CRM guru Samson Lee has a new idea about customer experience. I don’t know that I agree with it, but Lee has a way of making you question your assumptions and possibly change your viewpoint.
Lee describes extreme experience in his paper, “Replace Customer-Centricity with Extreme Experience,” as the inevitable pain you have to go through to reach nirvana — that is, get the product or service you want from the vendor you want. He describes a pleasure-pain gap (PPG) as a tool for building up a brand in customers’ eyes.
Our natural inclination always is to improve our approach to customers and to place the customer in the center of our universe, so that every conceivable customer need or whim can be known and accommodated. Lee says this is backward. A little “good” pain comes with attaining great things, such as training for the marathon, so why should a customer’s relationship with a brand be different?
Pain as a Branding Tool
Lee cites three examples to make his point. First is Ryanair, the Irish budget airline with the brand promise of low-cost tickets wherever the company flys. People put up with lines and waiting, and perhaps skimping on in-flight amenities, because their primary interest is in budget seats. Fair enough.
Lee places the Louis Vuitton luxury brand at the other end of the spectrum. The brand promise is luxury goods made to high standards. Lee says the perceived value of LV goods is a prestige feeling, and that this feeling exceeds the pain one feels when paying high prices.
There are good pains and bad pains in Lee’s mind. A good pain is LV’s high prices or Ryanair’s stripped-to-the-bone service. They’re good pains precisely because they make customers aware of the significance of these brands in their lives.
Lee’s other example is a variation on this theme. Sukiyabashi Jiro, a sushi restaurant located in Ginza, Tokyo, serves what might be the best sushi on the planet and offers the good pains that make customers believe this including, “remote location, tiny space, fixed menu, poor decorations, steep prices and bad service.”
This isn’t the first restaurant to try that formula. Boston was once home to Durgin Park, which offered bare tables, surly waitresses and Boston food. It was a fixture, to say the least — but interestingly, out of towners often didn’t feel the impact of all that good pain.
The final point in this pleasure-pain gap discussion is that vendors who go this route should focus resources on their core brand promises, almost ignoring everything else, because it’s only the pleasure of achieving the brand promise that matters.
My Two Bits
It seems to me that the thing all of these brands have in common is that in a world of commodities they stand out as unique. However, did they get to stand out before or after their apparent exclusionary focus on the brand?
You can’t argue that LV prices are high or Ryanair’s service is borderline, but I have a suspicion that Lee’s thesis is based on correlation and not causation. Then again, I don’t have much confidence in customer experience and customer-centricity as guardrails.
A few years ago, Harvard Business Review published a paper I keep coming back to, “Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers,” by Matthew Dixon, Karen Freeman and Nicholas Tomanout.
For most customers, the idea of a good experience is getting what they need efficiently so that they can move on to whatever is next on their agendas, the paper points out. Do your basic blocking and tackling and quit trying to entertain customers because, truth be told, it can’t be done consistently and risks aggravating them.
We all like our dive bars and other brands and institutions that take us as we are and don’t put on airs. There are many such places, though, and they don’t go out of their way to accentuate the pleasure-pain gap.
We patronize brands for our own reasons, and we certainly might like LV merch because it makes us feel special, and we might feel good about that great deal we got flying on Ryanair — but to ascribe a great customer experience to the pain we endure from a brand seems a step too far.
Nevertheless, I can’t rule out Lee’s thesis on any rational basis. His citations include Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, who knows much about human behavior in economic circumstances. Still, if Lee is right, then much about our CRM world is backward and we’re left with Thomas Hobbes’ formulation that life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Who wants that?
It’s possible to get the best of both worlds – delight customers without creating an exaggerated pleasure-pain gap. Putting aside flair to focus on a successful, straightforward experience makes sense, because that’s what customers are expecting. But going just one step past their expectations stands out. For instance, we recently started delivering boxes to new customers after their first payment. They include a copy of our most recent magazine, stickers, instructions on getting started with the software, etc. It’s not necessary and our customers don’t expect it, but that element of delight helps us stand out from the crowd. It also helps that it gets us social exposure.