Your Customers are Probably Annoyed With You

Starbucks has done a brilliant job of training its customers to patiently wait in line. But should that verity excuse the company from exploring cheap and simple opportunities for efficiency?

My great petty annoyance, as the line slowly edges forward, is that a majority of customers at the cash register actually seem surprised that they have to pay for their coffee. No matter where in the world I go, more than half of the people fumble for their change, credit card, mobile phone, Starbucks card, etc. when it comes time to pay. At 20+ seconds per fumble, we're talking an additional three- or four-minute delay. No big deal, right?

But, really, I'd pay Starbucks out of my own pocket to run a simple, cheap experiment to see if peak time lines moved faster and smoother if a posted sign asked customers to have payment ready when they hit the till. My bet is that Starbucks could quickly enjoy the best of both worlds: faster service, less queue abandonment, and happier customers.

This is undeniably a "little" thing, but customer experiences are often defined as much by petty irritations as ultimate outcomes. So-called "customer satisfaction" surveys frequently — I'd argue usually — miss these irksome frictions precisely because they are so, well, petty. Most people don't want to be thought of as petty, so they're disinclined to make petty complaints. (My Starbucks story offers an unusually relevant example because fellow customers — not Starbucks itself — are seemingly the irritation's root cause.)

Customer satisfaction surveys tend to be biased toward identifying more "significant" issues and problems. Behavioral economists like Dan Ariely and Nobel laureate economist Daniel Kahneman would say the framing of survey questions reflects a desire to capture what's most important or detect emergent pathologies. I've seen many surveys and questionnaires asking customers what made them "unhappy" or "dissatisfied" with their experience or interaction. I've never seen — or been asked — was there anything particularly irritating or annoying about your dealings with us?

Cynically put, petty irritations and annoyances are simply too petty and annoying to merit managerial focus. Almost by definition, serious complaints deserve more attention than trivial ones. The reality, of course, is that a perennial or chronic irritant almost always reflects a deeper and more systemic issue.

My favorite "petty" story in that regard comes from Procter & Gamble. The company's Pampers product had failed time and time again to gain any traction in Japan. Japanese mothers simply refused to use it; they preferred the local Unicharm (and other) brands even though they were slightly more expensive. The P&G executives were beside themselves because, on every single price and performance measure that mattered, Pampers was technically superior. Failing in Japan had enormous consequences for the Pampers team.

The marketers reexamined all their data and started spending more time with Japanese mothers. The petty irritant finally emerged: The elastic leggings that held the diaper close to the baby's skin was just the teensiest bit too firm. Although snug, the legging slightly discolored the baby's skin. The aesthetically acute Japanese mothers were appalled that a disposable diaper would bruise their babies. They would never buy a product that would blemish their child.

This had literally never been an issue in any other part of P&G's world. The moms didn't care that Pampers didn't hurt their child; they simply wouldn't tolerate any visual marks. Were they being petty? Fussy? Unreasonable? P&G quickly redefined Pampers' criteria for "technical superiority" and finally gained meaningful market share.

I know that Starbucks doesn't want to be McDonald's and brand its customer experiences around better operational efficiencies. On the other hand, is it disciplined or wise to use one's branded UX as an excuse to avoid exploring how to smooth or eliminate the petty annoyances perceived by a nontrivial customer segment?

The devil is, indeed, in the details. Don't be satisfied with identifying where customers and clients are dissatisfied. Have the courage and creativity to find out the petty, trivial things that they're too embarrassed to complain about. Turn their irritations into your innovations.

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