This past week I had a thought that rocked my world and challenged the “best practice” advice I give to companies that work with us. Let me rock your world, too. What if frictionless experiences move us further away from a relationship with our customer? What if - and hear me out - friction is good?

Or, put another way, what if not all friction is bad?

Phillip and I spend a lot of effort thinking about customer journey. We spend a lot of your time on the podcast asking other brands about their customer's journeys, as we did recently in our Youtube interview with State Bags CEO, Jessica Davidoff, on our newly-launched Youtube Channel (btw we do video now, that’s a thing). We have spent our time (and our customers’ money) building frictionless, efficient experiences to increase conversion and average order value.

Merchants are looking at all the tried-and-true programs that have performed in the past - improvements in UX, digital marketing, payments innovations, A/B testing, etc. While I think these are all worthwhile disciplines of more mature retailers, I think there’s an important ingredient being neglected: direct investment into a relationship with the customer. Not digital relationship, IRL relationship.

What if the inadvertent consequences of this is a total homogeneity of site experiences optimized to be as slippery and thoughtless as possible? Will we even be remembered in the end? This is why Phillip is so excited about brands like Entire World which shred the playbook of “good” site design. They require you to pause and think and get oriented. “Why am I here? What am I looking for? Why is that woman eating an entire stalk of kale while dressed head-to-toe in quality basics? Do I need more kale in my diet?”

What if we have lost sight of how to build a sustainable business? What if some mundane, boring, commonplace friction is actually good for relationships? What if a relationship with our customers supersedes cost-effective scalability? What if we invested more in customer-facing people than any other system? What if we re-introduced some “friction” back into our experiences for the sake of human connection?

Last week I had the pleasure and honor of speaking at a conference in NYC with members of the Magento ecosystem. This was my third time giving a talk in front of this crowd. But this time things have changed - digital retail is in flux right now - much like the rest of retail. Despite rising costs to operate, most businesses have a total uplift overall, and among merchants that I consult with, there’s a lot of confusion about where and how to invest the returns from this new growth.

My talk at the conference was focused on building good customer relationships first. How many times has someone on an e-commerce team said: “We shouldn’t do a [x] because it increases the number of steps at check out”? Maybe we should consider actually doing that thing. Something Phillip has oft-quoted on the show is “lifetime customer value happens over a lifetime.” Maybe you lose one particular sale but gain every other sale thereafter?

Look at brands like Care/of (who were created in part and share a board member with our most recent episode’s guest Nick Ling of Pattern Brands). The Care/of homepage hero banner and main call to action is a survey that requires you to provide personal information that can take up to 10 minutes to complete. This is the longest path to conversion not the shortest. This requires potential customers to invest in the relationship, but in turn allows Care/of to invest in every other relationship interaction afterward. It allows the brand to learn about those customers and provide them with the best possible recommendations, and not-for-nothing these are healthcare decisions. It’s a commitment. It’s personalization. It’s attention.

It’s friction.

Care/of will only be successful if they establish trust, and relationships are built on trust. So, therefore, relationships are their number one priority.

Friction, to Care/of, is good.

Another interesting example of investing in the customer is T-Mobile’s recently revamped Customer Care Teams. T-Mobile has created a customer service offering that allows for seamless conversations with the history of all cross-channel interactions being passed on to a dedicated team per customer. I just personally experienced the power here: I had a series of questions and issues to work through with T-Mobile -  and completely to my surprise when I returned to the customer service process was routed to talk with the same rep three times in a row - and she remembered me throughout the process.

When I did finally get a different rep on the phone, he saw my previous interactions, called out the previous rep I had spoken with, by name, and complimented her as someone who is good to work with - a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree. Can you remember the last time you had this kind of customer service interaction? I certainly can’t. Was this coincidence? Or intentional nurture of the relationship?

To my recollection, they didn’t try to channel-shift me into a lower-friction experience like text or chat. They have now cemented me as a phone support customer through my great experience. I hope I get an NPS survey.

Bad customer experiences create a kind of peer-to-peer, lateral, friction - a kind that is beyond your control. A kind that encourages the masses to share in a public form of mournful suffering. Bad experiences are far more likely to be shared socially and can have a significant impact on your business. Look what has happened to United starting with “United Breaks Guitars” back in 1999 and culminating in the infamous beatdown and dragging of their passenger just in the past couple of years (within a few days of the incident United share fell by around 4%).

Our podcast sponsor, Gladly, in their 2019 Customer Service Expectations Report, found that 69% of consumers feel like they’re treated like a ticket not a person, 74% of customers base their purchase decisions on customer service, and a whopping 77% of customers think that great service is a bigger draw than a great marketing or promotion. This is great support for the case that we’ve made on the show with Ingrid Milman Cordy: that customer relationship is so important that it trumps your investment into brand.

You may not have a customer relationship without the brand, but without the relationship, your brand will cease to exist.

One-time discount-based conversions and impulse cross-sell add-ons reduce friction with the buyer and improve conversion. But does that create a loyal customer who have done countless hours of research and reading of other customers review? Is 10% off an initial purchase the thing that makes the difference in lifelong loyalty? Is there a chance that another company comes along with a similar product and offers a discount as well - only to put your two brands on equal footing?

Perhaps introducing some friction into the equation will help you win the customer in the long-term. Solutions like Zoovu allow you to create guided commerce experiences and quizzes, much like that of Care/of, which allow you to get to know your customer and tailor your site experiences to her. When she returns, you remember her and present content to her in a way that is thoughtful and engaging.

This is a call to return to the type of friction that clienteling provides - a few minutes investment of time in a relationship can guide people to making considered purchases and create real lifetime value.

Not all friction is bad. Friction is, in fact, vital for your customer to experience satisfaction with you and their interactions with you - and therefore it is vital for your success.

In the news:

Kanye starts a church. McDonald’s acquires yet more tech. Amazon has 30,000 open job recs. Lululemon launches a streetwear brand called Lab. Shopify acquires a warehouse automation startup for $450MM.


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