The Law of Least Effort: Relationships vs. Self-Service Delivery in the New Age

lazy orange cat
By Lee Wetherington

6 minutes

With the advent of ‘personal digital’, high-quality engagement and personal service can be rendered in real-time.

The word “relationship” conjures images of trust, love and sacrifice. And while those facets are real, we rarely acknowledge the more practical side of our connection to others.

The truth is that “relationship” is also a romantic way of talking about our selfishness—the same way “mystery” is a poetic way of talking about our ignorance. 

Here’s the bottom line: I will inconvenience you to convenience me.

Feels good to say it out loud. Join me if you like. It’s cathartic.

I will inconvenience you to convenience me. 

My friends, family and co-workers know this all too well. Technologists, however, have fetishized self-service for so long that we often assume do-it-yourself is preferable to do-it-for-me because DIY is always easier, faster, better. 

Not so. Not even close. To wit…

  • I’m sitting on my couch at home. I need a pen I left on the kitchen table 10 feet away. My son is in the kitchen. Do I get up and fetch my pen? No. I ask my son to get it for me.
  • I’m worried about COVID-19 and whether my post-nasal drip is a certain sign of my imminent demise. Do I go to my doctor? No, I text my old college roommate—chair of radiology at several hospitals in San Francisco—and ask him to diagnose me remotely.
  • At work, we have a company portal where I can order anything I need: a new monitor, an extra power cord, a charger for my phone. But I don’t remember where that site is on our internal network, and the last time I used it there were drop-down boxes with options I didn’t understand. So, instead of serving myself, I call a magic number (8100) and ask one of our amazing help-desk reps to place the order for me.

But, Lee, you say, these are just examples of you inconveniencing others because you’re lazy!

Thank you for making my point. 

Lazy or Efficient? The Law of Least Effort

We are all lazy, and relationships enable our laziness more often than we realize or admit.

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel-prize winning pioneer of behavioral economics, puts it this way: 

“The law (of least effort) asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs. Laziness is built deep into our nature.”

So why do we presume that self-service always satisfies the law of least effort? Because we’ve been conditioned to believe that personal service is categorically more inconvenient based on past options and the effort those options require.

In banking specifically, there has historically been a trade-off between the quality and the convenience of engagement. You want the high-quality engagement of live, local, personal service? That will cost you the inconvenience of driving to a branch or the torture of listening to Muzak on-hold when you call. You want convenience? Here’s a mobile app with your balances and transactions; you figure it out.

Granted, there is a logical continuum of both needs and options between the simple and the complex. Simplicity lends itself to the convenience of self-service. Complexity calls for the competence of personal engagement. The problem is that one person’s simple is another’s complex, so, if you’re serving humanity, you can’t assume there’s a clean, standardized line where self-service ends—and personal service begins—for everyone.

COVID, Digital and Changes in the Economy of Action

The pandemic has broadened the range of proficiencies among digital banking consumers. According to a J.D. Power Coronavirus Pulse Survey in April, roughly 12% of U.S. consumers now use digital banking a little more often, 16% a lot more often, and 4-5% are using it for the first time. Each of these segments reaches the limits of self-service at very different times and places inside digital channels.

Fortunately, there’s been a recent sea change in the “economy of action” and the associated “costs of effort” in and across options available to banking consumers. With the advent of “personal digital” in 2018, high-quality engagement and personal service can be rendered in real time at the limits of self-service no matter where those limits are encountered in digital channels.

Lee Wetherington
Director of Strategic Insight
Jack Henry
Digital must be served digitally.

When Digital Relationships Satisfy the Law of Least Effort

Put another way, relationships can now satisfy the law of least effort for a broader swath of American consumers and businesses across a broader spectrum of needs. This is good news for organizations looking to extend relationship-based business models digitally.

Several hundred community financial institutions now offer the ability for consumers to engage live, local staff members at the moment of need inside digital channels. Those financial institutions not only see more engagement inside digital, they see more efficiency across those engagements, reducing the time that elapses between the consumer’s moment of need and the resolution of that need—the key performance indicator for which is MON2RES (moment-of-need to resolution). In short, we’re in a new age of better user experience rendered faster and cheaper.

The efficiency of high-quality, personal, digital engagement is driven by the security, immediacy, context, candor and innovative in-thread tooling that reduce typing and expedite diagnosis, acknowledgement and resolution of needs in the moments those needs arise.

A seasoned support rep can field three-to-seven asynchronous conversations simultaneously in augmented threads inside digital banking. But a call center rep can only talk to one person at a time on the phone. This is why relying on synchronous call centers to support digital channels inevitably creates bottlenecks, long wait times and terrible UX. 

Digital must be served digitally. As ridiculous as it sounds, this is relatively new wisdom and a necessary guidepost for financial institutions who must both quickly expand digital and dramatically improve efficiencies to survive the new normal.

Differentiating on the Speed of Relationship: High-Quality Engagement Velocity

Digital banking remains a largely commoditized ecosystem in which the application of technology has been limited to the enablement of self-service. Andy Grove, the pioneer of PCs and semiconductors, said that “when products and services become largely indistinguishable from each other, all there is by way of competitive advantage is time.” 

“Personal digital” makes relationship banking faster and better than its branch and telephone predecessors, and it is recalibrating the law of least effort for millions of U.S. consumers. For community financial institutions, personal digital provides a way to translate trust and service meaningfully in digital channels for the first time. 

But here’s the kicker: Community financial institutions can now win on the sheer, raw speed of relationship at the moment of need, and this will materially differentiate them from the mega banks, fintechs and big techs that continue to drive the humanity out of service by design.

Remember, relationships aren’t just about the person trusting, loving and sacrificing. Someone is always on the receiving end of that trust, love and sacrifice. You can call them (me) selfish. You can call them (me) lazy. I just call them (me) human.

My name is Lee. I am lazy. I will inconvenience you to convenience me. Be my friend.

Lee Wetherington is director of strategic insight for Jack Henry & Associates, Inc., Monnett, Missouri, and frequently contributes to Jack Henry's FinTalk.

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