Our world is mechanised and becoming even more so. It is belted with infrastructure, latticed with processes, and managed through frameworks.
As a result, needless effort is becoming a thing of the past. Our technology matches us with likely partners, recognises us in photos, flies us across oceans in our thousands, and for almost a century has continued to liberate us from menial tasks. Principles such as Don’t Repeat Yourself (DRY) and frameworks such as Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) have firmly established themselves in our organisations and across our societies.
If our age has a watchword, it must be efficiency.
Being efficient, however, is not always an admirable quality. In fact untempered, it may have a considerable downside.
When efficiency is written on my face, when I am openly transactional with you, it is clear to you. I am making the minimal effort required to deal with you.
If you are like most people, you won’t like it when that happens.
Across the planning and research for the work we do for our clients at Publicis, we are seeing a growing and very real distaste for organisations that display efficient behaviour towards people.
Efficiency. Arguably it’s is a form of systematised laziness that suits the organisation and treats the customer as a required input. As supply to the demand.
At a conceptual level, I will understand that if a hotel, gas supplier, cab driver or grocer is efficient with me, they are simply doing their job and getting to the next thing. At a visceral, emotional level, though technically defensible, it makes for a mundane, transactional experience. The type of experience I can get everywhere. The type of experience I will not remember.
Advertising sends potential customers a very bright signal of intent, simply due to the affordance of the investment made in it. Similarly, inefficient behaviour from a business sends a blinding signal of effort. A signal that my custom, potential or real, is valued. And that is something I am very likely to remember.
Think of the last memorable service experience you had. Chances are you are now remembering a moment where someone was thinking of you. Where they did something more than they had to. When we invite people to share their stories in qualitative groups, this is the pattern we see time and time again. We remember moments where a business didn’t have to do something, yet it did it anyway. We remember the hairdresser sending a good luck text before our interview. The shop assistant who dropped everything to help us find a size. The boiler service engineer who hoovered up every speck of dust. This can also apply to non-human interactions, for example, the language learning app that forgave my poor spelling, choosing to recognise instead that I answered correctly.
Maya Angelou observed this truth and framed it like this: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
There is an important lesson here for businesses that want to stand out in a hyper-automated, connected age. In particular for businesses engaging in digital transformation projects, which are typically led on cost-saving efficiencies. The lesson is: you must actively seek moments to be deliberately inefficient. For moments to be human. Honing the internal efficiency of the organisation is urgent, important and utterly necessary. And yet the paradox is that it must be balanced with a deliberately designed external inefficiency for the customer.
We have a word for this kind of inefficiency. It is empathy. The businesses that employ empathy, as a counterbalance to efficiency, are destined to be remembered, and stand to be rewarded for it.