Automatic Behavioral Scripts: Don’t Overestimate Your Customers’ Interest in Having an “Experience” with You

Too many companies want their customers to “have an experience” with them.  Unfortunately, customers don’t have time for this; they’ve got way too many things to do.

Alfred North Whitehead once said that  “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.”  If you consider how busy your life has become, it’s easy to see that a fundamental requirement for maintaining sanity is your ability to run Automatic Behavioral Scripts

Automatic Behavioral Scripts are like little subroutines your brain executes in a way that enables you to accomplish predictable tasks without thinking too much about them.   If you’re like most people, you have Automatic Behavioral Scripts for tasks like:  driving to work, getting a cup of coffee, going to the bank to make a deposit, etc…  You can accomplish these tasks on “automatic pilot”… allowing you to pay attention to more pressing matters.  So, when you go to the bank branch to make a deposit at lunch, you can be thinking about your meetings this afternoon or what you’ll do this evening.

As the customer experience design has become a hot topic, we’ve seen many companies attempt to create highly engaging and innovative experiences with their customers… and pay no attention to the Automatic Behavioral Scripts that these customers are using to execute the current experience.   In many cases, all they end up doing is distracting and annoying the customer.  If you do interrupt the customers’ script (called an Orienting Response), you had better deliver something the customer perceives as valuable in exchange for getting their attention.

As an Atlanta resident who travels frequently, I’ve gotten very used to making reservations on Delta’s website.  The previous version of their website was quite easy to use and most reservations could be made quickly from the homepage.  It was the kind of thing that fit with an Automatic Behavioral Script that worked well.  Over the last two years, however, Delta has “upgraded” their website in a way that even the simplest tasks now require navigating through layers of menus.   Now every time I make a reservation, I shake my head and think… these people just don’t get it.

Capturing the customers’ attention… creating that Orienting Response…  is a very powerful way to differentiate the experience.  However, it should ONLY be done if what you’re about to deliver is one of a very small number of signature elements of the experience… elements of the experience that are deliberately designed and clearly make it worth having gotten the customers’ attention.  In every other way, the experience should be designed to make it easy for the customer to run their Automatic Behavioral Scripts.

More on the subject of the Cognitive Ergonomics of experience design in future posts.

3 Responses

  1. Frank, welcome to the blogosphere! I sincerely hope that (1) you attract the whole world to your blog, and (2) that corporations act on your wisdom.

    I read a book many years ago by Albert S. Hirschman called Exit, Voice and Loyalty (abstracted nicely in Wikipedia) that postulates that customers (or employees) can respond to unsatisfactory experiences by “exit” (withdraw from the relationship), “voice” (speak up about the experience), or “loyalty” (shut up and try to enjoy being a customer or exmployee). I’ve tried to live by that maxim.

    As a fellow Atlantan who flies into and out of Atlanta at least once per week, mostly on Delta, I fully agree with your comments about our home based airline (and many other horrendous customer experiences inflicted daily by both Delta and by Hartsfield-Jackson Airport). I have to travel, so “exit” is not an option in either case. I occasionally resort to “voice” to find that compounds the dreadful customer experience. My last letter to Delta’s CEO complaining about several major disasters in customer experience, and raising key questions about the airline’s policies and procedures was replied with a boilerplate, “Sorry you were disappointed, here’s a $100 voucher.” As if that would make me feel better!

    For all the times when we cannot “exit” the relationship, and when “voice” creates as negative a customer experience as the lapse that led to it, I just wish that companies read and act on your blog. Keep it coming!

  2. Vaughan, thanks for your comment. I’ll check out the book you mentioned (or at least the wiki post).

    I don’t want to underestimate the difficulties that the major airlines face. However, I am very frustrated with Delta. I fly about 6 segments a week on them. Just about every customer of theirs I have spoken to perceives the quality of their basic service (delays, cancellations, etc…) to have significantly worsened.

    To add insult to injury, Delta is advertising the “New Delta” experience. It includes things like the availability of Signature Cocktails and other such superfluous “window dressing.” As a student of consumer psychology, I expect that when active customers hearing these advertisements as the foundational elements of the customer experience continue to worsen… the effect is producing a lot of anger!!

    I think a lot of companies need to realize that adding “nonfunctional decorations” to a poor basic experience tends to make things worse in the mind of the customer.

  3. […] Automatic Behavioral Scripts: Don’t Overestimate Your Customers’ Interest in Having an &… […]

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