What is customer effort and how does contact center AI impact it

What is Customer Effort and How Does Contact Center AI Impact it?

"Please hold while I transfer you to a different department." "I'm sorry, but our policy won't allow that." "I don't have access to what you told the other agent. Can you please repeat your issue?" Has a customer service representative ever said any of those phrases to you? Frustrating, wasn't it?

And if you're a contact center leader, do your agents ever make comments like these to your customers? If so, your customers may think you're hard to do business with.

In these days of over-the-top service examples, sometimes we lose sight of the fact that many people just want their problems solved with very little effort on their part. In fact, the results of a study published in the Harvard Business Review* revealed that reducing customer effort is a better way to build loyalty than trying to delight customers.

This doesn't mean businesses should reduce their focus on the customer experience (CX). Providing consistent and satisfying experiences throughout the customer journey is different from always trying to "delight" people. In fact, reducing friction and customer effort is an important part of customer journey management.

Today's contact centers have many tools available to them to reduce customer effort, many of them infused with artificial intelligence (AI). This article will explore how contact centers can use these tools to make service easier for their customers.

What is customer effort?

Customer effort refers to how much work a customer has to put into an interaction with a business, such as an online purchase or a furniture delivery. In customer service, it's a measure of how much effort a customer had to exert when getting a question answered or an issue resolved. Ultimately, customer effort is about how easy or hard a company is to do business with.

In contact centers, many factors can contribute to customers having to put in more time and effort into an interaction, including:

  • Unintegrated or outdated customer service technology
  • Unempowered or disengaged agents
  • Inconvenient contact center hours
  • Rigid policies
  • Lack of channel choice
  • And so much more

Customer effort is in the eyes of the customer. Contact centers may not even know they are difficult to work with because they're not monitoring the right KPIs or simply not asking customers for feedback. Let's take a look at the disconnect this can cause among customers, agents, and contact centers.

A tale of three perspectives

This is the story of Brooke, who ran into some issues when trying to make an online purchase.

Customer Brooke: "Acme Handbags was having a great buy-two-get-one-free sale. I've never bought anything from them before but the pictures of the purses on their website were cute. I'm a vegan and I wanted to make sure the three purses I chose were reeaally vegan leather. A support chatbot reassured me that they were, but it couldn't help me when I tried to check out and the discount wasn't showing up. I clicked on the "click to call" button and had to wait about five minutes to talk an agent (*sigh*). When I was finally connected to Anita, she was super nice, but she said she couldn't see my online shopping cart, plus she put me on hold for a couple of minutes (*ugh*). She tried to place the order for me but by then one of the purses was out of stock. We were able to find a replacement, but it took a while and made me late for a dinner date. I probably won't order from this company again. Too much work!!"

Agent Anita: "I've worked for Acme Handbags for about three months and I've had a bunch of awkward calls. For example, last night a customer named Brooke called. When I heard she was having a problem online I cringed because I knew I wouldn't be able to help her because our customer service technology is prehistoric. I tried to be really nice so she wouldn't get mad and I even put her on hold to ask my supervisor if I could give Brooke a discount, but she said no. It's frustrating not being able to help people. I'm not sure this is the right job for me."

Manager Marge: "We were swamped last night because of the online promotion. But our queue times never went over seven minutes, which is what our staffing plan was built on. Sure, I could have had some remote agents log in and take calls, but it's the end of the month and I'm trying to hit my budget. Anita was bent out of shape about a call, but I couldn't give her a discount code because those are reserved for VIP customers. Hey, the customer made the purchase so she must be okay with everything. But I need to talk to Anita about her long handle times and ask her why she didn't try to cross-sell that customer."

*Sigh* *Ugh*

How to measure customer effort

measuring tape 

Disconnects like this are more common than you might think, and they often happen because contact centers don't always monitor or gather metrics related to customer effort. There's nothing wrong with the stats Manager Marge was focusing on, but the set of metrics was incomplete and wasn't providing a holistic view of performance.

One way to measure customer effort is by asking your customers. Customer effort surveys can be sent to customers immediately following interactions and will provide the answer to one simple question: "To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statement: The company made it easy for me to solve my problem." (Source: Gartner). Customers use a seven-point scale to answer, with 7 being Strongly Agree and 1 being Strongly Disagree.

The customer effort score (CES) is a barometer of customer loyalty and can help identify areas that need to be improved to increase loyalty. When viewed in conjunction with other survey scores, such as customer satisfaction (CSAT) and Net Promoter Scores (NPS), organizations can develop a more defined picture of customer perceptions.

In addition to administering customer effort surveys, contact centers can monitor operational metrics that affect customer effort such as:

  • Self-service success rates
  • First contact resolution rates
  • Hold times
  • Transfer rates
  • Average speed to answer (ASA)
  • IVR dropout rates

All of these stats can indicate if your contact center is making service easy or hard for customers.

How can a contact center reduce customer effort?

hand writing on tablet 

Reducing customer effort begins by putting yourself in your customers' shoes and seeing things from their perspective. Once you do this, you'll probably find that the solution is a combination of improvements to people, process, and technology and maybe even culture.

Here are 9 steps you can take to make it easier on your customers:

1. Mystery shop to identify drivers of customer effort

Do you know what it's like to do business with your company? Manager Marge didn’t. Put together five or six scenarios based on common customer journeys and be a customer for an afternoon. This will help you identify pain points that increase customer effort.

2. Automate where it makes sense whenever you can

Many customers want to solve their own problems. Answer this demand with smart self-service that's available 24/7. This will enable customers to get help even when your contact center is closed for the day.

3. Make your agents your biggest influencers

Agents can make it easy or difficult for customers. Get them on board with reducing effort by explaining why it's important and drawing a line from their own performance goals directly to customer effort. For example, explain how first contact resolution eliminates the need for customers to make a follow up call.

4. Ask your agents for feedback

Agent Anita probably had some ideas about reducing customer effort! Tap into that firsthand knowledge by asking your agents to identify things that make customers work harder than they should. Then act on the feedback and keep agents informed about progress.

5. Accommodate customer channel preferences

Part of being easy to do business with includes letting customers choose how to communicate with you. Don't force people to call you when chatting or texting would be more convenient for them.

6. Reduce transfers

Being bounced around the call center can drive people crazy, especially when they have to go through the effort of explaining their issue over and over. Give your agents the tools and training to handle any type of issue that comes their way.

7. Use analytics to monitor customer effort from start to finish

To understand customer effort, it's important to monitor the customer journey from end-to-end. Just because your agents are knocking it out of the park doesn't mean other touchpoints or channels aren't making customers work harder than they should. Analytics tools will help you know what is happening from start to finish.

8. Collect and act on customer feedback

Although you may have done some mystery shopping, you can't possibly run through every scenario that might include barriers and speed bumps. Collect customer input on a regular basis and use the feedback to make things easier for your customers.

9. Measure effort and slice and dice it multiple ways

If you have customer effort scores, run the data through statistical analysis to gain better insights. Look at customer effort by channel, contact type and agent. See if it's correlated to other metrics so you know what levers to pull. And determine if improvements to CES positively impact CSAT and NPS.

Using contact center AI to reduce customer effort

digital chatbot robot application 

It's becoming more common to find customer service technology that leverages artificial intelligence to enhance self-service, perform smarter routing, and turn raw data into actionable information, all of which can contribute to better CES. AI self-service in particular can produce meaningful results. Leading AI users report:

  • 2% higher YoY customer satisfaction
  • 3% higher YoY customer retention
  • 5% higher FCR
  • 3% higher YoY agent productivity

The following discussion provides more information about these promising AI capabilities.

Self-service support chatbots

Support chatbots are everywhere these days, which is good news because that means consumers are becoming used to them. Organizations use support chatbots on their websites or in channels like Facebook Messenger to help with sales conversions or to answer questions and perform simple transactions for customers. Support chatbots that use AI can understand human language and interact with people in a conversational manner.

Consumers and businesses agree that bots need to get smarter, but they can already handle narrow tasks that can make service easier for customers, such as taking food orders, resetting passwords and scheduling appointments. They're also available all the time and can handle hundreds of simultaneous interactions, making them a convenient option when your contact center is closed or your ASAs are high.

AI-powered agent assistants

Bots aren't just for customer use - they can also increase agent effectiveness, and effective agents can decrease customer effort. Bots that are integrated into the agent interface can retrieve relevant knowledge base articles, suggest next steps, and automate post contact activities. This type of smart assistance can help agents improve effort-related metrics such as first contact resolution, hold times, and transfer rates.

Agent conversation guides

Artificial intelligence can also help agents with their soft skills. AI-powered conversation guides can listen to every interaction and determine customer sentiment in real-time. Then, also in real-time, it coaches agents on their soft skills so agents are responding appropriately to their customers based on sentiment. These agent conversation guides can, for example, remind agents to show empathy for customers who are working harder than they should.

Voice self-service, aka conversational AI

Voice self-service is also called conversational AI because this capability allows callers to interact with interactive voice response (IVR) systems in a natural, conversational manner. For example, instead of using a phone keypad to make menu selections, a customer can just say what they need and the IVR will guide them through the rest of the conversation. And not only does AI allow IVRs to understand speech, but it also enables it to speak information it retrieves like account balances and appointment dates and times. Many people find IVRs stressful because they're worried about having to navigate a never-ending menu. Conversational AI can alleviate stress and reduce effort while leading customers through a successful and convenient self-service transaction.

Predictive behavioral routing

Predictive behavioral routing personalizes the customer-agent matching process by factoring in customer personality and preferences. This increases the likelihood that the agent will understand the customer and deliver the type of experience the customer prefers. An agent who is on the same page can ease the customer's workload.


AI-powered analytics can help you identify blind spots and shine a light on issues you weren't aware of. If you have analytics software that can analyze the entire customer journey, you'll be able to identify and correct points of friction that increase effort. And you'll also be able to determine if your improvements are delivering the benefits you anticipated.

Learn more about how contact center AI can make your customer interactions more effortless

AI can make your organization easier to do business with by providing your customers with effective, easy-to-use self-service and smarter agent interactions that you can monitor with easy-to-use analytics. If you want to learn more about contact center AI:

*HBR: Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers