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What is Customer Effort Score (CES)?

There are a variety of ways to measure customer satisfaction, most of them coming down to delivering a simple survey. Even within those survey methodologies, though, there's cause for debate on the pros and cons of each style.

Here we'll cover a popular methodology known as Customer Effort Score (CES) - what it is, when to use it, and possible pros and cons.

There's ample evidence that, at times, the ease of a given experience is a better indicator of customer loyalty than simply measuring direct customer satisfaction (and customer loyalty is a true business driver in our increasingly competitive landscape).

That's why CES is a popular methodology employed by customer success teams everywhere.

Instead of asking how satisfied the customer was, you ask them to gauge the ease of their experience. You may have seen a survey like this:

Group 3ease-1.pngAsk your customers this question with HubSpot's free customer feedback tool.

Customer Effort Score rose to popularity in 2010, with the publication of an HBR article entitled "Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers."

The article is illuminating, if not for the quality and depth of the research than for the against-common-sense finding: The easiest way to increase customer loyalty is not through "wowing your customers," but rather through making it easier to get their job done.

This quote sums up the piece well: "When it comes to service, companies create loyal customers primarily by helping them solve their problems quickly and easily."

In fact, the study quoted in the article found little correlation between satisfaction and loyalty, which begs the question: Why measure satisfaction if it doesn't predict retention and increase lifetime value?

Anyway, there's obviously some academic disagreement about the predictive validity of different survey methodologies, but in this case, the research looks solid and it continues to gain support.

For instance, this HBR article talks about customer loyalty and how to gain a cumulative advantage over competitors.

Turns out, they discovered ease of experience was important too (though they refer to it mostly as "processing fluency," a well studied psychological topic).

When to Use Customer Effort Score

CES can also be used to measure the aggregate experience someone has with your brand, but because the question implies a discrete and isolated user experience, it is most often used to measure service or product level issues.

Therefore, most companies will use Customer Effort Score surveys immediately after a customer service touchpoint (such as after an email support ticket has been resolved) or perhaps even after they read a knowledge base article (to determine how effective it was in resolving the issue).

It doesn't make sense to send them based on a time interval like, say, a CSAT survey.

Andrew Friedenthal, Content Analyst at Software Advice, notes that there are still a lot of questions about Customer Effort Score since it's still such a relatively new customer feedback metric.

"Because CES asks customers specifically to rate the level of effort they put into resolving a problem or issue, it doesn't make sense to send a CES survey out at any regular interval."

Instead, he says that it's it is best to send out CES surveys only after specific service touchpoints or the resolution of particular issues. "CES surveys should be sent to customers who have needed to contact your organization for trouble-shooting immediately after you have resolved their issue, so that you can find out how much effort it took on their part to get through to you for a solution."

This differs from Customer Satisfaction Scores (CSAT), which more generally gather information about your customers' satisfaction with your business as well as specific touchpoints. As Friedenthal put it, "This means that you can use CSAT surveys at a variety of times, varying the topic you're asking about, while CES surveys need to refer to a specific event or circumstance instigated by the customer."

Note that the specific wording of the CES survey can vary depending on the context, but the common thread is its immediacy. Spencer Lanoue notes on the UserTesting blog that "it's typically measured by sending customers an automated post-interaction survey asking them to rate a specific statement on a defined scale, depending on the interaction they just completed."

For a customer support interaction, for example, you might ask "How much effort did you personally have to put forth to resolve your issue?" And have them rate the interaction on a scale ranging from "very low effort" to "very high effort.""

One interesting aspect of Customer Effort Score is its overlap in use among both customer success teams and product teams. Here's how Nichole Elizabeth DeMeré put it in a Wootric blog post, "Customer Effort Score fits in seamlessly with Product goals because user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) depend largely on ease of use.

Product teams are starting to use CES to get feedback on how well the UI supports new feature adoption and to identify moments where customers begin to feel frustrated and lost."

This is opposed to something like Net Promoter Score (NPS) that asks a broader and more fluid question, "How likely are you to recommend [company] to a friend?"

Similarly, NPS may be more useful to segment customers into distinct buckets for different success initiatives, where CES may be better at uncovering bottlenecks in the customer experience itself.

After all, the score focuses on creating an "effortless experience," which tends to affect users in aggregate but at specific product or service moments.

The most common use case for CES surveys is immediately after a touchpoint with customer service or after an important product or service touchpoint (like signing up for a trial).

In that way, CES is great at collecting real-time feedback.

The Pros and Cons of Customer Effort Score

As with any data collection methodology, there are pros and cons to Customer Effort Score.

The strongest pros point to the predictive power of CES with regard to customer loyalty. The strongest cons are in relation to the lack of segmentation capability and the lack of information about a customer's overall brand perception.

Some pros include:

  • It's the strongest predictor of future purchase behavior (according to an HBR study wherein 94% of customers reporting low effort said they would repurchase, while 88% said they would increase their spending).
  • It's a strong predictor of referral likelihood, as 81% of customers reporting high effort say they would speak negatively about the company to others.
  • It's highly specific and actionable.

Some cons include:

  • Does not provide information regarding the customer's overall relationship with your business
  • Lack of segmentation by type of customer

Group 2CES Pros and cons.png

It's also flexible in its use due to its simplicity and its overlap with use cases for product and customer success teams. Sujan Patel, founder of Mailshake, uses CES, and he likes the CES survey for the same reason he likes NPS: "It's short and simple, and therefore it's likely to get a response from customers."

His team uses it at Mailshake, and it's given them a lot of valuable insight, particularly in that it has:

  1. Signaled if something is very wrong (ie. A huge percentage of respondents are saying we didn't make it easy to handle their issue).
  2. Given us an opportunity to interject manually with customers who are very unhappy with their experience before they churn or complain publically.
  3. Acted as a long-term metric that we track over time and actively seek to improve.

Our recommendation here at HubSpot? Use more than one survey type to answer different business questions. It's silly to think there's one question to rule them all in any circumstance, and CES is one of many questions you should be asking customers to get a full picture of your customer feedback.

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