Next time you are standing in a queue, waiting to enjoy the service experience, perhaps you can contemplate the Paradox of Convenience. This principle states: Consumer offerings based on convenience inevitably produce their own inconveniences which can cancel out the original benefit. This principle is being launched in draft form here today and I welcome your input (Michael@michaelkielymarketing.com.au).
Take the supermarket, or the ‘super’ market. Obviously its inventors thought of it as the highest level of evolution for the distribution of consumer household goods. But consider the customer service experience: Scrabble around in the crevices of the car to find a gold coin to insert in the trolley security system to ‘rent’ a trolley. (The convenience is the company’s.) The customer must search for the goods unassisted, because there are few staff when you need them. They disappear through the mysterious rubber doors whenever you need them. Periodically the management shifts the location of the stock, based on analysis of profit planograms. So just when you start to know the lie of the land, it all changes. Then you discover – after fruitlessly searching for your favourite variant of tinned tuna – that is has been delisted.
Now to the checkout where there are often too few open and queues are long. What happened to that technology developed a decade ago that scanned the products as you put them in your trolley? Your total shows up on the terminal, you pay and you go. But no. We suffer stone age ‘super’ markets. How you wish you had 12 items or less. (The supermarket companies prefer it if you visit several times for smaller amounts of goods. Their data tracking system based on their loyalty card program tells them this.) Your turn finally arrives, then you stumble out into the carpark with your booty, driving home to stagger in with wrist-strangling plastic bags pulling your arms out of their sockets… and so it goes.
What inferior system did it replace? When I was a boy, the housewife would take her shopping list to the grocer’s shop. The counter separated the customer from the goods. The grocer took the shopping list and ‘filled’ the order himself. Mother could leave the list and return to collect the goods. I remember there was a home delivery service as well. Bread and milk were home delivered, so there was no need to lug that home. And not only that, but Mother was at home so during the week, various traders would drive past the home and come in to get her order: green grocers for vegetables, soft drinks, even meat and fish. This paradise was destroyed by low prices and the new ideology of ‘convenience’.
Now think of flying. Is there any customer experience more discomforting than boarding an airliner, that futile stop-start procession up the aisle to find there are no spaces left in the overhead locker so you stuff your bag under the seat in from of you and suffer cramp for the entire journey. The seats are comfy if you’re a midget. A perfect example of the Paradox is the new check-in system: you swipe your card and get your boarding pass. But to ‘drop off’ your luggage, you return to the traditional check-in queue.
And what did this system replace? A sleeper carriage with a cup of tea brought to you by an attendant. It took longer to get there, and time is money. But the Paradox is based on the Principle of Convenience: making life easier for consumers. Since the Second World War, mankind has seen the emergence of the labour-saving device as the dominant cultural icon. Food processors with a thousand pieces make washing up after preparing meals a major job – so you need another labour-saving device: the dishwasher. And so it goes. Convenience has a momentum of its own.
The mobile phone is a Paradox Principle device. It makes life easier while it makes life harder. The inconvenience embedded in the mobile phone is subtle: the widespread expectation that you will be available to a caller round the clock. The Blackberry creates an email fixation in people, a compulsive disorder that makes people anxious if they don’t get an email for more than a few minutes. A Blackberry blackout in New York last year caused chaos and hysteria among the Big Apple’s big time operators.
Paradox everywhere: would we need the gym and the weight loss program – both modern developments – if we did not have labour-saving devices? “Take the stairs, not the lift”. “Walk to the shops. Leave the car at home.” Instead we pay to avoid physical activity and pay to engage in physical activity.
How does this help you? An ‘inconvenience’ is an itch. An opportunity to provide a ‘scratch’. But once a system has been devised to address an inconvenience, it’s inevitable that this ‘convenience’ system will create its own inconveniences. Be vigilant in identifying these emergent itches and address them and you will win favour with modern consumers.
Second, learn to tell the difference between a ‘convenience’ for customers and a ‘convenience’ for the company.
Finally, the customer’s choice is a matrix of benefits and dis-incentives. Customer ‘levers’ are convenience, possession and functionality and two ‘currencies’ – time and money. One or more of these elements can outweigh dis-incentives. For instance, many people will endure inconvenience for low price. Or high price for functionality or possession.