Addition by Subtraction

Canada is known for its winters. Many of the sports we take pride in and do well at involve sliding on slippery, icy surfaces. I’m not proud to admit that I spent an embarrassing amount of time sitting on the sofa watching sports on a Saturday afternoon this past winter. I got close and personal with CBC watching a ski race and stayed there. I subsequently watched ski cross, bobsled, and even luge. Before I knew it four hours had gone by and I didn’t feel the least bit more patriotic. However, it did occur to me that these events had a key commonality. Yes, they are winter sports. Yes, they involve Canadians competing. However, the essential element involved is managing friction. This is especially the case for those activities that are races, which all of these were. If we’re judged on time, reducing friction is our goal.

Engineers and sport scientists strive to develop innovations to equipment that reduce friction within the limits of the rules. Ski racers select skis of a particular length and width. They have technicians devoted solely to waxing the base to react with the specific snow surface the weather produces on race day. Their suits are designed to be as aerodynamic as possible. It is very similar for the skier cross athletes but for stricter rules related to clothing which must fit looser. In bobsled, there are weight limits which determine the materials and configuration of the sled as well as who can be part of the team. Every thing is done to push the edge of the weight to ensure each ounce serves to help make it move faster. Athletes are selected based on their ability to burst out of the blocks with speed pushing a heavy sled from zero to something in short order. They then have to stuff their massive muscles into the passenger compartment of the sled. Their shoes serve to grip the ice to allow each Newton of energy to flow from their muscles to the sled propelling it forward. Their suits and helmets are designed in order to be aerodynamic while running and riding.  Even in luge, where the equipment seems the simplest of all, the toboggan being used is bare bones. It’s stripped down to a target weight and the runners (the blades that meet the ice) are designed with length, width, and sharpness that serve to send it sliding as smoothly as possible across the ice. Lugers, too, sport stretchy skin suits intended to penetrate the air with minimal resistance. Significant sophistication and allocation of resources has been and continues to be devoted to these sports where competitors fight for each hundredth or even thousandth of a second. Drag is the devil in all of these activities.

What drag would you say gets in the way of your day? What’s the cheese in the colon of commerce bunging up your business? Are there things in your day you’re doing which aren’t necessary? In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius offers, “Most of what we say and do is not essential…if you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquility. Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’” Aurelius considered this question as foundational for both personal improvement and for making a difference in the world. Sometimes improvement follows by focusing on things to exclude as opposed to include. Doing more by doing less.

Reducing friction in the purchasing process for insurance is a great opportunity for differentiating your business. Unfortunately, insurance isn’t something that’s glamorous or exciting for consumers. Insureds aren’t going to cocktail parties talking about their deductibles and umbrella coverages. People aren’t lying around on their sofas scrolling through their phones researching insurance options. No spouse shouts across the living room, “honey, did you know that Superior auto insurance offers replacement coverage for longer than Inferior Insurance does?” The differences between one coverage and another is complex and tedious for most consumers. It is usually done, grudgingly, as a have to and not a get to.

Purchasing insurance is a lot like going to the dentist. It’s not something we look forward to or get excited about. We don’t spend time “researching” it for fun. We do it as a necessity or precursor to protecting ourselves. Or, someone else (like a lender) is telling us we must. Those selling these services often have more enthusiasm than the recipients. When we’re sitting in the dentist chair and the hygienist is enthusiastically espousing the benefits of flossing while she cleans our teeth, we’re doing our best to tune her out. We’re not listening or learning. We’re politely pretending, hoping the noise and uncomfortable treatment will stop soon so that we can get on with our lives. We want to know we’re healthy and can move on not thinking about the dentist until our next check up six months or a year down the road. If we’re a little bit more mature, we may be listening for some small tip offered which we can reasonably implement that will protect our teeth and reduce our future dentist costs. Is there some small effort we can undertake that will help us take care of ourselves we wonder?

Insurance is parallel to our dentistry experiences. We’re doing it out of obligation and necessity and not out of interest. If something could be done to reduce the time it takes to endure the service, it would be considered a win. It’s deemed a disruption and intrusion into our day. We want the process to go smoothly, know we’re protected, spend as little money as possible, and get on to enjoying the things we’ve insured. How can we reduce friction in this process for prospective customers? Do we track the time it takes for us to process renewals and new business quotes? Have we set targets for improvement? What are the benefits to our customers and our organization where we can shave any time off these workflows? Do we treat our workflows like our Olympic athletes treat their sport? Is everything under constant scrutiny for improvement? Are we confident on what metric matters? Is it the time it takes to get a quote to an interested customer or the internal effort required to generate a quote? They aren’t necessarily the same. Are we trying to save our time or that of the customer? Regardless of the metric upon which we settle, do we have a target or benchmark? Has it objectively been determined?

For existing customers, can we anticipate the renewal date well in advance? Can we communicate to the insured terms and make it easy for them to say yes? Are we able to offer automatic renewals which seamlessly continue pulling payments from insureds account with no action implied on their part? Are there suggestions that can be proactively made to them to enhance their protection? If information is likely to be needed from the insured, can what is required be clearly communicated to insureds? Can direction be given which will spoon feed to them where they will need to go to access the required details?

Similar questions can be asked both with respect to new customers as well as to current insureds that encounter a claims issue. How can we help them navigate their way forward through a complex process? What barriers can we break down in front of our customers in order to make their progress smoother? Freeing the friction of your customer’s experience isn’t easy. It will be work for you. However, the more you do in order to make your customer’s life easier, the more value you will be adding to your customer’s day. It’s less about making your life easier and all about enhancing theirs. Freeing the friction is about being an Anteambulo. It involves developing an external focus working to pay attention to the needs of others. How can I help? How can I make things easier for those I’m trying to serve? Do we regularly review customer service workflows seeking ways to reduce steps?

What can you remove from the purchasing process? How can you make your business one with which it is easier to deal? In terms of customer information to collect, is there one less field you can consider collecting? Instead of trying to collect every piece of personal information possible, can we go the other direction? Greg McKeown in his recent book, Effortless: Make it Easier to Do What Matters Most, offers an anecdote from Amazon. McKeown writes of a meeting which stimulated the development of something we may now be all to familiar with, Amazon’s 1 Click. It has become a huge differentiator for Amazon and has made the purchase experience for customers easier than hitting Staple’s fictional “easy button.” McKeown writes of a conversation involving Jeff Bezos and his development team, “At one point in the meal, Bezos said, “We need something to make the ordering system frictionless. We need to make it so the customer can order products with the least amount of effort. They should be able to click on one thing, and it’s done.” Recalling the experience, Hartman says his marching orders were clear: “The goal was to make it easier.” Bezos recognized that “the more steps there were, the more time they [the customer] had to change their mind. If you can get the user to buy it with one click they are more likely to make the purchase.”” From this conversation, the focus of developers was to free friction. They were able to create programming that turned a purchase into a single click. Moreover, Amazon was able to patent this technology which has given them the better part of a 20 year head start over competitors making customers lives easier. By removing steps, customers lives became easier.

Are you meditating on Peter Drucker’s directive, “there is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all,” like it’s your management mantra? What are you doing that you can stop doing? Is this a question you’re considering? Are the leaders in your organization asking this question? Are they asking those within the organization for input on this question? Should input be provided, is action being taken in this direction? Are barriers being built or broken down in your workflows?

We’re essentially seeking to emulate the philosophy of the lean model of business that has been brought forward in recent years. Eric Ries in The Lean Startup writes, “In other words, which of our efforts are value-creating and which are wasteful? Are we ok with asking critical questions of our own organization? Do we encourage management and staff to channel our inner kindergartener and ask why constantly? Why are we doing this? This line of questioning should be encouraged not in order to be critical but to spur the quest for continual improvement. Is there a better way? Mark Cook, as VP of Products for Kodak Gallery, is quoted in Ries’ book observing that “success is not delivering a feature; success is learning how to solve the customer’s problem.” Product and service design is not necessarily enhanced by trying to build as much as possible into things. It’s not about offering more. Instead, consider having the customer do less. There’s value in efficiency and simplicity. Does it serve the customer becomes the guiding decision driver.

Consider this prediction, it’s no fiction, we want less friction. If you can clear the way for your customer, you’re on your way to having more customers. If you can make it easy for them to say yes, more of them will say yes.