CX expert Bill Price on creating frictionless customer experiences

What if you could design a customer experience so smooth that customers don't have to contact you?

Delayed orders, faulty services, missing information, you name it – every time a customer reaches out, it tells you something about the friction they’ve experienced. Customer service teams are all too often drowning in angry, repetitive tickets, and yet, we don’t seem to focus enough resources on tackling the reasons behind it. Could all of this extra work, unhappy customers, and lost revenue be avoidable?

In his 35 years of experience, Bill Price has seen the evolution of customer service from up close. He’s worked to improve the call center experience in the 1990s, becoming Amazon’s first Worldwide Vice-President of Customer Service, and, in the early 2000s, started a CX consulting firm, Driva Solutions, which helps businesses create great experiences to this day. He’s a keynote speaker, adviser, and co-author of several books on the subject, including the provocatively titled The Best Service is No Service, Your Customer Rules, and his latest The Frictionless Organization: Deliver Great Customer Experiences with Less Effort.

While it sounds controversial, for Bill Price, the best customer support may just really be no service at all. Of course, this doesn’t mean shutting down all your channels, crossing your fingers, and hoping for the best. It’s about being open to rethinking products, services, and processes, and making a continuous effort to pinpoint the root causes of friction in the customer’s journey, setting up simple and proactive self-serve solutions that address the issues before they escalate. Or, even better, eliminating them altogether. And perhaps he’s on to something. After all, if friction is reduced to the point where the customer never has to think about contacting you in the first place, well, we’re all the better for it.

We caught up with Bill to talk about frictionless experiences and the organizations that stand out from the crowd – for the best and the worst reasons.

If you’re short on time, here are a few quick takeaways:

  • Don’t wait until churn becomes a problem to address the points of friction in your customer journey.
  • While some contacts add value and should be leveraged, most of the time, customers reach out to you out of frustration over problems that could be avoided.
  • Customer service can’t fix the root causes of most issues – it’s essential to get the whole company on board and create shared goals around reducing friction.
  • The first step is to understand why customers are reaching out – 25 to 50 reasons should cover all grounds for contact, and the rest should likely be solved or automated.
  • Supporting these issues can get very expensive with repairs, refunds, and preventable work. By determining these costs, you can draw useful insights for strategies to tackle them.

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Getting rid of friction

Liam Geraghty: Bill, it’s a pleasure to have you on the show today.

Bill Price: Thanks so much for inviting me. I’m looking forward to this.

Liam: Can you tell me a little bit about your career and where your interest in customer-facing problems came from?

Bill: Sure, absolutely. I tried to correct the error of my ways from an early consulting career by joining a startup company in the customer service IVR service bureau field. We got acquired by the large U.S. telco MCI, and I spent the decade of the nineties building a business unit focused on improving the call center experience for business customers and their consumers. Then, I found myself interviewing here in Seattle with Jeff Bezos, 23 and a half years ago, to become Amazon’s first Worldwide VP of Customer Service, which I did for about three years. And then, I decided to hang out my shingle, and help other companies give back. And so, it’s been great to work with a lot of great companies and some business partners around the world trying to raise awareness of the customer experience and customer frustrations and fixing them.

“Expectations have risen and a lot of companies haven’t been listening. So we decided it made sense to sit down and write this”

Liam: And as you say, you’ve written several books, The Best Service is No Service and Your Customer Rules! Your latest book, The Frictionless Organization: Deliver Great Customer Experiences with Less Effort, was co-written with David Jaffe. What was the reason why you wanted to write this particular book?

Bill: Well, we’ve gotten a lot of really good feedback over the years from the first two books that we hit on a lot of very good notes, but a lot of organizations still weren’t getting it. They weren’t coming on the right bandwagon, on the right path. And it’s been complicated because customer expectations keep rising. They keep saying things like, “Why can’t you be as easy as this other company?” Or, “Why can’t you reach out to me when there’s a problem like some other organization does?” Expectations have risen and a lot of companies haven’t been listening. So we decided it made sense to sit down and write this – almost like a journal in a book form – and, step by step, take everyone through how they could do a better job identifying friction and getting rid of it.

The holy grail

Liam: What’s a good example? There are loads of examples in the book from all sorts of companies that have become frictionless. What’s one that stands out for you that’s been successful at it?

“Instead of trying to optimize the contact center experience with all sorts of things, they said, ‘Let’s get rid of an inbound phone number.’ No inbound chat, no inbound email”

Bill: Well, the one that keeps coming back to me is one that we came across looking at some articles. We then interviewed the company to find out more details. They’re based in New Zealand, with big offices in Australia, and they sell all over the world now. It’s a business tax software company called Xero. They distribute in England and Ireland, as well as other countries in Europe.

They’ve decided to flip the table and instead of trying to optimize the contact center experience with all sorts of things, they said, “Let’s get rid of an inbound phone number.” No inbound chat, no inbound email. Everything is done through what they call Xero Central, a central portal that each of their business customers has access to. And they say that 96% of the queries into Xero Central get answered without having to go any further. For the 4% that aren’t answered, a very small trouble ticket register is made. And what we really love is that an expert calls the customer back within two hours. Knowing where that customer is in the portal, it’s not a case of, “Hi, how can I help you?” It’s more like, “I see you were here, it looks like you’ve got a question about the billing accuracy. I run the billing operations team, how can I help you?” It’s a great conversation between their customers and the experts, and they wind up having tremendous loyalty.

Liam: I suppose listeners will be familiar with several kinds of large companies. I’m thinking of Dyson or Apple, who would also be good examples of this.

Bill: Oh, absolutely. In fact, I have a new little piece that I’m going to be posting on LinkedIn any day now, a little short video that I prepared on Zoom that talks about Dyson and how it has a really simple, elegant app so that you don’t need to contact them for queries. For example, I pulled out an old air purifier when we had some smoke here in Seattle a few weeks ago, and I found out that I didn’t have the remote. And the remote is essential to turn it on, turn it off, adjust the fan speed, and so on. Well, when I plugged it in, it turned on, but I wanted to have a higher fan speed. When I went on the website, I saw this little Bluetooth symbol. I figured, “That’s interesting.” So I clicked on the Bluetooth symbol and it said, “All you have to do is download the app and you can control your Dyson’s air purifier from wherever you are.” I did that, and within a few minutes, had the app going and could increase the fan speed. And it was really simple, really frictionless for me.

Liam: You were Amazon’s first global vice president of customer service. How did that experience shape what went into this book and the methodology behind it?

Bill: I’ll give you the answer in two dimensions. One, it was a capstone on things I’d already been trying to put in place and make work for customers, but it also was an accelerator. And the accelerator came from Jeff Bezos’s personal drive, which was fantastic to build what he kept calling earth’s most customer-centric company. It was a wonderfully ambitious and a little ambiguous term. What he meant by that was that you need to listen to the customer and also invent for the customer. You can’t just do one or the other, or else you’ll go too deep down your own agenda or not be creative enough.

He pushed all of us to build an organization that had very few errors, if any. Things need to be clear, simple. One thing that sticks with me is that he wanted to make sure that the website was designed for someone with an eighth-grade education, a middle school education, not a graduate student, not someone who knew engineering. Even though Amazon was a fairly complicated online tool, he wanted to make it really simple. And that drive for simplicity and accuracy has really stayed with me over the years.

Playing the long game

Liam: In an ideal world, customers wouldn’t want to contact any business if they don’t have to, and businesses would obviously love that. So, why don’t more organizations become frictionless?

“Underneath that are these deep-seated problems that are going to come out and bite them, but they get complacent because things seem to be going well”

Bill: That’s a question we keep asking ourselves as well. You picked the correct word, which is why. Why aren’t they doing it? And if they are beginning to do it, how is it working, and how can they make it even more successful? I think one of the reasons why organizations aren’t frictionless is that they have historical or legacy systems that make it difficult for them to, for example, join channels like the Xero example. The person that called back knew that the Xero customer had been on Xero Central and gone through the portal. All that information was transferred down to the person who called back. A lot of organizations don’t do that. They’ve got a portal set up with this technology, an IVR system, or a knowledge-based system in a call center with another technology, and they don’t join their systems and capabilities.

And the other problem is that they think it’s going pretty well anyway. In other words, customer churn is doing pretty well, it’s about the same as it’s been, and revenues are going up, “so we must be doing something well.” Underneath that are these deep-seated problems that are going to come out and bite them, but they get complacent because things seem to be going well.

Liam: Would there be any situation where it actually mightn’t be right for a business to be frictionless?

Bill: It’s okay to have contacts. We do talk in the book that there is a small category of issues where customers want to talk to you and you want to talk to them. And those would usually be surrounding intents such as, “I want to cancel my account.” It’s a really good opportunity to talk to them about why that is the case. Maybe you can help them, maybe you can come up with a better plan. Or it could be an issue of, “Tell me more about this new release. I want to learn about whether this new release is really going to help me and if it’s compatible with the system I have.” So, there are a small but significant number of reasons that are positive. But most of the reasons represent frustration, mistakes, or the opportunity to digitize.

“Customer care, customer service, and customer support can certainly resolve some issues, but they can’t fix the root causes. That’s just not what they’re designed to do”

Liam: And you speak about something called the “whole of business problem.” Can you explain what that means for our listeners?

Bill: If the listeners come from a contact center or call center background, they will know that the organizations tend to burden them with limited budgets and lots of pressure and expectations that the call center will fix the problems and everything will work fine. When in fact, the contact center is really just there because other departments or other groups have caused some issues that need to be handled.

You need to get the issues over to those owners, for instance, a head of billing or a head of logistics or someone in IT. You need to get the voice of the customer, the volume, the costs of those issues over to those owners and engage them to figure out how to fix the problem. Customer care, customer service, and customer support can certainly resolve some issues, but they can’t fix the root causes. That’s just not what they’re designed to do. But an IT team can do that, a dev team can do that, and someone in billing can do that. So, we say it’s got to be the whole of business, which really means up to the MD or the CEO and their teams. They need to be intimately involved. It’s not just a contact center burden at all.

Liam: Exactly. No man is an island, as they say. Something you’ve written about a good bit is about customers’ experience being more important than price. And why is that?

“Customers are willing to pay for what works well and delights them”

Bill: Well, because customers are willing to pay a little bit more for something that is a great product or service. We’ve talked about Dyson a few minutes ago. They’re not the cheapest product around, but those of us that have discovered Dyson have become big fans – I think, in our house, we’ve got three vacuum cleaners, three air purifiers, and a hair dryer. We’re willing to pay more if it works well and if it delights us or, at least, gives us something that exceeds our expectations or needs.

Amazon is low-cost and prides itself on providing bargains to customers. So, what is the value there? Well, the price is you’re willing to pay sometimes that annual fee for Amazon Prime, which is a big money maker for companies like Amazon, a prepaid subscription-type service. And you’re willing to pay for it because you get free shipping, you get access to Prime Video, and other solutions that Amazon has to offer. So, you can’t say a hundred percent, but in many cases, the experience and the way of dealing with the product and service will be more important than the price tag. Customers are willing to pay for what works well and delights them.

Why are customers contacting you?

Liam: What would be a bad example? What would be an example of someone who did this the wrong way?

Bill: Well, in this book, in particular, we really spent some time digging up and profiling organizations that did not do it right, that were increasing or at least not reducing friction. To protect ourselves, we decided not to name those companies very often. So, they’re generally written as a telco, a bank, or a government agency.

One that I’ll give you is an online company that prided itself on providing what we call preempt, meaning alerts. They wanted to make sure their customers were aware that this large product they ordered online was going to be delivered tomorrow, and they would send out messages the night before. These were voicemail messages left by the customer’s agreement on their mobile that said, “I just want to reassure you, your product will be arriving tomorrow between 12 and 3 in the afternoon.” Something like that. So great, you’re waiting for it. And then around 12:45 comes, it hasn’t arrived, 2:30 comes, it still hasn’t arrived. So the customer starts calling the contact center and the agent goes, “Nope, looks like it should be getting there.” 3:30 arrives, and now it’s past due, 4:30, 5 o’clock, you’re getting pretty frosted, and call the center again. Then, maybe you get a different agent, or a knowledge article comes up and says, “Oh, that product is still in the warehouse. It won’t be shipped until the next week.” And you go, “Wait a minute now, I got this message last night.”

“The first step is to understand the reasons why customers are, as we say, bothering themselves to have to contact you”

The systems weren’t joined up. The automated system was tied into an earlier version of the supply chain delivery system that had not been updated. And therefore, customers, not just this person who called in several times, were not getting their product as promised, which is even worse. If the message instead said, “I’m sorry, we got some snags in the system, we’ll get it to you next Monday,” at least you would’ve been reassured. But to get a confirmation on something that’s not going to come is a source of much frustration. That company tackled it and got rid of that problem, but it shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

Liam: Yeah, exactly. And it’s funny you should mention that. That’s literally something that happened to me this week.

Bill: Oh, did it?

Liam: And you do have that frustration of having to find out, “Okay, is this going to be delivered on another day?” And I couldn’t find any information. There was no easy way to contact them. If you are an organization and you want to become more frictionless, how can you go about compiling, say, customer issues and insights that you’ve gleaned from interactions to put into this rather than putting them through new ones, if you know what I mean?

Bill: Oh no, I totally get it. The first step is to understand the reasons why customers are, as we say, bothering themselves to have to contact you. And again, there are some good reasons, but most of them are not. And those reasons are typically collected. They’re called customer reasons or intents, and they’re typically way too numerous or way too few. We’re looking for that Goldilocks ideal in the middle — somewhere between 25 and 50 reasons should cover everything why a customer is contacting you. So instead of saying billing issues, which doesn’t give you an indication of good or bad or technical problem and doesn’t really start the process of fixing it, go a little bit deeper and say, “My internet keeps dropping,” or “Why is my bill so high?” Or maybe something that lends itself to being digitized, such as, “Where’s the closest retail store to me?” You shouldn’t be getting any phone calls or messages for that, it should be fully automated.

“Figure out how to quantify and cost out those reasons – it’s a shocker how expensive they are”

When you come down to those 25 to 50 reasons, you can start getting these owners associated or identified with them and go back to that whole of business problem. Without that early understanding, you’re kind of running around and not figuring out what’s going on. One of my business colleagues in England likes to call it running through treacle. If you’re running through treacle, you’re not making any progress at all. You have to get rid of that.

Liam: Yeah, I love that. And in terms of advice, what steps should you be taking if you want to refocus the business on solving customer issues and problems?

Bill: I’ll focus on one rather than give you a number that is in the book, which is to cost them out. Figure out how to quantify and cost out those reasons – it’s a shocker how expensive they are. And I’m talking beyond the cost of running a support center, which is pretty well known in a budget.

For example, if you have customers calling and saying, “My internet keeps dropping,” or “My internet is slow,” or “I have static on my line,” those types of issues can often be fixed with a good technical support call. But if not, a dispatch has to be made, and a technician or engineer has to roll out to the office to try to figure out what’s going on and fix it. That’s really expensive. We’re talking north of a hundred pounds or dollars per visit on top of that call, which preceded it and also didn’t get resolved. The customer’s still waiting for something to happen.

So, when you capture those downstream costs and bring those together by issue, by these 25 to 50 reasons, then the eyes start going up. The CFOs start getting engaged, “Is it really costing us that much money per year to handle that issue? We don’t want that at all. We certainly don’t want to spend that much money on it. What can we do?” I think boiling it down would be one of the most revealing ways to proceed.

A new challenge

Liam: And as you say, there are some other really insightful steps in the book. Before we wrap up, we always ask, broadly speaking, what makes good and bad customer service for you?

“A bad service experience is one that, first of all, had to happen”

Bill: I don’t want to have to contact my bank, my telco, my whatever it is. So for me, the best service is no need for service. If I do have to contact them, I want to have someone who listens to me, who doesn’t interrupt me, who understands how severe or important this is for me, and then fixes it and confirms afterward that it was fixed.

A bad service experience is one that, first of all, had to happen. But number two is where the opposite occurs – no recognition of who I am, a sense that this was a standard call, that they were going through a checklist, telling me something I already know or that doesn’t really help me. The bad experience leads me to say, “Wait, not only was the problem not necessary in the first place, but that contact shouldn’t have happened. I better contact somebody else. Or maybe I’ll just go somewhere else.” That’s the issue. The implication of bad service, to me, is “I’m going to go shop or spend my money somewhere else.”

“Why are customers, for instance, in Italy, apt to contact you more frequently than someone in Sweden on the same issue?”

Liam: Well, I was going to say what’s next, but I hate asking this to people who’ve just written a new book.

Bill: Well, David and I have written three books together, which has been a fantastic experience. He lives in Melbourne, Australia, and grew up in England. We’ve had a really terrific experience writing this. I think next time, I might do something a little bit different, maybe on my own, although he and I will still talk about this idea of something we talk about in the book called the propensity to complain. For the same issue, for the same problem or opportunity, there’s a wide difference in the complaint rates around the world and even within countries. And I want to probe into why that is. Why are customers, for instance, in Italy, apt to contact you more frequently than someone in Sweden on the same issue? In the United States, why do customers in Boston and New England tend to contact their companies much more frequently than customers in California or in Washington state, where I live?

There are cultural and some other background reasons, and there’s really interesting academic data that supports this thesis, but it hasn’t really been done comprehensively. And I think it would help regional and global players figure out the health of their customers and products. It’ll also tell them that customers in Sweden, who may not contact you as much, have the same problem rate. So what do you do about that? Maybe you should reach out to those Swedish customers, or the customers in California, because then you can get a much better understanding of customer experience. I think that’s probably next up for me.

Liam: I love that. We’ll definitely have to get you back on to talk about that. As an Irish man, I can give you some insight into that. Irish people, say, if you’re out at a restaurant and you had a bad experience, you will be talking about it with the people at the table, but when the waiter comes over and asks you, “How is everything?” everyone will be falling over themselves to say everything was perfect. We hate admitting or complaining to people. So there’s your first one.

Bill: Thank you. Appreciate the contribution.

Liam: Bill, thank you so much for talking to me today.

Bill: I enjoyed it very much. Thanks for the time.

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