Book review: Why the most important customer experience book of 2022 is a book about sludge.
Updated: Jan 9
When you make customers jump through hoops, negative things are bound to happen. One of those negative things is customers eventually stop jumping. When that happens, it shouldn’t be any big surprise.
That is the main point of Cass Sunstein’s book, Sludge: What Stops Us from Getting Things Done and What to Do About It.
The book rarely mentions the word “customer.” But make no mistake. The book’s 153 pages are about the many ways in which sludge—those pesky hoops that companies, government organizations, and other companies make customers jump through—obliterates customers’ experiences.
Sludge impacts employees, too, because they’re the gatekeepers for it.
Why the Book Matters to Customer Experience Right Now
If you’ve been keeping up with the U.S. federal government’s latest customer experience executive order, reports, president's management agenda, and policies, then you’ve already heard the term “sludge.” It’s been noted as a problem that perpetuates inequities for customers of government. That’s another reason why this book should be of interest. It’s about sludgy processes and rules in government.
But sludge is everywhere, not just in government. It’s the reality that fuels much of the human-centered design work customer experience professionals are doing right now.
Sludge is about unnecessary rules, needless extra steps in a process, time-consuming paperwork, and all the costs that customers must bear when navigating those rules and processes: Money, time, psychological, and physiological stress (Bozeman, 1993; Bozeman & Feeney, 2011; Herd & Moynihan, 2020; Kaufman, 2015; Tummers et al., 2016).
One example is waiting on hold for a long time at a call center to speak to someone about repairing a computer. Another is when small business owners need to find and then fill out all the paperwork required to do business in certain states—up to 16 different forms for cosmetologists in South Dakota, for example.
Sludge is everywhere, not just in government. It’s the reality that fuels much of the human-centered design work customer experience professionals are doing right now.
Why Sludge is a Point of Debate in Leadership Circles
It wouldn’t be fair, though, to say everyone loathes sludge. As Sunstein points out, the impact of sludge on people’s experiences is subjective. Some customers simply do not have the resources or know-how to navigate sludge and will therefore never become a customer at all. Or they may refuse to be a customer again. That's not always the best thing for the customer.
But bureaucratic and administrative leaders often want the sludge in their processes because they believe it provides structure and protects the integrity of their programs. It’s a necessary evil in their eyes. “Sludge might be a way of ensuring that people really qualify for something—say, a mortgage,” Sunstein writes.
He then provides another example in that banks often need customers to absorb the stress of sludge in a loan underwriting process because the bank wants to be sure the loan will be paid back.
Sludge functions like a penalty for customers. It usually takes away their time, money, and self-respect.
In Search of the Sludge Solution
Readers who are looking for practical solutions to reduce the customer friction associated with sludge will flock to chapter 6: Sludge Audits. Sunstein has talked about sludge audits before in his written work and in a few videos on YouTube. The purpose of a sludge audit is to look at customer processes like filling out forms, waiting for decisions, or repeating processes and identify where sludge lives in those processes. One then assesses how much time customers and employees must spend navigating those processes.
Then, because time is money as the saying goes, one attaches a dollar value to the time spent on sludge, based on hourly wage statistics from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. Chapter 6 doesn’t go into much depth on what sludge audits look like in practice. However, you can piece together some of the steps by consuming some of Sunstein’s articles and videos—most of which are free to access.
Why the Book is So Credible for Customer Experience Pros
What makes the book so appealing to the customer experience world is that Sunstein’s know-how comes straight from his time working at the Ground Zero of sludge creation in the U.S. government. He led a White House bureau that has a say-so in the creation of customer application forms, surveys, and other data collection requests that customers of U.S. federal government agencies find in their inboxes every day.
He knows how the senior leadership talk track unfolds when the subject of simplifying forms and processes comes up. He also happens to be a lawyer who knows the arguments lawyers themselves can put up in defending sludge as something that customers just need to be ok with.
Regardless of how readers feel about sludge, Sunstein lets you know… he’s not a fan of it. That’s because sludge functions like a penalty for customers. It usually takes away their time, money, and self-respect. However, the work of smoothing the sludge is not easy work.
Sunstein’s inside-of-government views on why sludge exists, how customers experience it, and how leaders view it, contribute to existing research on red tape and administrative burden. His perspective is rare, as it comes from being a former government administrative leader working at the creation point for sludge for millions of people.
Scholars, marketing, and customer experience leaders will certainly be able to appreciate his views and consider their own strategies accordingly.
Bozeman, B. (1993). A theory of government red tape. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 3(3), 273-304. https://doi.org/fw42
Bozeman, B., & Feeney, M. K. (2011). Rules and red tape: A prism for public administration theory and research. M.E. Sharpe.
Herd, P., & Moynihan, D. (2020). Administrative burdens in health policy. Journal of Health and Human Services Administration, 43(1), 3-16. https://doi.org/f8rp
Kaufman, H. (2015). Red tape: Its origins, uses, and abuses. The Brookings Institution.
Tummers, L., Weske, U., Bouwman, R., & Grimmelikhuijsen, S. (2016). The impact of red tape on citizen satisfaction: An experimental study. International Public Management Journal, 19(3), 320-341. https://doi.org/fwgm