What is Customer Effort (CES)?

23 August 2021

Customer Effort or CES is a popular customer satisfaction methodology and can offer a compelling message in a single metric. Here we look at what it is, when to use it, and any pros and cons.

What is a customer effort score (CES)?

A Customer Effort Score (CES) is a customer service metric that measures user experience, with a product or service. Instead of asking how satisfied the customer was, you ask them to rate how much effort they had to put in to get their query resolved or the ease of their experience. Asking the customer to rate this on scale gives you a numerical score to measure how easy your company is to deal with.

CES was launched in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) in 2010 by Matthew Dixon. The article “Stop Trying To Delight Your Customers” argued that exceeding expectations does not impact on loyalty in the way you might think. The article made the case for customer effort being more indicative of future spend than other customer metrics.

The real moral of the article is that it is really important to make life as easy as possible for the customer. It argues that a customer who finds it easy to deal with an organisation is more likely to be loyal than a customer who is satisfied with the organisation.

There is some debate over the best wording for the Customer Effort question, which is why customer effort has spawned more versions than any other metric, but essentially customers rank their experience from "very difficult" or “a lot of effort” to "very easy" or “no effort at all”.

The official wording from the original HBR article uses a 5 point scale:

However, here at TLF Research we believe that you should adopt a flexible approach depending on factors such as industry or type of transaction if it is a transactional survey. We’re also advocate of a 10 point scale, which gives you a greater granularity of scores for analysis, and to keep your scale consistent with other questions on your satisfaction questionnaire. Some variations we’ve used include:

Example 1

Example 2

Whether your question asks about the ‘effort’ or ‘ease’, the answer to this question gives us good indication of how easy it was for your customer to use the product or service, and whether they are likely to continue using it.

CES is a popular methodology employed by customer success teams across a range of different industries. As a headline metric, from a single question, it can be used as a top line measure of customer loyalty.

When to Use Customer Effort Score

There are 3 main uses for CES surveys in a customer research programme:

  1. Immediately after an interaction with customer service

Perhaps the most common use for CES surveys is immediately following a customer service touchpoint, a call to a helpline or call centre, or even after resolved email support tickets or the use of online resources.

Asking customers to specifically rate the level of effort they had to put in at these specific touchpoints will give a good indication of the effectiveness of your customer service in resolving queries, problems and complaints.

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 ask them to rate the interaction on a scale ranging from "very low effort" to "very high effort.""

  1. Immediately after an interaction that led to an purchase or subscription

This allows you to gain a CES for a specific customer interaction or event, such as an online purchase, the completion of quote, or signing up for a trial. It is usually delivered as an automated event driven survey upon completion of the interaction.

This gives you access to real time feedback and CES for a range of specific interactions. This can help you identify customer sticking points and the areas where improvements need to be made.

  1. To measure the overall experience someone has with your organisation in general

CES can also be used to measure the overall experience a customer has with your organisation. However, because the question asks about the ease of a specific interaction or experience, it is most often used to measure service or product level issues.

The CES offers a different perspective on the overall experience. Compared to a metric such as Net Promoter Score (NPS), which focuses on the customer’s behaviour and not what your organisation did, NPS offers a broader view of the customer’s experience, whereas CES can be related to a specific event. NPS may be more useful when segmenting customers, but CES may be better at uncovering bottlenecks at specific touchpoints in the customer experience itself.

These situations present excellent opportunities to capture customer effort scores and wherever you choose to measure CES, it aims to help you provide an “effortless experience”.

What is a good customer effort score?

There’s no definitive industry benchmark for customer effort score. However, customer effort score is recorded on a numeric scale, so a higher score would represent a better experience. For a 10 point scale, we would say responses of eight or higher would be considered good scores.

A good CES highlights whether your products or services are well designed and user friendly. CES scores can set a benchmark if you are looking to develop a new offering, and also be used by marketing and sales teams as a selling point when attracting new business.

Poor responses can alert you to obstacles which impact negatively on the customer experience. If possible, you should follow up with these customers to learn more about their experiences. This can be an opportunity to turn a negative experience into a positive one, by showing them that you care about their response and are making changes to your processes.

We always advise collecting customer feedback through verbatim comments on your CES survey, as these add further insight into how easy your organisation is to deal with.

Customer Effort Score Pros and Cons

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

Some pros include:

  • It's the strongest predictor of customer loyalty and future purchase behaviour. The HBR study suggests “of the customers who reported low effort, 94% expressed an intention to repurchase, and 88% said they would increase their spending”.

  • It's a strong predictor of referral likelihood: “81% of the customers who had a hard time solving their problems reported an intention to spread negative word of mouth”.

  • It can be highly specific and actionable, helping you to identify obstacles to a positive customer experience.

Some cons include:

  • CES surveys alone don’t measure broadly. Does not provide information regarding the customer's overall relationship with your business.

  • CES isn’t as popular as other headline metrics, such as NPS or CSAT, so sector benchmarking may always be possible.

Doesn’t directly measure loyalty or retention. While that’s the end goal, CES surveys are ultimately about improving efficiency rather than quality.