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Customer Experience

2 Ways to Improve Customer Experience: Elevate Positives or Eliminate Negatives?

A person sits in front of two lighted options representing elevating positives vs. eliminating negatives. These are two methods to improve customer experience.

There are two popular yet contrasting philosophies when it comes to improving customer experience. Eliminating negatives focuses on identifying and removing pain points, areas of friction, and moments that cause customer frustration. Elevating positives aims to create new experiences where ones don’t already exist, and to double down on what customers already love about the brand.

But which method is more effective? It depends whom you ask.

Eliminating Negatives To Improve Customer Experience

Perhaps the most common use of customer feedback is simply to resolve customer experience issues. Sometimes referred to as ‘find-and-fix,’ this involves looking for key pain points or frustrations and making them better. After all, whether your favorite euphemism is “death by a thousand cuts” or “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” at some point customers’ patience runs thin with irritants.

The “find-and-fix” method was a huge component of how my team and I at Discover Card won the coveted J.D. Power Award for Customer Satisfaction for the very first time. The company would not have won the award without having eliminated so many customer pain points.

Indeed, the #1 most important factor in a customer’s loyalty is reducing customer effort, according to the Harvard Business Review.

Eliminating pain points can move brand detractors to at least neutral and sometimes to being advocates. This is also what plugs the “leaky bucket”—those customers who leave and never tell you why. For many customers, all it takes is a single bad experience and they’re off to a competitor.

It also helps convince management, with data, that improving customer experience works vis-à-vis the metrics they care about.

In the case of Discover, we were able to track the business impact of most changes—usually a reduction in calls to the contact center. At a typical $5-$10 cost for each call, those savings can add up quickly.

How To Eliminate Negatives

  • Conduct customer surveys and interviews, analyzing complaints to find the biggest pain points
  • Map out all customer touchpoints and identify areas of friction
  • Fix broken processes and known errors, streamline confusing steps, remove roadblocks

Examples include: Simplifying return policies, reducing wait times, improving product documentation

Advantages: Removes irritants quickly, low-hanging fruit, easy wins

Disadvantages: Diminishing returns, fails to create lasting delight

Elevating Positives To Improve Customer Experience

Chip and Dan Heath, authors of The Power of Moments, a best-selling and seminal book on customer experience, said in an interview with Heart of the Customer’s Jim Tincher:

The payoff for building peaks is much larger than the payoff for fixing potholes. We did a study with Forrester Research, using the data from their massive annual CX Index survey. And part of that survey is to ask consumers how they felt about their last experience with a certain brand… The consumers provide a score from 1 (very bad) to 7 (very good).

So imagine that you were the CCO [Chief Customer Officer] of one of those brands, and you get this data. Some customers are happy with you and some aren’t. In response, we give you the option to choose one of two plans. Plan A would be to eliminate the negatives: You could move all your 1s, 2s, and 3s up to a 4. Plan B would be to elevate the positives: You could move all your 4s, 5s, and 6s up to a 7. Which would you choose?

Here’s the surprise: Plan B is 8.8 times more valuable in dollar terms than Plan A! Why is that true? Two reasons: There are way more mildly positive customers (4s, 5s, and 6s) than dissatisfied customers, and also, the more a customer likes you, the most he/she spends.

The further surprise is that, when we asked executives at well-respected service companies how they spend their time, they estimated that they spent 80 percent on eliminating the negatives. We’re spending the great majority of our time on the less valuable path!

The Heath brothers’ strategy has also been validated in the Human Resources realm with the skills of individual employees. The well-known StrengthsFinder test, now known as CliftonStrengths, rates individuals across thirty-four themes based on the answers to 177 questions. The recommendation is then for the individual to focus on building up their strengths rather than improving their weaknesses.

Indeed, focusing on improving one’s strengths—or going from Good to Great, as best-selling author Jim Collins calls it, is far more effective than trying to improve one’s weaknesses. After all, Horrible to Fair wouldn’t have been nearly as memorable a book title!

How To Elevate Positives

  • Conduct customer surveys and interviews, analyzing compliments and wish-list items to find the biggest opportunities
  • Double down on the memorable “wow” moments customers rave about
  • Amplify your unique strengths and what sets you apart from competitors (this may include being Witty)

Examples include: Personalized customer service, enhanced product features, exclusive perks

Advantages: Creates competitive differentiation, forges emotional loyalty, generates Shareable moments

Disadvantages: Harder to get right, higher investment may be required

So Which Method Will Improve Customer Experience More?

Both elevating positives (“building peaks”) and eliminating negatives (“fixing potholes”) are important, though the latter can usually be done more quickly and with less expense.

“It’s a balance,” said Tom Karinshak, EVP and chief customer experience officer of Comcast. “You want to be able to take care of the immediate needs right now, as well as being focused on the future.”

Indeed, it really isn’t a matter of choosing one over the other; it’s about doing both well.

The insights from Discover Card’s success in winning the J.D. Power Award for Customer Satisfaction highlight the undeniable value of removing customer pain points. Similarly, the compelling evidence presented by Chip and Dan Heath, emphasizing the significant returns from enhancing positive experiences, illustrates the potential for not just satisfaction, but customer delight and loyalty.

Focusing solely on eliminating negatives may prevent customer attrition but doesn’t necessarily encourage customer advocacy. But focusing solely on elevating positives might miss addressing foundational issues that, if unresolved, could undermine even the most delightful experiences.

A dual strategy prioritizes quick wins by resolving glaring issues that frustrate customers, while simultaneously investing in creating remarkable experiences that customers can’t wait to share.

This article includes excerpts from The Experience Maker: How To Create Remarkable Experiences That Your Customers Can’t Wait To Share. The image accompanying this article was initially generated by ChatGPT and then edited and enhanced by the author using Canva.