Deterrence CX

8 min readMay 24, 2023
Photo by Petr Macháček on Unsplash

There’s a term I’ve heard in movies when people speak about home defence: it’s called deterrence. Deterrence means “the action of discouraging an action or event through instilling doubt or fear of the consequences” and the dictionary even provides a military example to clarify the meaning of this (“nuclear missiles remain the main deterrence against possible aggression”).

In that example, deterrence means the “bad guys” are probably planning to do something bad, so we will invest in nuclear weapons and they will be so scared that they will no go through with their bad stuff. The idea is to create an environment where the likelihood of something happening decreases.

We see this a lot public policy. There’s migration deterrence (which nobody wants to speak of, but it happens) which takes forms such as lengthy and complex immigration processes, outright aggressive border force behaviour or more pernicious things like the huge fences lining the roads towards a border crossing. We use deterrence in medicine, only there we call it prevention: instead of treating diabetes, you ensure people don’t develop it, instead of treating heart disease you make sure you promote a lifestyle which enables people to NOT develop heart disease in the first place. However, interrogating some of these examples also generates the nagging suspicion that you’re creating an environment where the likelihood of something happening decreases so you don’t have to put in place a full infrastructure to solve the consequences. But more on that later.

Now, what does this have to do with CX you ask? Well, if you’re a Customer Experience (CX) specialist, you understand your job to be to design the best possible experience for a customer who’s using a specific product or service. That is to say you enable that customer to achieve her/his goals through the use of the service and product in a way that is simple, easy, seamless (more on that specific word in an upcoming piece). But it’s become clear to me that there are multiple companies out there which have borrowed the concept of deterrence and are employing it to make up for their inability to offer customer service. What seems to be happening is companies are actively pushing customers to NOT engage with their services because they are unable or unwilling to respond to those customers’ rightful demands in a way that would be satisfactory.

I call this Deterrence CX. Deterrence CX to me is when a company purposely designs a customer experience aimed at signalling that people would be better off not going ahead with an action.

Of course, poor CX is deterrence CX. If the IVR (interactive voice response = automated messaging when calling a company) takes you through 1000 options before making a solution available and you hang up, that outcome is positive for the company as they have one less caller on the line and one less complaint to deal with. If the queueing system in an office is so mindless that you give up and walk off, the same happens. Poor CX can operate as a way to deter people from engaging with a company. The difference with deterrence CX is intent, it’s that the company is actively and knowingly trying to prevent you from engaging.

Some standard examples of deterence CX include:

  • Providing super expensive phone numbers to call in order to get in touch with customer support
  • Limiting the time when customer support is available
  • Only providing customer support on prohibitive channels
  • Limiting access to locations (for instance, a high street chemist in the UK has this strange habit of making people queue to get inside; this is not justified by the number of people inside but mainly by the fact they probably think the queue attracts attention)
  • Asking you to call support to unsubscribe
  • Asking ridiculous question like “Are you sure you’re don’t want this amazing deal?” which sometimes are phrased to make it sound like you’re a moron by saying no
  • Conditioning unsubscribing on multiple other actions

There’s lots more of these (some more pernicious than others) and here’s a real life example of a Deterrence CX “hero”: the Eurostar (it’s worth noting here that I don’t think the Eurostar is the worst offender in this space. I just happened to engage with them when I was thinking of this piece so they seemed like an easy example. There a worse offenders out there for sure). The Eurostar runs the only connecting train between the UK and the European mainland and, as such, it benefits from a sort of pseudo-monopoly (because of course, you can fly from the UK to anywhere in Europe). While it is a useful and, at most times, quality service, the Eurostar also has a strange approach to problem solving: they try to avoid it at all costs, this despite the fact that being a semi-sole provider of a specific type of service makes them quite exposed to problems such as breakdowns of trains, cancellations, strikes etc.

When the Eurostar runs, it is not a bad experience and they have come a long way from the time when buying tickets on their website was a mess and there was no app. However, to this day, their website is considerably less sophisticated than you’d expect and tries to limit interaction as much as possible. Their FAQ section which seems to have been written by a 7 year old, it includes some incredibly basic functions and it suffers from what I can only assume is no connection between their operating systems and their digital channels. I only say this because quite often, if train cancellations happen, they will be reflected on the website and app at different times than in the train stations and often mistakenly so (e.g. I was due to travel back to London from Paris recently and Eurostar on Twitter had already announced my train was cancelled before the Eurostar app or website were even updated; indeed, the app showed the wrong train being cancelled for about 4 hours before they realised the mistake).

However, it’s when there is a problem that the Eurostar’s use of Deterrence CX kicks in big time. There are 3 major headings for the ways in which the Eurostar actively tries to deter customers from trying to solve a problem:

  1. Making direct contact difficult → it’s near to impossible to get in touch with anyone at the Eurostar except through forms. The contact information is hidden deep inside the website and when you find it it comes with a description that basically says “it will cost a lot of money and take a lot of time for you to call us”. Their chatbot is a simple iteration of a conversational search result page. Their IVR is even more basic than that (if you DO find the phone number): there’s no virtual queue information, you’re told everyone’s very busy but not how long you’ll have to wait, no supporting information, no pre-identification. The overall feeling is: DO NOT GET IN TOUCH.
  2. Providing “hedging” information / taking no responsibility → In general, the Eurostar will not explain why problems are occurring and will take no responsibility. I was due to travel to London from Paris a few weeks back when a “spontaneous” strike happened. All trains for 2 days got cancelled within 2–4 hours of me getting to the station. Aside from the above described misinformation where website and app where showing different trains being cancelled, passengers received almost no info and were simply asked to rebook on different trains. Since there were no trains for 2 days, the clear implication were you were expected to sleep over in Paris. Company communication made no mention of that, no mention of compensation, no mention of solutions (e.g. Lille trains to London were working so people could have tried to take a train to Lille). In German trains, if the train is delayed above 30 mins, the conductor comes through the train with a compensation leaflet which gets handed out to everyone. When searching compensation information on their website, another example of deterrence CX: they will compensate for certain things BUT they recommend you first check with your travel insurer. The form for compensation has 3 fields and the option to add 1 attachment (or maybe more, but it’s unclear because they don’t show you a list of attachments required). I filled in mine, and received an email to say NOT that they had received my request and were going to get back to me shortly, but that I should call my travel insurance company first. Which brings me to:
  3. Leaving out deadlines/ proper case-information — any time you interact with the Eurostar, there is lack of care when it comes to providing deadlines or ensuring that information is captured in a way that would make it easy for case workers to solve a problem. The forms they use are basic, customer support personnel on the phone — while very kind, are not trained to ask you for information in a structured way and nobody gives you any deadlines for anything. Most of the emails from the Eurostar in case of an issue have no dates, no deadlines, no information which would enable one to expect anything within a reasonable/legal time. Last but not least, there is limited care placed on the confidentiality and privacy of the information conveyed. Basic forms ask for bank details and booking details without providing any clarification as to how and where this info is stored.

I have asked myself if this is illegal and spoke to a friend who is in the legal profession. He looked through some of my emails and the website and said no. It’s superficial and silly but definitely not something one could officially complain about without sounding OCD. What it is is a knowing attempt to confuse and thus prevent people from expecting reasonable and frictionless interaction. It is deterrence CX, a bit of a black art, if you ask me, which enables companies to walk the line between doing the right thing and doing something illegal.

I know there are multiple reasons for this, the most important of which is lack of investment in the space of customer care. Companies are resource poor and they need to reduce costs. And yet, I feel that there are smarter ways to do this than actively and visibly trying to prevent your customers from engaging with you. For better or for worse, smart people have designed solutions to some of these issues: we now have virtual queues, ticketing systems, cascaded deadlines, super smart IVRs, intelligent chatbots which are able to collect structured information, clear processes to escalate cases, war games to learn from emergency situations and improve our CX.

At the end of the day, while it may do the job, deterrence CX may only be another name for poor CX.




CX Strategist and Design Director. Recovering Internet lover. Write about technology, design and what I watch/listen to/read.