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The Usability Blog
A Practical Guide to User Experience Insights

C-Suite CX Warning!

Learn from Costco and test (duh) digital before you deploy!

If you are an occupant of the C-suite, you have been assailed for at least the last 24 months by a blizzard of research reports urging upon you the need for digital transformation.  Drive digital into the heart of the customer experience, says Forrester (or PwC/IBM/E&Y/Deloitte/Capgemini/Constellation) or face the consequences.  Since the consequences range only between slower and quicker extinction, that would appear to be sage advice.

And companies are paying heed.  In the B2B world, GE’s transformation from an industrial to a digital juggernaut has been astonishingly fast for a company that size and age.  In the B2C world, digital continues its march towards domination of the consumer experience.  How often do you visit your bank or a department store these days?

But digital continues to be deployed by sophisticated companies in ways that defy comprehension.  Forrester et al. don’t seem to think it worth mentioning to their C-suite subscribers that digital is subject to the same rules of stupidity as any other aspect of the customer experience.

Which brings us to Costco.

My friend Jack may be Costco’s greatest brand advocate.  Last weekend, he is at his local Costco waiting to have tires put on his car.  He takes a stroll around the store and sees a couple of deals he likes.  Jack, you must understand, believes it is sacrilege to buy anything (anywhere) without a coupon, but for the first time in decades he has left home this Saturday without his Costco coupon book.  He does, however, have his phone, so he proceeds to download the Costco mobile app.  He is in heaven.  It has a beautiful interface with a menu offering Warehouse Coupons, Online offers, Shop Costco.com, and a whole raft of cool options.

Jack goes straight for Warehouse Coupons.  A couple more touches and he has a “wonderful” list of items on sale.

“It did take me some time to figure out how to put them in a list,” he remembers. “I knew a list function just had to be there, and it was. It wasn’t exactly intuitive but I figured it out.”

The app, divining the Costco location in which Jack stands, pops up a question asking him if he would like it to notify him when he is close to a product on his list.

Jack thinks: “Wow!”

Brand affinity (which in Jack’s case is already stratospheric) “went up 10 points right there.”

Guided by the app, Jack shops for a little over an hour.  He buys 12 items, all of which are on sale.

“Big savings,” he tells us later.  “Really big.  Some very cool stuff.”

Then his phone rings.  His car is ready.  He heads over to checkout.  The cashier scans all his stuff and Jack loads it back into his cart.  The cashier hands him his receipt.  Jack looks down to get the psychic payoff – how much in total has this awesome app saved him?   But what’s this?  Every item has been charged at full retail!  No evidence of a discount, a coupon, a promo, a sale, or a two-fer anywhere on the receipt.  Nada!

Jack hauls his cart over to the courtesy desk.  The lady is “very nice.”  The conversation less so.

The nice lady: “Did you look at the date of the coupons?”

Jack: “No. I just used your mobile app.”

The nice lady takes his phone.  She pulls up the app: “Nope.  None of these are good until four days from today.”

Jack, whose affinity for Costco just hit a low typically attained only by ambulance chasers and the IRS, can barely form a sentence.

The capacity for speech eventually returns: “Why on earth would you provide me a list of coupons that aren’t good yet?”

The nice lady continues to be nice: “Come back when they are good and we’ll honor them for all the items you purchased.”

This will not be convenient for Jack.  He lives a 30-minute drive from Costco.  But it’s not even that.  He feels duped.  He feels stupid for not checking the dates, but frustrated because if the coupons weren’t valid why did the app offer to guide him?

Jack’s reply to the nice lady is less than nice, but wholly understandable.  It questions the parenthood of Costco’s app developers and suggests that they take the app and insert it into orifices from which extraction might prove painful, perhaps even fatal.

Jack’s distress resulted in his demanding they take back his purchases and refund his money.  More significantly, it resulted in Jack’s ending his lifelong patronage of Costco.  He now buys his wine and his dogfood and his garden furniture and his tires and batteries and smoked salmon and toothpaste and cleaning products elsewhere.  He may go back to Costco eventually, but he felt that the only recourse left to him as a customer was to take his business elsewhere.

Digital done without testing is no less liable to the law of unintended consequences than its analog predecessors.  The difference these days is that Jack’s customer experience story is now being told digitally.  Costco can only hope it doesn’t go viral.

-Roger Beynon, CSO, Usability Sciences

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