A prior post explored the concept of customer effort as a critical driver of customer loyalty. That piece referenced Gartner research / articles (here, here, and here) which argued that creating an effortless customer experience — far more than raising customer satisfaction — is the key to retaining customers’ devotion. The data doesn’t lie; and I certainly buy into the concept. To a point.
On further reflection, though, I have a few reservations. These doubts are based on nuances specific to enterprise software and customers’ experience with business-to-business SaaS solutions. Gartner’s research appears to have been broad in scope; it seemingly covered customer service interactions around consumer products / services without focusing on specific industries. This post seeks to double-click into some subtleties to consider around customer effort, with emphasis on these dynamics within the B2B software environment.
1. Timing Matters: In B2B software, timing matters when it comes to customer effort. There is a fundamental distinction between the initial set-up period when the software is being implemented, versus the downstream steady-state period when the solution is being leveraged in a live environment by active end-users. For the sake of clarity, we might characterize these two phases / timeframes as “project” work (up-front) versus “process” work (downstream). Notwithstanding the rise of low-friction, freemium 2nd generation SaaS solutions, many complex business solutions still require thoughtful up-front project work. And, although the SaaS model has vastly simplified and accelerated technical aspects of software set-up, rolling out business solutions still demands organizational commitment of time and resources to do so properly (e.g. mapping processes, configuring work-flows, integrating with existing systems, and supporting user adoption). Gartner’s research in support of low customer effort appears to have excluded that start-up phase (project work) and focused primarily on downstream customer support inquiries (process work). The reality is that customers still need to invest to some degree in project work, even if their appetite for downstream process work is prohibitively low.
2. Value Matters: Building on the point above, savvy institutional software customers acknowledge some amount of up-front work is required to get great downstream value from a technical solution. And while all organizations strive to minimize that work (and time), they appreciate that effort and value are correlated. Gartner’s findings aside, customers are willing to invest in implementation efforts…so long as the downstream value they derive ultimately justifies that investment. Customer’s tolerance is a function of both variables — effort and value. Conversely, if effort and value are NOT correlated, the result will be a painful or seemingly never-ending implementation period, customer frustration, and an inevitable drop in customer loyalty. Said another way, the concept of customer “effort” is certainly relative; and customers must believe that their effort will be rewarded AND that the effort should be minimized with an easy solution to implement, administer, and use. It strikes me that all of these elements might be loosely plotted on a graph like this.
3. Timing Matters (Part Deux): There is another timing-related dynamic that encompasses both of the points above. Just as kids want to play with their holiday gifts immediately upon opening them, virtually all software buyers want to take advantage of their technology purchases as soon as possible. In other words, they want to shorten the time to value capture once they’ve contracted to use a software solution (and this is a critical metric for SaaS providers to measure). Experienced customers know that the more concentrated effort they put in, the faster they’ll get value from the solution. Conversely, a leading reason for slow or unsuccessful implementations is a lack of prioritization and effort on behalf of customers…which leads to dissatisfaction and churn. In contrast to Gartner’s research, this is case where low customer effort certainly will not translate into long-term loyalty. Note: There is also admittedly a nagging chicken-and-egg dynamic at play here; and it is worth asking whether these slow implementations would get higher priority with a more motivated customer if we vendors made them demonstrably easier to execute(?).
4. Economics Matter: There is an old saying that people don’t value the things they get for free. Without getting into a philosophical debate about total cost of ownership or open source software, it is safe to say that people’s commitment to any endeavor rises the more skin they have in the game. This is absolutely true when it comes to tolerance for project effort relating to software. Generally speaking, the less a business pays for software, the lower the willingness to invest effort implementing it. Free models command the lowest effort (virtually no skin in the game). Long-term license models (largely antiquated at this point) drive the highest. Many of us can remember a time when organizations paid huge sums up-front for a perpetual licenses…and then these pot-committed buyers would routinely have to spend years and fortunes implementing those same systems. Thankfully updated SaaS delivery and subscription models have put the onus on software providers to demonstrate value quickly and consistently, lest they risk churning the very customers they worked so hard to acquire. In any case, it strikes me as incomplete to say that low effort is unequivocally the highest determiner of customer loyalty. Rather, business model and up-front costs are other factors impacting customers’ tolerance for effort, with a related “effort curve” looking something like this:
In closing, the research on effortlessness brings an invaluable perspective to the rich topic of customer loyalty. But its application in the world of B2B software has its limits and should be applied with some caution. Specifically, while effortlessness may win the day in connection to downstream process work, delighting customers still seems to have a place in the world of up-front project work. Smart SaaS providers will benefit from understanding of customers’ journey with their solution and apply customer experience strategies accordingly. Similarly, it is important to understand a solution’s go-to-market strategy and packaging / pricing approach. Both will impact customers’ tolerance for investing effort, which should also inform the ideal customer experience. And, finally, the concept of “effortlessness” probably ought not be defined as NO effort. Instead, it is more relative in nature, where the work that needs to be done shouldn’t create unnecessary frustration. Said another way, effort is not the work itself; rather, it’s the infuriating customer feeling of “why does it have to be so hard?!” With that said, any and all customer work needs to be seamless and logical so they can derive value from their software purchases with as little effort as possible.