Pleasure or Pain?


Chitra Iyer

July 17, 2023
Brand Loyalty Marketing

Founder of and human engagement expert Dr. Anil Pillai says all human behavior is rooted in this one thing.

The avoidance of pain. 

This hardwiring even overrides our need to seek or enhance pleasure.

Don’t believe me? Imagine your dream date is only available to see you for lunch. The problem is, you happen to have a raging toothache gnawing mercilessly at your temples. No matter how strong your desire for the former, chances are your desire to get rid of the latter will be higher.

How does this impact the transactional elements of our loyalty program design?

Start with acknowledging that customer delight is not just about creating pleasurable experiences. It is equally – and this part often gets overlooked – about eliminating friction and making the experience as painless and convenient as possible. 

In other words, a customer will not undergo pain to get your points, rewards, or privileges, no matter how awesome they are. So first, eliminate friction. Only then, create pleasure.

Once is not enough

The goalpost for ‘pain’ keeps shifting. A decade ago, for example, we were all okay with waiting for the beep-boop-boop of dial-up internet connection to get us online. Today, even the tiniest delay on a mobile app causes us to click out in impatience. Recently, I abandoned a fashion loyalty program because their reward vouchers come with a 30-day delay!

Reducing friction, suggests Dr. Pillai, cannot be incidental or secondary. Spotting and overcoming ‘friction blind spots’ has to be a structured, deliberate, and ongoing effort.

He suggests relooking at each step in your loyalty journey through two lenses:

  • Physical friction: when parts of the experience are just plain inconvenient or difficult. This effort overload often shows up as poor UX, slow load times, impractical steps, long waiting times for service, filling an inordinate number of fields in a form, etc.
  • Cognitive friction: when parts of the experience just need too much thinking or mental heavy lifting. This information/ question/ choice overload often shows up as decision complexity, obscure wording, confusing instructions, and too many steps to complete an action. Such experiences apparently light up the same area of the human brain as when we undergo physical pain!

Your challenge

This week, go undercover as a mystery shopper to spot friction blind spots in your program. Keep a ‘friction log’ to record which elements of the transactional processes – signing up, understanding the program mechanics, claiming points, referring a friend – could be simpler, easier, and smoother.  If possible, make colleagues of different ages, gender, and cultural contexts do the same, so you can compare friction logs.

PS, there’s a twist. 

Human psychology says some amount of ‘positive friction’ can be good if the customer sees it as good for them. For instance, points expiry reminders can be irritating but are ultimately seen as useful. Similarly, a pop-up to re-confirm redemption actions will cause a minor delay in gratification, but will ultimately avoid erroneous redemptions. Waiting lists for exclusive privileges can also be seen as an example of positive friction.

This insight, combined with the ‘goal gradient’ effect, which states that people put in more effort as they reach closer to achieving a reward, can be applied by loyalty marketers to prompt the kind of actions that lead to upgrades and reward-qualifying points.

Next week, in part 2 of this ‘Monday Moment’, we dive deeper into the impact of psychology and neuroscience on emotional loyalty. Stay tuned!


Get the full episode here: #102: The Science & Psychology of Human Engagement for Customer Loyalty

👉 Am I missing anything? Share your experiences with friction in transactional loyalty below. 

👉Want more such insights from the world’s best loyalty programs each Monday? Sign up for Monday Moments here or share with a colleague to earn your Monday karma!

About the Author

Chitra is an experienced marketer turned freelance B2B content creator. She writes about CX, martech, sales tech, ad tech, retail tech, loyalty tech, and customer data and privacy. Of her two-decade-long career, Chitra spent the first half in senior corporate marketing roles in India. She’s led communications, digital marketing, and marketing ops teams for companies such as Timken Steel, Tata Play Satellite TV, and Procter & Gamble (P&G).

She has served as the editor-in-chief for the pioneering martech site Martech Advisor, which she led through a successful acquisition by Ziff Davis. She also conceptualized and co-hosted three seasons of one of the earliest Martech podcasts, The Talking Stack, with renowned Martech experts David Raab and Anand Thaker.

As a freelancer, Chitra creates original, thought-provoking content for senior B2B audiences, and has authored over 500 articles, white papers, ebooks, guides, and research reports about Martech and CX for clients around the world. She writes monthly columns for CX publication CMSWire and HR tech publication Reworked; and teaches a course on freelance B2B content writing in association with the Himalayan Writing Institute in India.

Chitra holds a Master’s in global media & communications from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and an MBA in marketing from the Institute of Management Development & Research, India.

In 2011, Chitra opted out of the city and moved to a farm in rural Punjab, in the north of India, where she and her husband breed thoroughbred race horses, grow organic food, and homeschool their two boys.

One Reply to “Pleasure or Pain?”

  1. Yes, it’s all about ensuring there is little to no friction whatsoever, and looking through the lens of an impatient consumer to keep everything simple, easy and smooth. Then, and only then, can you begin to think about adding in the emotional, experiential and rewarding bells & whistles.

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