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Jon Picoult

Customer Care

How Customers Feel About You: Lessons From Wrap Rage

What matters most is the customer’s perspective

Published: Monday, November 1, 2021 - 11:03

In 1978, inventor Thomas Jake Lunsford patented a new form of plastic packaging and unknowingly triggered the ire of hundreds of millions of consumers.

His invention was the “clamshell”—a type of packaging that envelops a product in two form-fitting, sealed plastic shells. The public frustration that Lunsford’s creation ultimately triggered was so widespread and long-lasting that an entirely new term was coined to describe it: wrap rage.

If you’re not familiar with that term, here’s how Jeff Bezos (Amazon’s founder and former CEO) defines it: “Wrap rage is the frustration we humans feel when trying to free a product from a nearly impenetrable package.”

Surely you know the frustration and aggravation of wrap rage, even if you didn’t realize there was a term for it. As any consumer can attest, clamshell packages are notoriously difficult to open, particularly given the razor-sharp edges that get exposed when cutting or ripping the plastic container.

What you might not know, however, is that in the United States alone, about 6,000 people a year end up in the emergency room with injuries inflicted from wrap rage. People try so hard to extricate products from this ridiculous packaging that they actually lacerate themselves and must seek immediate assistance from an emergency room physician.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t just an American problem. Consumers worldwide struggle to open these clamshell packages. Two-thirds of Britons, for example, report suffering wrap rage injuries, as do nearly three-quarters of Canadians.

Many more people suffer minor scrapes and puncture wounds from wrap rage that don’t require a hospital visit but nonetheless leave a painful mark. We also can’t ignore other “casualties,” such as all the kids who experience emotional trauma as they watch their parents maim themselves while attempting to open the child’s birthday present or holiday gift.

Wrap rage is an amusing, if not acute, challenge. But why talk about it at the beginning of a story about customer experience? Because Amazon’s response to the phenomenon of wrap rage is a great example of a company truly appreciating what the customer experience is and what it takes to manage it effectively.

As Bezos himself told the The New York Times in a 2008 interview, “I shouldn’t have to start each Christmas morning with a needle nose pliers and wire cutters, but that is what I do. I arm myself, and it still takes me 10 minutes to open each package.” He wasn’t alone in his frustration. Amazon even established a subsequently deleted “Gallery of Wrap Rage” on its website, providing an outlet for customers to vent about difficult-to-open packaging. The gallery featured dozens of customer-submitted photos and videos where customers laid out all the tools they relied on to open up the packages Amazon sent them.

In 2008, Bezos and his management team hatched their response to wrap rage, and it was called “frustration-free packaging.” Amazon negotiated with its suppliers to take products out of the clamshells, as well as get rid of those annoying steel-wire ties and other difficult-to-remove packaging fasteners. With the products liberated from the anger-inducing packaging, they were placed in an easy-to-open recyclable cardboard box and shipped to the customer. When people received the frustration-free package, they were able to remove the product effortlessly—no lacerations; no scrapes; and no impatient, crying kids.

Customers loved frustration-free packaging. It was both easier to access and more environmentally friendly. Indeed, Amazon found that its frustration-free products earned, on average, 73 percent less negative feedback on its site, as compared to products in regular packaging.

Frustration-free packaging has actually become something of a competitive advantage for Amazon, as brick-and-mortar stores can’t replicate the approach because they use the clamshells to prevent shoplifting. Moreover, frustration-free packaging has become yet another proof point for the Amazon brand, underscoring for consumers just how easy it is to purchase from and interact with the company.

For any business that aims to differentiate itself in the marketplace, Amazon’s response to wrap rage offers three important lessons that help explain what the customer experience really is, and what it takes to deliver an excellent one:

1. The customer experience is all-encompassing. First, Amazon clearly embraced a broad view of what constituted its customer experience. The company recognized that it was about much more than just customer service. It appreciated the wide spectrum of touchpoints and interactions that comprised the experience. It realized, for example, that people’s perceptions about Amazon would, in part, be influenced by something as subtle as how easy or difficult it was to open the product packaging. So Amazon chose to manage that final touchpoint in the purchase experience—the act of opening the package—as carefully and intentionally as any other in the customer life cycle.

The irony is many people would argue that that final touchpoint was outside of Amazon’s wheelhouse, that once Amazon shipped the product from its warehouse, their job was essentially done. But Amazon didn’t see it that way. Nor should you, with regard to your business.

The customer experience encompasses all of the live, print, and digital interactions that a customer may encounter, from presale to post sale: learning about your products, purchasing your products, unpacking your products, using your products, and servicing your products. It begins earlier than you’d expect (even before someone’s a customer, such as when you’re marketing to a sales prospect) and extends longer than you’d imagine (up to and even including the point of defection, should a customer leave your business).

Managing the customer experience is about consciously shaping all these touchpoints—not just customer service, not just digital interactions—but everything a customer might see, hear, touch, smell, or taste during their encounters with your business.

2. What matters most is the customer’s perspective. Amazon has long prided itself on being a customer-obsessed company, a philosophy that is illustrated, in part, through the company’s focus on listening to customers. Remember, it was customer sentiment, including that of Bezos himself, that first led Amazon to develop frustration-free packaging.

How many companies do you know that emblazon their shipping boxes with a URL dedicated to soliciting customer feedback about product packaging? Amazon has done it, and it reflects their strongly held belief that what matters most is what the customer thinks of the experience. Not what the internal company metrics say, and not what company executives believe. It is the customer’s perception that matters; the customer is the ultimate arbiter of quality.

3. Customer perspectives are shaped by feelings as much as they are by thoughts. Frustration-free packaging was about eliminating or at least mitigating customer frustration. Frustration is an emotional response, and Amazon’s attention to that aspect of its customers’ experience reflects a critical understanding: The impression a company leaves on its customers won’t be driven by some algorithmic, logical evaluation of the interaction. Rather, it will be based on how the customer feels.

Effective management of the customer experience requires a focus not just on rational components of the interaction (e.g., did my package arrive when it was promised?), but also on emotional ones (e.g., how did I feel opening the package—excited or exasperated?). Both of these dimensions of the experience must be actively managed to leave a positive, indelible impression on the customer.

Customer experience defined

There are lots of definitions out there for the term “customer experience” (or CX for short), though many come off as bookish and bloated, better suited for an academic textbook than an organizational rallying cry.

To inspire behavioral change, you want a definition that will resonate with your workforce, one that they’ll easily understand and be able to internalize. With the context provided by the Amazon wrap rage story, we can form such a definition, a clear and concise articulation that goes like this:

Customer experience is how customers feel about their interactions with you.

That’s customer experience in fewer than 10 words, but it’s important to unpack that definition to reveal some important nuances.

Is every customer interaction part of the customer experience?

The answer in a word is—yes!

• When someone explores one of your company’s offerings, be it on a website or in person with a sales representative, that’s part of the customer experience.
• When someone sees a comment about your company on social media or hears about it from a friend, that’s part of the customer experience.
• When someone actually purchases your products and services, that’s part of the customer experience.
• When someone has your product installed or configured, and then receives training on its operation, that’s part of the customer experience.
• When someone actually uses your product or service, that’s part of the customer experience.
• When someone calls your customer service team for assistance, that’s part of the customer experience.

These are but a few examples of the types of interaction episodes that collectively make up the end-to-end customer experience. In addition, each episode is comprised of touchpoints, which are like the fundamental building blocks of the experience.

For example, during the exploration and purchase episodes, touchpoints might include live interactions (a conversation with a sales representative), printed interactions (a “leave behind” piece of marketing material), and digital interactions (your company website or a recorded informational webinar).

Although some touchpoints and episodes are more important than others, they all influence customer perceptions to some degree, even if subconsciously. Creating a great experience requires stitching together a series of touchpoints and episodes that in total leave a highly positive impression on the customer.

What’s important to remember is this: With every customer interaction, you have an opportunity to shape the customer experience—for better or for worse.

What’s the relationship between customer service and customer experience?

As mentioned earlier, customer service and customer experience are not interchangeable terms. Customer service is but one component of the end-to-end customer experience (others, depending on the nature of the business, might include activities such as product or service exploration, purchasing, contracting, and installation).

One unique thing about the connection between customer service and customer experience is that in many types of businesses, the need for the former can actually suggest a problem with the latter. That’s because customer service is often required only when something has gone wrong elsewhere in the customer experience, thereby triggering a service inquiry. A product may not be working as expected. A shipment may not have arrived on time. Assembly instructions may not be clear. Sales and marketing material may have set inaccurate customer expectations.

Whatever it is, something happened upstream that created a problem or question for the customer downstream. That translates to a less appealing customer experience that’s actually more expensive to deliver. Indeed, for certain businesses, one hallmark of a great customer experience is that there is little need for traditional, post-sale customer service because everything works perfectly up front, the way it was intended.

What about when customers don’t interact with a company? Is that part of the experience?

As strange as it might sound, yes. How customers feel about your company, even when they haven’t had any recent interaction with you, is an important gauge of customer experience quality.

The absence of interaction, in and of itself, could actually shape customer perceptions in potentially negative ways—for example, if a customer feels uninformed or abandoned in some way. Companies that are adept at managing their customer experience pay careful attention to “silent periods” in their customer life cycle. Sometimes, they’ll choose to add entirely new interactions to their customer experience in an effort to punctuate the silent periods and more proactively engage customers.

Key takeaways

• The customer experience encompasses all the live, print, and digital interactions that a customer may encounter when working with you or your business. It is formed by a series of episodes (e.g., product exploration, product purchase, or service requests), which are, in turn, comprised by touchpoints (e.g., a website, a piece of marketing material, an automated menu greeting on a toll-free service line).
• The experience begins before someone is even a customer (such as when they first hear about your brand from a friend, a social media post, or an advertisement) and extends through the entire customer life cycle (up to and including the point of defection, if the customer ever leaves your business).
• A great customer experience doesn’t happen by accident. It’s the consequence of deliberate, intentional management of all the touchpoints that comprise the experience—even subtle, seemingly insignificant ones.
• The quality of the customer experience is in the eye of the beholder. How the customer perceives the experience is what’s most important, regardless of what your internal business metrics might say.
• Customer perceptions about the experience are influenced as much by emotional considerations (e.g., how do I feel after interacting with your business), as they are by rational ones (e.g., did I get what I ordered on time).

This article is an abridged excerpt from From Impressed to Obsessed: 12 Principles for Turning Customers and Employees into Lifelong Fans by Jon Picoult, pp. 3–12 (McGraw-Hill, Nov. 2021).

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About The Author

Jon Picoult’s picture

Jon Picoult

Jon Picoult is the founder of Watermark Consulting and author of “From Impressed to Obsessed12 Principles for Turning Customers and Employees into Lifelong Fans” (McGraw-Hill, Nov. 3, 2021).  A noted authority on customer and employee experience, Picoult is an acclaimed speaker, as well as an advisor to top executives at some of the world’s foremost brands. He helps organizations impress their customers and inspire their employees, building loyalty in both the marketplace and the workplace.  Picoult earned an A.B. degree in cognitive science from Princeton University and M.B.A. in general management from Duke University.