Editor’s Note: We talk a lot about customer-centricity here and what it means to understand, address and meet customer’s needs at the moment of pain. This article from the founder of GlobalCEM presents a strong case for re-evaluating how – and if – its wise to eliminate customer pain points altogether.
In my previous article, Ryanair: Achieve Customer Success with One-ply Toilet Paper, I stated the three limitations of customer-centricity and promised to provide a better option in the context of business strategy. In this article, I will feature the recommended substitute: extreme experience.
What is extreme experience? To put it succinctly, it means enlarging the pleasure-pain gap (PPG) of the customer experience. Extreme experience has three principles – resource revolution, value exchange and creative aggravation – and three implementation steps accordingly:
1. Start a resource revolution
2. Create mutual values for the customer and brand
3. Aggravate good pains to generate unprecedented pleasures
Step 1: Start a resource revolution
Daniel Kahneman suggested that only the peak and end moments have significant impacts on how we feel about the experience  – it ignites a resource revolution.
In figure 1, the red emotion curve  represents the conventional approach trying hard to eliminate any pain points, efforts and frictions within a given customer experience. It dilutes your limited resources and drives a disremembered experience.
Let’s make a paradigm shift in which resources are allocated differently by focusing on the critical moments and allowing valleys. It creates notable pleasure peaks and a memorable experience with fewer resources, denoted by the blue emotion curve.
Disneyland understands and took the resource revolution. Despite the ‘wait time’ having long been a severe pain point for its customers, Disneyland has allowed the pain point for decades (see Disneyland: Why Waste Resources on Things Customers Can’t Recall).
To demonstrate the merits of “allowing pain”, I published the article Stop Trying to Eliminate Customer Pain Point in the Harvard Business Review . Forrester also echoes my view in its post Don’t focus CX improvement on customer pain points.
Step 2: Create mutual values for the customer and brand
Really, customers don’t forget the pain points, they just bear with them in exchange for something valuable – a value exchange.
For instance, although Ryanair’s repeat customers can understand why Ryanair practices the lean and mean approach – to channel savings in order to offer the lowest airfares (Ryanair’s brand promise ) – ‘sufferings’ are still undesirable; but it doesn’t stop its regular customers from flying with Ryanair, as long as the perceived ‘value’ (i.e. cheap airfares) is larger than the endeavor (i.e. all the cost-saving measures).
Likewise, despite Louis Vuitton’s loyal consumers knowing why its products are costly – to create high quality merchandises and an unparalleled level of exclusivity (brand promises of Louis Vuitton) – expensive prices is nevertheless unwanted; but it doesn’t prohibit its advocates from purchasing Louis Vuitton, to the extent that the perceived ‘value’ (i.e. the prestige feeling) exceeds the endeavor (i.e. premium prices).
On that ground, the lean and mean practices of Ryanair and expensive prices of Louis Vuitton are good pains , because they help generate substantial ‘values’ to customers – branded pleasures – which reflect the brand promises of Ryanair and Louis Vuitton.
Consequently, through exchanging values, brands are able to deliver a differentiated experience and their customers can enjoy significant pleasures.
Step 3: Aggravate good pains to generate unprecedented pleasures
Still, ‘memorable’ and ‘differentiated’ aren’t enough. To be extraordinary, you ought to enlarge the pleasure-pain gap (PPG).
Sukiyabashi Jiro, a sushi restaurant located in Ginza, Tokyo, pushes pains to the extreme: remote location, tiny space, fixed menu, poor decorations, steep prices and bad service. By aggravating those good pains to the largest extent, the sushi restaurant focuses all its resources to create the highest possible branded pleasure – the world’s best sushi. Jiro has the highest Michelin ranking  and is so remarkable that the former U.S. President Barack Obama asked to dine there during his visit to Japan in 2014 .
According to empirical data collected globally from 8,500 customers , Starbucks, IKEA and Louis Vuitton each has a large PPG. Based on 4,500 valid survey responses , China Merchants Bank outperformed all 15 credit card issuing banks on all metrics, yet had the largest PPG among all major rivals. With reference to the feedback of 757 IT managers , IBM has the most favorable B2B purchase experience as well as the largest PPG among 14 IT solution vendors
Extraordinary brands have two things in common: they generate an unprecedented level of pleasure to their customers to beat rivals and eliminate imitators; they have a large pleasure-pain gap to maximize their resource productivity.
Customer-centricity misjudges the value of pain point
On the report of 715 responses from the North America consumers through a global research , ‘price’ is the most severe pain point of the Starbucks in-store experience. As reported by 2,318 customers who had purchased at least once from Louis Vuitton , ‘price’ is the valley during their shopping experience at LV.
Why are most customer experience (CX) experts crying out to address any pain points related to ‘service’, but turning a deaf ear to the ‘price’ valleys like Starbucks’ and Louis Vuitton’s? Service can be a pain point, and so too can price. It doesn’t make any sense to tolerate ‘price’ pain points while disallowing ‘service’ valleys.
Today, in order to satisfy the strong desires of customers for convenience, customer-driven companies are chasing for an effortless experience at all touch-points. Yet, unless your brand promise is about ‘fast and easy’, striving for an effortless experience at critical touch-points would drive a forgettable experience, damage your brand loyalty and reduce customers’ pleasure. Bad move (see IKEA: Strike for an Effortless Experience is a Wrong Strategy).
Obviously, customer-centric enthusiasts aren’t able to comprehend the authentic value of customer pain point.
Customer-centricity can hardly identify the right peaks and valleys
Figure 4 displays an ‘importance level to brand––importance level to customer’ quadrant.
The usual choices for target pain are situated at the lower two quadrants since these needs are unimportant to customers. For the same reason, it’s unlikely that you and your competitors have allocated many resources towards meeting them. You won’t save much money by making customers ‘suffer’. These are unnecessary pains.
Good pains are located at the upper left quadrant. Since they’re vital to customers, you and rivals will spend huge sums trying to satisfy these customer needs. By not trying to satisfy them – by allowing pain up to the tolerable level of customers – imagine the tremendous resources that you save compared to your competitors.
If you mistakenly choose the good pains as your target pleasures, you are essentially doing charity work – you make customers happy but they don’t relate this to your brand. You eat up resources to create unnecessary pleasure peaks. They are bad pleasures.
Instead, you should focus all your resources on the customer needs located at the upper right quadrant, the common denominators between the customer and brand, what are important both to customers and your brand – branded pleasures.
Business 101: strategy is about resource allocation. For those who are customer-obsessed and feel uncomfortable to ‘plan’ any pain point in the customer experience, they should recognize that ‘target pleasure’ and ‘target pain’ are just different terminologies to describe ‘where to focus resource’ and ‘where to save resource’, respectively.
Nonetheless, I don’t think customer-focused companies would be allowing pain, let alone targeting the right peaks and right valleys – branded pleasures and good pains.
Customer-centricity drives destructive improvement
In figure 5, on the left, it shows how continuous improvement turns into destructive improvement. It’s tempting to keep enhancing the customer experience. However, when you improve anything other than your branded pleasures, you dilute resources. For every unit you spend on improving a pain point, you have one less unit to spend on your target pleasures and a step closer to weakening your competitive advantage.
Figure 5, on the right, illustrates why creative aggravation is preferred. Instead of improving pain points, you aggravate them as long as they are not falling into the unacceptable levels of customers. You save an unprecedented amount of resources for maximizing branded pleasures. You activate a virtuous circle: you are transforming your competitive advantages into sustainable strengths. Visually, you see an expanding PPG.
Actually, it’s less difficult than expected for aggravating pains. In a world where companies are continuously improving, if you don’t improve pain points, you aggravate them. Say your main rivals cut wait time for customers from four minutes to three. If you don’t follow suit you aggravate pain in the eyes of your customers.
In the real world, most customer-driven organizations continue to improve – faster, easier and fewer pain points – regardless of its brand promises, they are running in a vicious circle of destructive improvement and minimizing their PPG.
The ultimate extreme is balance
It may surprise you that the philosophy behind extreme experience is ‘balance’.
To release resource constraints for creating significant pleasures, we must tolerate pains. There’s no such thing as a free lunch: there ain’t no peaks without valleys. Hence, the long-held belief in the customer-centricity world “Customer pain points are bad and have to be eliminated” is fallacious. The resource revolution – allowing valleys to create peaks – helps restore the ‘balance’ between pleasure and pain.
A few decades ago, it was popular to be product-centric, and now the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. However, neither ‘brand only’ nor ‘customer only’ is the solution. Wowing the customer and exceeding expectations to drive satisfaction irrespective of brand promise is pointless. The ‘balance’ between the customer and brand is reinstated when resources are concentrated on delivering – the common denominators that are both important to customers and brand – branded pleasures.
There is no market for an average brand. To build a remarkable brand with a superb level of pleasures, severe pains are required. Yet, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Great brands like Starbucks and IKEA all had a moderate PPG at their beginning stages. The height of a building is in proportion to the depth of its foundation – it’s plain logic. The principle of enlarging PPG applies to all companies – no matter startups or well-established firms – due to its reasonable ‘balance’ between progress and regress.
Literally, ‘pleasure-biased’, ‘customer-only’ and ‘improvement-obsessed’ are unrealistic and unsustainable extremes. Extremes that don’t work and can’t last.
Too much of everything is bad. Balanced approaches work and last.
Be customer-centric or be extreme?
Ryanair, Louis Vuitton and Sukiyabashi Jiro are offering the lowest airfares, creating an unmatched level of prestige and making the world’s best sushi respectively. These successful brands deliver extreme experiences and large PPGs. They accomplish customer success but aren’t customer-centric. Being customer-centric is not the only option, and far from a good one, for improving the customer experience.
Certain customer-obsessed organizations are pursuing customer-centricity as their ultimate goal. Big mistake. Customer-centricity is not the end; but rather, a means. Since customer-centricity is the engine of conventional CX and most CX initiatives have persistently failed to provide tangible benefits, maybe it’s time to drop the means that has a high failure rate for years and is unattainable for most enterprises.
Strategy is about resource allocation. The effectiveness of a strategy is judged largely by the effectiveness in resource allocation. Extreme experience is a more effective CX strategy than customer-centricity: it delivers a memorable and differentiated experience, creates mutual values for the customer and brand, generates an unprecedented level of branded pleasures to beat rivals, and transforms competitive advantages into sustainable strengths, all while without deploying extra resources.
What’s more, customer-centricity has three limitations – exclusive to service-focused/related brands, perplexing definitions, and unachievable for most enterprises; three handicaps – misjudging the value of pain point, targeting wrong peaks and valleys, and driving destructive improvement; and three extremes – pleasure-biased, customer-only, and improvement-obsessed.
Conversely, extreme experience is for all brands – no matter ‘price’, ‘product’ or ‘service’ focused, has an explicit definition and clear implementation steps, and is achievable for every organization. Extreme experience understands the authentic value of valley, identifies the right pleasures and pains, and triggers creative aggravation. It strikes the right balance between pleasure and pain, customer and brand, and progress and regress.
Extreme experience is superior to customer-centricity on all counts.
“Be Extreme, My Friend.”
Remarks: there is an official name for extreme experience – Branded Customer Experience Management Methodology (Branded CEM Method).
Sampson founded Global CEM and invented the Branded CEM Method that was first licensed in Belgium and the Netherlands. With content based on Lee’s invention, Global CEM has run the world’s 1st customer experience (CX) certification program 63 times in 19 international cities with participants from 71 countries and counting.
1. Daniel Kahneman (born 1934) is an Israeli-American psychologist. He was awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work in prospect theory. The Peak-End Rule is a psychological heuristic by which people judge experiences largely based on how they felt at their peak and at their end, rather than based on the total sum or average of every moment of the experience. According to the heuristic, other information aside from that of the peak and end of the experience is not lost, but it is not used. This heuristic was first suggested by Daniel Kahneman and others. Originally, the Peak-End Rule was applied to the evaluation of pain, see Donald A. Redelmeier and Daniel Kahneman, Patient’s Memories of Painful Medical Treatments: Real and Retrospective Evaluations of Two Minimally Invasive Procedures (Pain 66, 1996), 3-8. Later studies supported the idea that the effects found in retrospective evaluations of pain are applicable to evaluating pleasure, see, for example, Amy M. Do, Alexander V. Rupert, and George Wolford, Evaluations of Pleasurable Experiences: The Peak-End Rule (Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 2008, 15 (1)), 96-98.
2. An emotion curve is mapped by linking all the satisfaction levels of the sub-processes (touch-point experiences) and attributes that are encountered or perceived by customers and affect their emotions in a natural time sequence during a touch-point experience (total customer experience). I created the emotion curve in 2006. See Sampson Lee, One Cup of Coffee, 20 Experiences: Take a Tip From Starbucks (Customerthink.com, 4 June 2006).
3. Sampson Lee, Stop Trying to Eliminate Customer Pain Point (Harvard Business Review, September 2009, Chinese edition, 156-163)
4. For purposes of consistency and simplicity, in this article, the term ‘brand promise’ also covers brand value, brand purpose, value proposition and jobs-to-be-done. They all fulfill a similar cause: Create values for customers.
5. There are five types of pain: 1) Inspirational pain: by solving it, you can create innovative solution, product or business model. 2) Unnecessary pain: there is little or no value generated for customers; customers suffer for nothing. 3) Good pain: By allowing it, your branded pleasure can be further enhanced. 4) Bad pain: when the good pain falls to a level deemed unacceptable by your target customers, it becomes a bad pain. 5) De-branded pain: the attribute (pain) is supposed to be the pleasure peak because it reflects your brand promise. To conclude, only the good pain should be allowed. For the remains, you should either solve, minimize, or eliminate, and spend different level of resource addressing them.
6. See Oldest head chef of a three Michelin star restaurant (Guinnessworldrecords.com, retrieved 6 March 2019).
7. See David Jackson, Obama: ‘That’s some good sushi right there.’ (USA Today, 23 April 2014).
8. Global Starbucks In-store Customer Experience Research, Global CEM and CustomerThink (U.S.), September-October 2007; Global IKEA In-store Customer Experience Research, Global CEM, CustomerThink (U.S.) and TOTE-M (Netherlands), December 2008-February 2009; Global Louis Vuitton In-store Customer Experience Research, Global CEM and CustomerThink (U.S.), October 2008.
9. Mainland China Credit Card Customer Experience Research, Global CEM, May-June 2008 and May-July 2009.
10. Mainland China B2B Purchase Experience (IT Solution) Research, Global CEM and CustomerCentric Selling (U.S.), July-August 2007.
11. Global Starbucks In-store Customer Experience Research, Global CEM and CustomerThink (U.S.), September-October 2007.
12. Global Louis Vuitton In-store Customer Experience Research, Global CEM and CustomerThink (U.S.), October 2008.