This article was first published in the January 2017 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Brian Wansink, professor of consumer behaviour at Cornell University and author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, has studied what happens when choices are made easier or more difficult. He found that when healthy food is the easiest choice – for example, when it is displayed more prominently – we eat more of it. 

Wansink argues that you need to make healthy eating the easiest choice, for example by putting healthy options in prominent places in school cafeterias, making healthy food easier to reach or using lighting to display it more prominently.

Google conducted an experiment to reduce consumption of M&Ms, which used to be available in baskets around its New York office. Instead, it put the sweets in bowls with lids. Even though the lids were easy to lift, the move cut the number of M&Ms consumed in the New York office by three million a month.

In 2003 Dan Goldstein and Eric Johnson published a study of organ donation consent rates across 11 European countries. The rates varied from 4.2% for Denmark to 99.9% for France. What was the cause of the huge differences? Were there cultural factors? It didn’t appear so. The figures in Austria and Germany, neighbouring countries with a common language, cultural similarities and a great deal of shared history, were 99.8% and 12% respectively.

The researchers found the differences were down to ‘opting in’ versus ‘opting out’. The four countries with the lowest donation rates all required people to give their consent. The seven countries with the highest rates required people to opt out.

The tiny physical effort of checking boxes on a form and the mental effort involved in rejecting the default option sent people in mass towards the easier choice.

The effortless experience

In their book The Effortless Experience, Conquering the New Battleground for Customer Loyalty, authors Matthew Dixon, Nick Toman and Rick DeLisi argue that service organisations create loyal customers primarily by reducing customer effort – that is, by helping them solve their problems quickly and easily. ‘Delighting customers doesn’t build loyalty; reducing their effort – the work they must do to get their problem solved – does,’ they say.

This view is supported by research from the Corporate Executive Board, which shows customers are more likely to punish bad service than reward delightful service. Service breakdowns, they found, cause existing customers to defect and repel prospective customers. Companies that act on this insight ‘can help improve customer service, reduce customer service costs and decrease customer churn’. 

The book is full of examples of how the customer experience can be made easier. Clothes retailer Old Navy, for example, has made shopping with kids easier by lowering the heights of clothes racks so that parents can see where their kids are. They’ve labelled the hooks in their changing rooms ‘Love it’, ‘Like it’ and ‘Not for me’. The Old Navy hooks clarify choices and make the next step – buying – ‘simple and apparent’. 

A number of companies have adapted the customer effort score. UK telecoms giant BT uses a ‘net easy’ measure, which asks, ‘Overall, how easy was it to get the help you wanted today?’

Simply making a process easier can dramatically impact behaviour. Until recently only 35.5% of Indian households actively maintained their bank accounts. But in August 2014, the then new prime minister Narendra Modi launched ‘The Prime Minister’s People Money Scheme’. Five months later, 106 million new bank accounts had been opened. The account-opening form had been simplified, and the documentary requirement for proof of address relaxed.

Tasks that require effort tax our cognitive load. We favour decisions that require less mental effort. Psychologists use the term ‘cognitive fluency’ to measure how easy it is to think about something. Cognitive fluency causes us to make choices that are easy to evaluate, rather than those that offer us the greatest reward. Brand expert Simon Bird writes that ‘famous, popular or preferred brands make choice effortless’. Brain scans reveal that shoppers’ brains show much less effort when choosing the number one brand. Strong brands, it seems, help the brain ‘think less’. 

There are many other examples of this, including:

  • Raising university applications University application rates among unrepresented groups in the US rose by 8% when forms were filled in and submitted on behalf of the applicant. 
  • Increasing cab driver tips In 2007, New York City forced cab drivers to accept credit cards. The passenger is presented with a touch screen with three easy-to-choose defaults for tipping: 20%, 25% and 30%. When cabs were cash only, the average tip was roughly 10%. With the touchscreen it jumped to 22%. The addition of three easy to touch buttons resulted in US$144m additional tips per year.

So what can you do to make life easier for your customers?

Harry Mills is CEO of consultancy Aha! Advantage