Colin Lewis: Friction is the one thing between you and more sales

Friction is anything that slows the customer down when buying your stuff, and we can choose to introduce it or not. But just remember, friction costs you money.

frictionApparently there has been a shift of power from the brand to the customer. We once could dictate how the customer engaged with us, but now there are complex decision journeys and we must reach consumers in the way they want to be reached. It’s all about purpose, engagement, stories, content, likes, interaction, conversation, sharing and what have you.

All fine and dandy. But, let’s get bit a more basic here. Have you ever had to battle to give somebody your money? Ever had to deal with the sort of ‘take it or leave it, this is what you have to do to deal with us, this is the service we condescend to give you’ approach?

Surely the not-so-hidden iron law of marketing is that we should make it easy to spend money with us. Anything that gets in the way of a sale should be avoided. But this piece of common sense appears to have evaded many retailers, banks and petrol stations in particular.

READ MORE: Why US brands are crushing the UK on customer experience

For many brands, marketing is not really about AIDA (awareness, interest, desire and action – for the young people out there). In many cases, it’s FAF: friction, typically followed by anger, and collapsing in frustration.

Friction turns consumers off

Let me tell you about a few experiences I have had recently – and see if you think they are in fact, universal experiences.

I went to the bank to get a mortgage. There were lots of positive vibes face-to-face, but then came the inevitable multi-page mega-form, plus more background information than President Trump would require from you to move to the USA.

Forget the fact that I have been with this bank since I was 18. Forget that my salary has been paid into said bank since the first day I started working. Rules are rules. Faced with the onslaught of paper, I shed a tear of frustration and gave up. I would rather run up Oxford Street naked than fill in a form.

Nobody cares about your your reasons for introducing friction. That’s your problem. What people care about is themselves.

Next, I went to my regular petrol station, who now wish to charge me £1 to fill my tyres with air. Doubtless, there was a meeting where the finance folks groused about the cost of the air pumps and their maintenance. But doubtless, too, there is also now a station manager getting his head bitten off because his takings are down £80 every fortnight, plus the add-on coffee, newspaper and pint of milk I buy there.

Not one person at the senior management meeting will make the connection between the friction caused by the decision to introduce a charge for air and the drop-off in fuel revenues from yours truly – not to mention the high-margin coffee and calorie-laden muffin.

Speaking of cars, who decided that car keys were a bad idea? Aside from more form filling, the main reason I am afraid to go into a car showroom is the humiliation of trying to work out the Kafkaesque interplay between pedals and obscure buttons that starts the engine. I much prefer to get into a car, put the key in the ignition and, you know, turn it. Just like every car since the 1920s.

And don’t get me started on passwords. There is a reason why we give Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple all our money, making them the highest valued companies in the world: they don’t ask us every day to remember a bizarre concoction of letters, number, hyphens and funny symbols. They worked out that the average person has a lot more on their mind than remembering passwords for every single thing they have ever signed up for.

READ MORE: Brands unclear who should take responsibility for customer experience

Apple have even figured out how to eliminate friction from the retail experience. Long queues and clunky, inefficient point-of-sale systems are more the rule elsewhere. To compete, maybe others could start by having more people on the floor. You may argue, ‘we can’t afford to have more clerks’. Maybe I just don’t understand the economics, but when customers like me abandon so many purchases in frustration due to queues, lack of stock or inane arbitrary ‘rules’, can they really afford not to capture the sale?

Friction is a choice

The real problem is that the above purveyors of friction are not incentivised to remove it. The reasons given for this are usually around security, compliance and cost.

Let’s look at the banks. They talk about the complexity of financial service products, but they are not really that complex: loans have been with us since 3500 BC in Mesopotamia. Mortgages, loans and credit cards are not physical products so do not require a complex distribution process – it’s the application process that is complex, and that’s a choice. Banks are unable to empathise with the customer and don’t recognise the friction points.

Perhaps if they were forced to have the same experience as us mere customers, they would change their model. There’s a thought.

Away from their self-inflicted wounds and woes, there is a reason why Uber offer us a glimpse into the future – and for that matter, Airbnb. There is no friction: no queues to check out, no looking for the right change, no panicky moments when you realise the cabbie does not accept credit cards.

Let’s be clear about a bigger point. Nobody cares about your rules or your reasons for introducing friction. That’s your problem. What people care about is themselves, and what they are trying to do. Friction is toxic for brands.

Customers will go where they want; the choice is theirs. These barriers we put in front of them are our choice and make a joke of the words ‘customer experience’. How often do you hear about what a great experience friends and family had with a brand? Stories of frustration tend to take precedence.

Friction is anything that slows the customer down buying your stuff, and we can choose to introduce it or not. Remember this: friction costs you money. Removing friction will make you money.

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Comments
  • Jim Norris 26 Jun 2017 at 5:22 pm

    I was bombarded by Saga insurance re my house and contents by text, email and snail mail as I had gone elsewhere last year on price. I had insured with them for seven years previously. So, I called them to give them a chance: 30 minutes later after all the questions, ( to which they had the answers as I confirmed that nothing had changed ),they put me on hold (‘ bear with me, your call is important to us………’), only to come back to say that the underwriters would no longer insure my “postcode”.

    NOW THAT IS A FRICTION POINT!

  • Shane O Leary 27 Jun 2017 at 10:58 am

    Great piece Colin, Amazon is a good case study in friction removal, they’ve moved from simplified e-commerce ordering to one click ordering to no click ordering with Dash buttons and voice. Their fledgling physical retail offering takes a similar approach too.

    Adam Morgan talks about ‘Uber’s Children’, a group of cynical, expectant consumers that have been weaned on simple, frictionless services like Uber, Amazon, Just Eat, Google etc and I think it’s a very pertinent insight.

    • Colin Lewis 29 Jun 2017 at 6:52 pm

      @Shane – its hard to envisage a strong future for those who actively put friction in the way – unless you have a pseudo-monopoly or are already oligopolistic – in cahoots with likeminded brands!

  • Lar Veale 27 Jun 2017 at 12:04 pm

    Great article, Colin.

    This is something I’ve been actively helping clients do for years under the guise of ‘UX’.

    However, one thing I’ve learned is that there is, at times, a place for friction.

    A couple of examples (take them figuratively, not literally)

    You’re about to spend some money you don’t have (e.g. through an overdraft facility) – if we’re actually looking out for our customers, some INTENTIONAL FRICTION could be a good idea – think: notification, ‘you’re about to dip into overdraft, incurring fees, do you still want to go ahead?’

    ‘You’re about to buy into a high risk fund, here are the implications…’

    The key point is knowing where you’ve introduced friction unintentionally through user research and to remove it, but also where you MIGHT introduce friction intentionally.

    Proponents of liberal paternalism / behavioural economics are worth looking into here.

    • Colin Lewis 29 Jun 2017 at 6:50 pm

      @lar – I like the idea of INTENTIONAL FRICTION – that is friction that is actually worth it when it is of value.

  • Gerard Slevin 29 Jun 2017 at 7:18 pm

    Colin, excellent article. Banks and passwords are personal bug bearers of mine. As you correctly said banks currently have no empathy, the customer is seen as an intruder on the premises. The less friction the better!!

  • Daniel Kirby 30 Jun 2017 at 9:56 am

    Haha I too would rather run up Oxford St naked than fill in a form. Don’t Make Me Think! Keep it simple stupid!

    So true re friction, a great way to assess pain points / customer experience improvement / service design. Make it easy, take away the need to think & do admin.

    This is particularly true across platforms – as they all need to make sense as a single experience

  • Alan Heaney 30 Jun 2017 at 10:02 am

    Really great article! You are absolutely right about filling stations. I have left filling stations because I didn’t want to spend the euro on air. I do understand the cost of maintenance but I have to go searching for the euro when I was going to pay for my fuel and coffee with my card! Some banks have internet banking for business is a massive pain. I am sure internet hackers find it easier to sway a nations votes than sign in and pay a bill online. I do agree with the idea of intentional friction for reasons stated previously in comments but like you there are times when I really just don’t want to fill out lots of forms just so I can give them money. I am reminded of the scene in Father Ted when the guy goes into the post office to withdraw his money with a shotgun rather than fill out the forms.

  • Alan O'Rourke 30 Jun 2017 at 10:41 am

    Urgh, going through the Mortgage process now and it is so painful!.
    All very true.

  • Vincent Haywood 30 Jun 2017 at 11:45 am

    Completely agree! Great article. The friction is the very reason I’ve abandoned the high street. Amazon, Air BnB, Uber, Deliveroo and booking.com are staple nowadays. Auto complete plugins for forms makes life easier too. Banks still use documentation that wasn’t built for the internet user – so many hoops. Plus you would think, like you said, the amount of history you would have with a bank would omit any hoops to jump through.

    I’m an impatient person, I want things sorted instantly, the minute I have some other step to go through, I drop out.

    and don’t get me started on queues – thank god for the Starbucks app

  • Paul Sweeney 30 Jun 2017 at 5:51 pm

    Friction is a choice. I like this.

    I can’t help but hint that if “those in charge” were actually down on the floor “seeing and experiencing the customer” they wouldn’t be making these kinds of non-decisions.

    For all the analysis that could be done, you could probably short cut it by saying “make this half as long and twice as fast”.

  • Aidan Duffy 3 Jul 2017 at 10:40 am

    Is it too cheeky to say having to login to post a blog post comment is friction!? 😉

  • Neil Hopkins 6 Jul 2017 at 3:47 pm

    Friction is a really interesting concept – it’s actually necessary in some places and companies need a really solid understanding of why they’re causing friction.

    Banks – I hear you loud and clear. Paperwork, paperwork, paperwork. They’ve known me for nearly 30 years, they have ALL my money, so why do they need a form signed in triplicate for a new zero-overdraft current account in my name?

    That’s bad friction.

    For ‘good friction’ I’ve got to look at Apple, Harry Potter, certain gig tickets or anything else where stores have to open at midnight to let the fans come in for a first-come-first-served product.

    What would the new iPhone ownership experience be if there were enough for everyone on day 1? How would your relationship to your favourite artist be if you queued for three days in the rain to get a ticket to their gig rather than bought it with two clicks on Songkick?

    Understanding the ‘why’ of friction is absolutely important to create long term relationships and growth. Get rid of the bad stuff and look to make an experience out of the good stuff…

  • Expressly . 7 Jul 2017 at 1:33 pm

    Friction is often something that gets in the way of sales. With most sales being made on impulse, anything that disrupts this impulse can be a real deal killer when shopping in line. People just lose the mood, especially on mobiles.

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