What back-to-school season taught me about ‘minimal acceptable friction’

Why everyone from retailers to travel and hospitality firms may need to brush up on their MAF skills

When people ask me about my kids’ return to elementary school with words like, “So, how did it go?” I know it’s shorthand for, “How bad an experience was it?”

The answer is, not as bad as I imagined. My children are in grades three, five and seven, and the eldest has to enter via a separate gate. We have to show a paper form every day where we’ve signed our assurances they don’t have any symptoms. They have to wash their hands with sanitizer and enter the school wearing their masks.

Yes, there are lineups, but there are yellow paint lines keeping people apart and it moves pretty fast. I’ve seen lines to get into my local bank and retailers like Uniqlo that seemed way worse, not to mention lining up to get a COVID-19 test.

The kids, meanwhile, are acting like they’ve been doing this for years. It was a good reminder of how quickly people adapt to challenging circumstances, especially if they are a means to a desirable end. In this case, they want to be back in class and to see their friends. People are lining up at banks and retailers because they want to shop.

CX experts constantly talk about taking out friction and making experiences that feel wonderful, but 2020 has been an object lesson in the fact that it’s not always possible.

While the overall experience is important, what often drives consumer behaviour its the imagined experience — what they’re looking forward to once they get a product or service.

Of course, this shouldn’t be construed as an excuse to make checking into a hotel, taking an airplane or going to a restaurant miserable. The strides many industries have made to take away inconveniences and annoyances is to be applauded.

Similarly, contact centres should ideally make sure that people aren’t waiting on hold for long periods of time, or to repeat what they’ve already told an agent.

Right now, though, this is far from ideal world.

Perhaps, instead of hoping that all friction from an experience can be removed or eliminated CX leaders will have to guide their organizations to determine the minimally acceptable degree of friction. This would be a threshold that looks at what is absolutely necessary to make customers endure or put up with in order to get what they want.

Great CX, in this case, would involve ensuring that the minimal acceptable friction (MAF) threshold isn’t exceeded and, if it is, that some kind of apology or make-good is offered. Great CX would also involve an ongoing communications strategy about any steps a brand is taking to make the necessary tradeoffs of MAF easier — like having digital displays to entertain people during a lineup, or even just music to create a more pleasant atmosphere.

The Greek Stoics might have put it this way: while CX strategies should eliminate or reduce the friction a brand can control, they should also help identify and mitigate the friction they can’t control, which is MAF.

My children refused to let MAF ruin their back to school experience. We’ll soon see whether customers in other contexts will give a pass or failing grade to the brands offering experiences of other varieties.

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