better client relationship. All by reducing the friction of a complex contract with terms that were rarely invoked. Hypothetically, the legal risk might have been increased — but in a practical sense, we actually felt that we lowered legal risk by both parties have a better partnership mentality.
A final example for now — why is it still so difficult to find an item at any of the big-box retailers like Home Depot, Lowe’s, or Target? Because they have not innovated the in-store discovery experience. Why can’t I ask a voice assistant or take a photo of the obscure light bulb I need and get a precise location in the store for the item? Again, “comfortably numb”.
If you want to be innovative, study the entire lifecycle, from discovery to end-of-life for your product or service. What’s harder than it should be? Look for the root cause of customer frustrations and the irritating aspects of your service or product to which we have become “comfortably numb.” Improve the customer experience, improve your operations and support costs, and over time you will typically improve revenue also.
PLEASE, AMAZON, REINVENT THE PHARMACY EXPERIENCE. PLEASE!
It’s a sunny Saturday morning in Southern California. I stop at my local pharmacy, a large national chain, to pick up a prescription following a doctor’s appointment. The store is quiet. A lone customer speaks to the clerk at the pharmacy pickup window. Another customer, an elderly lady in a jogging suit, stands in front of me, waiting to be served. In addition to the clerk serving the customer, two pharmacists work in the rear. A fourth employee peruses the 10-foot-high aisles behind the pharmacist’s counter. This should be quick, I think. The employees outnumber the customers.
The clerk calls out “I’ll be right with you” to us as a fourth customer joins the queue behind me. Despite being a respectful 10 feet behind the customer at the counter, we can’t help but overhear the conversation he is having with the clerk. It’s slightly embarrassing for everyone. I look at my shoes. The clerk calls the pharmacist over for a new prescription consultation.
Five minutes pass before the customer at the counter receives the correct ointments and pills. He leaves, and the elderly lady in the jogging suit approaches the counter expectantly, stating her name. Nodding, the clerk rifles through the alphabetically ordered plastic bags hanging in the pharmacy for her prescription order. No dice. The lady states her name again, and the clerk re-scans all the bags. Sometimes orders are hung in the wrong place, the clerk tells her. The elderly lady says she received a text an hour ago saying her order was ready. The clerk grabs a big red basket containing filled prescription orders that have not yet been placed on the hangers. The clerk checks the entire basket one by one.
“Found it!” she says triumphantly, lifting the lady’s prescription into the air like a winning lottery ticket.
Now it’s time to pay. The clerk asks the customer if she has the rewards program card. The lady shakes her head. She doesn’t want or need the hassle. She just wants to leave with her prescription. Who can blame her? She pays for the order without connecting the transaction to her history or loyalty number.
Now it’s my turn.
“Name?” the clerk asks.
“No, Rossman. R, O, S, S, M, A, N.”
The clerk finds the order and brings it over. She asks for my insurance card. When I hand it to her, she sees I have new coverage. She instructs me to take a seat over to the side.
The clerk doesn’t answer, so I obediently sit. And wait. As I wait, I notice the aisles of retail items at the large pharmacy store contain everything from mouthwash and hair care products to books and coolers. It seems like every other item has both a normal price and a handwritten “price reduced” tag taped to the shelf. In addition to the employees in the pharmacy, the store has six checkout counters and three or four store clerks. In total, there are seven customers in the store, five of whom are here in the pharmacy.
“I’ll be right with you,” says the clerk again to the ever-growing pharmacy customer line. The clerk is apparently the only pharmacy employee allowed to directly serve customers. The two pharmacists are filling prescriptions, and the other clerk is placing them in the red basket.
After waiting another five minutes, I stand up and approach the counter. The pharmacist had forgotten to come over. I complete the transaction, and I’m on my way.
How many points of friction can you pick out of this story?
Although Amazon acquired PillPack in June 2018, they have yet to create the multi-channel pharmacy experience I envision. Manage your prescriptions at Amazon, pick them up at Whole Foods, an Amazon Go Pharmacy with “just walk out” capability, or have your prescriptions delivered to your house and talk to a pharmacist through your Echo device. Please, Amazon, reinvent the pharmacy experience. Please!
The Innovation Super Power — Coming Next Week
These examples of friction and the constant pursuit to eliminating it create an organization with a keen eye toward inefficiencies, a culture of customer-centricity, and building nimbleness in implementing changes. Well done! But there is the next level. A next level of taking the war on friction to drive bigger innovation -- business model innovation, new product categories, and true breakthroughs. And to do it fast. This next-level can be accessed by asking one question. In future editions of The Digital Leader Newsletter, we will use this one question and a framework to lead us to breakthrough insights. The question is a short and memorable one. The question challenges us to know your customers better than we might today. This question forces us to be humble and critical of our own products and services. The question which unlocks all of this??
—————— “What Sucks???” —————-
Visceral, simple, and cutting — this one question is the secret to accelerating innovation. Next week we will explore the “What Sucks???” question to understand the power and application of one simple question.
Actions to Take
Study what your customers are telling you about friction through customer calls, complaints and questions. Understand the root cause and tackle the root cause. Create a prioritized list of friction points — prioritize by “impact to the customer” versus “level of effort to eliminate the friction”. Tackle the “high impact, lower effort” friction points early. Only you can provide the stimulus to create a friction-free customer experience!
About The Digital Leader Newsletter
This is a newsletter for change agents, strategists, and innovators. The Digital Leader Newsletter is a weekly coaching session with a focus on customer-centricity, innovation, and strategy. We deliver practical theory, examples, tools, and techniques to help you build better strategies, better plans, better solutions — but most of all to think and communicate better. You’ll be able to follow up with questions and advice.
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