Effortlessness – not delight – drives profitable client relationships

Going to the moon and back does not improve client loyalty. (© Matt Thompson, 2018)

The Listenback system of client feedback is all about architects collecting data that can be used to increase the chances of repeat business, bigger spends, and positive referrals. This is known as improving client loyalty, and it’s the way to a thriving practice.

The received wisdom in business generally is that to win this loyalty you have to ‘exceed expectations’. You have to ‘go to the moon and back’. In short, you have to ‘deliver delight’.

Architects have plundered this wisdom in the hope that it will prop up their profits. It is partly what drives them to put in the long, frequently unpaid shifts they do. If you do a great job despite absurdly short timescales, your client will love you, come back for more, and hail your genius on social media. Right?

Prepare to have your illusions shattered.

According to Matthew Dixon, Nick Toman, and Rick Delesi, authors of ‘The Effortless Experience: Conquering the New Battleground for Customer Loyalty’, that’s a load of tosh.

They take four wrecking balls to received wisdom:

1) A strategy of delight does not pay. There is virtually no difference between the loyalty of clients whose expectations are exceeded compared to those whose expectations are simply met.

2) Customer satisfaction is not a predictor of loyalty. There is virtually no relationship between how a customer rates a company on a satisfaction survey and their future loyalty to that company. This does not mean that customer satisfaction isn’t important or worth measuring. It is. But it doesn’t drive loyalty.

3) Customers are much more likely to spread negative word of mouth about their interactions with customer service teams than positive word of mouth.

4) The key to preventing disloyalty is to make customers’ experiences with you as easy as possible – hence the use of the word ‘effortless’ in the book’s title.

“That’s pretty amazing… but how do they know?” you ask – as all good listenbackers must.

Well, they surveyed over 125,000 clients and customers, 5,000 customer service reps, and hundreds of companies. They then subjected this data to proper statistical regression analysis.

(One health warning though: the data comes mainly from business-to-consumer companies with large customer service departments, for example in call centres, and so the lessons need to be taken with a pinch of salt before.)

The authors identify four factors that influence effort:

1) ‘channel stickiness’

2) ‘next issue avoidance’

3) ‘experience engineering’

4) ‘high control quotient environments’

‘Channel stickiness’ has some (but not very much) relevance to architectural practice. Its opposite usually has you turning the air blue and hurling your mobile murderously across the room when the agent you’ve just spent half hour an hour waiting to talk to informs you that you have to hang up and dial a different number – or do it online, which is where you started. Too much bloody effort.

Architects can learn from this – the channels for your clients to talk to you should be slick and responsive, and not pass them from pillar to post.

‘Next issue avoidance’ is about, for example, being sold a child’s toy only to discover once you’re back at home that it also needs batteries. Cue more murderousness as the child goes into galactic meltdown and you’re left wondering why the f*!k the sales assistant didn’t sell you batteries at the same time.

Its relevance to architects is bang on. Construction clients want and, indeed, expect their professional team to foresee common or typical problems and pre-empt them. If they don’t, the consequential extra effort experienced will be remembered next time you’re up for work.

‘Experience engineering’ is about the words you use to communicate with your client. It’s a smidge Big Brotherish, but in your ethical hands is just clever client management.

The example the authors use is of a person whose flight is cancelled at short notice. Already at the airport, they call their carrier for a fix.

In the first scenario, the agent tells the customer that she’ll be able to board an alternative flight in 12 hours’ time. This is maddening because the customer can see that there are plenty of flights with other carriers going to her destination much sooner than that. The cancer of disloyalty takes seed.

In the second scenario, the agent apologises, acknowledges how frustrating that must be, tells the customer that he knows for sure that she’ll be able to get on the same flight the next day, but will try to do better. The agent checks and comes back with the good news that in fact the customer will be able to get to her destination today after all – there’s a flight in 12 hours’ time.

By anchoring the customer’s expectations on a poorer outcome but coming up with a better one, using positive language, and advocating the customer’s cause, the agent has turned a complaint into a feel-good experience.

As the authors say, “Effort isn’t mostly about what customers have to do. While that’s certainly a critical part of the effort story, customer effort is actually mostly about how customers feel. Interpretation – the softer, more subjective elements based entirely on human emotions and reactions – make up a shocking 65% of the total impact.”

It’s easy to see how this might apply to the professional architectural services setting. Pre-aps not gone the way you expected? The site throws up unanticipated ground conditions? The latest design iteration comes in way over budget? You can see how with a bit of engineering, the experience can turn from negative to positive.

Finally, ‘high control quotient environments’. This merely says that your working culture, not the people in it, can make employing your practice too much bloody effort for the client. Luckily, most architectural practices’ work cultures tend to be set up to trust employees to respond flexibly to clients’ needs. By itself, though, that is not enough. Your staff also have to all pull unambiguously in the same direction and have good peer support.

If you can see the benefit of these findings for your business, you’ll have to measure how effortful your service is first, and keep measuring it to monitor progress.

The minimally disruptive Listenback feedback tool focuses on the research-based factors that tend to mediate how much of an effort it is to work with the architect. Gathering feedback on those factors, analysing and acting on them is the way to gradually improve client loyalty.

Give it a go: it’s free.


Listenback is a free web-based client feedback benchmarking tool and consultancy for UK architects.

We are currently looking for practices willing to partner with us to test the tool’s use and functionality.

If you are interested in participating, please get in touch with Matt Thompson at matt@listenback.co.uk

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