Opinion | 18 May 2021

Can a good product disrupt your customer experience?

Tags: UX/CX

Crack in a discoloured wall

The world is full of amazing digital products and services. Many of these redefine sector experiences, forcing competitors to change their own offering. But what happens when this product experience begins to overtake the experience of your entire end to end offering? We explore if exceptional product experiences can cause pain points in other areas of your business.

The great product paradox

Good digital products are not hard to find. We’re spoilt for choice at the plethora of amazing digital products and services on offer to us. The competition between product teams to produce innovative and customer centric features has seen such a boom that the baseline level of what customers expect has risen significantly.

Yet there are still those in the market that take off like a rocket and really transcend what has come before them, both through a combination of excellent product decisions, and a proposition or business model which takes aim at the status quo of those that came before them. Couple that with a near ubiquitous shift to some form of freemium business model, meaning we can access these products without having to pay any money up front, you can see why product teams are a huge determiner to the success of a company.

The challenger bank market is a great example of companies that have invested heavily in customer facing products. Monzo, for one, has concentrated very hard on improving how customers can move money quickly and easily. Whether it’s being able to quickly split a bill with a friend, move money into a ‘savings pot’ or set up joint accounts rapidly, the product team has focused heavily on making online banking as frictionless and effortless as they can. And it’s not just Monzo. A whole host of other digital banks have targeted the small business owner with the promise of easy-to-use services. Whether it’s Tide’s focus on simplifying business expenses and integrations with other platforms or Starling’s free business account option, the focus on product features is paramount to all of these businesses.

And this feature arms race has led to enormous financial and business success. Monzo has upwards of 3.9 million users, and predicted to pass the 5 million mark in 2021. Revolut has been valued at £4.1 billion (July 2020). Even the smaller of the start-ups, Starling Bank, grew their revenue from £30m to £108m from 2019 to 2020.

Each one of these challenger banks can point to their customer centric, product driven revolution of the banking market as their key determiner to success.

Why then are the cracks beginning to show? Each of the digital banks above is seeing mounting levels of customer complaints. Whether it’s the mishandling of data, poor customer relations, or even issues accessing money, these banking businesses are starting to experience some significant teething issues.

And therein lies the paradox of incredible digital products. Like any business, customer expectations matter. And with these exceptional products and services – which we use day to day – setting the bar for the customer experience, can exceptional products risk undermining the other determiners of customer experience?

Billy Williams
Monzo credit cards and mobile phones with Monzo app laid out flat

Monzo’s product team has focused on making digital banking as frictionless as possible.

Time to start hedging your bets

I am most certainly not going to suggest that excellent product teams should slow down.

To me, great customer experience can only be achieved with an excellent product. Like it or not, the funding model for start-ups relies more on the potential of what a product or service can be. Having detailed customer complaints programmes with a poor product is neither going to grow your business by attracting new investors, nor slow down the rate of complaints. But it is interesting to think about the pressures that a rapidly growing business experiences because of its incredible product.

To me there’s an interesting cycle in a digital product’s life, and it’s the point at which I believe challenger banks are reaching: The point at which your user base moves from early adopters, to ‘regular Joes and Janes’. Once you reach this point your product has obviously been more successful than most other businesses due almost entirely to your product’s design and positioning. However, it brings with it new challenges that I’m not sure businesses are ever fully ready for.

Early adopters are here to play because you are somewhat new and risky. There’s been many an essay written on them so I won’t labour the point here, but early adopters come to play despite the risks involved, whereas the rest of your user base will be using your product or service because they do not see many, if any, risks involved.

This crossover point is critical to a business’ growth and is also the point, to me, where an excellent product will cease to be the only thing at which you’ll need to be exceptional to continue on your growth curve. With your user base gradually transforming, you’re more likely to run into customers who are fundamentally different to those you have served previously. These customers are more likely to complain about perceived bugs, or even complain about the new and exciting features that change their user interface. These kinds of mindset changes will, in varying degrees, limit the product team’s ability to truly carry on with the level of innovation that they sustained throughout the early adoption period.

Close up of a roulette table with stacks of chips

As they move beyond the early adoption phase, should businesses hedge their bets?

So, it would make sense then, that businesses start hedging their bets somewhat. It’s a common occurrence to see the second wave of expansion move away from product and into increasing customer support, or other customer facing (but non product) departments.

At which point we reach the second issue excellent products cause. They raise expectations through the roof. Expanding your customer service team to help deal with a rise in customer complaints, for example, is not going to be truly effective unless the customer experience you deliver when handling complaints matches the expectations set out by your product.

It’s a double-edged sword that breakout brands must deal with. As soon as you reach a lofty height in one department, every link in the customer experience chain must be raised to meet that level.

Billy Williams

While excellent products are only ever going to move your customer experience needle in one direction, they can certainly exacerbate the distance between the floor and the ceiling of your customer experience.

Playing the long game

To me, challenger banks are moving towards a future where these two pain points – heavenly high customer expectations and the product’s decreasing power to solve all problems – are going to dictate how they move toward a bright but sustainable future. How they handle crises is going to be a far greater determinant of how they grow through the early adopter phase and into being more mature businesses than the product decisions they make.

Which brings me to the overall question, can an amazing product disrupt your customer experience? I think the answer is categorically, yes it can. But I don’t think this is necessarily a negative point and the challenger banks we’ve discussed here are a great case in point. There is no way that they would be where they are today, (Monzo and Revolut are two of only 18 UK-based ‘unicorn’ companies), without their incredible product. But it does mean that there’s likely to be a bump in the road as customer expectations evolve and change as the company matures. It will be those companies that recognise there’s a critical point where their product is no longer the magic bullet to solve all their woes that are most likely to prolong their success and become the dominant player in their space. However, this requires equitable investment across the customer experience spectrum.

As someone who is very much in the product team side of business, it’s important to acknowledge the limitations you have as a team to solve every customer experience problem. This means opening up discourse with other teams to make sure you understand the true issue at hand and hand over the problem-solving responsibilities when it’s clear that the product team cannot solve those issues. It is my belief that the companies that can encourage this equitable investment and open discourse between teams stand a far better chance of executing on their vision. Without this, your brand promise will remain a pipe dream as customers see past your exceptional product to the lacklustre experience beyond.

Tell us what you think at hello@distinction.co.uk.