We’re Moving to the New Customer Innovations Website

We are very happy to announce that Customer Innovations is moving to a new and updated home on the web.

You can find us at:  www.customerinnovations.com

The ideas and insights we’ve been sharing on this blog site have already been relocated to this new location.

Onwards and upwards,

Frank Capek,  CEO, Customer Innovations, Inc.

Empathy in Action: Sustaining Success with Customers

“The purpose of business is to create and keep a customer.”

“The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself.

Peter Drucker

Its not difficult to find support for what appears to be an ultimate truth; customer-centricity is THE central element of business success.  Since virtually every business leader espouses this truth, it must be great to be a customer!

Unfortunately, in practice, fragmented roles and accountabilities for the wide range of activities associated with “being in business” tend to create issues.  Surprisingly few organizations actually behave in a way that’s customer-centric and, as you know, being a “customer” is often frustrating.    According the national reporting body for the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), customer satisfaction “continues on the path it has been for quite some time now: in the aggregate, it is going nowhere.”

 

Issue:  Customer – Object versus Person

After having the chance to work with the leaders of many dozens of companies, I’ve noticed a distinguishing feature of organizations that engage with customers in a way that fuels continued innovation and economic success.   It starts with how leaders and people throughout with organization think about and talk about their customers.

According to dictionary.com, customer means…

  1. A person who purchases goods or services from another; buyer; patron.
  2. Informal.  A person one has to deal with: a tough customer; a cool customer.

The foundation of this definition is “person.”   A customer is a person or, in the case of business-to-business, often a network of people.   A distinguishing characteristic of organizations that sustain success with customers is their ability to engage with customers as people.   This seems like it should be easy.   However, even casual conversations with leaders in many businesses reveal that the organization is focused on customers not as people but as objects.

According to dictionary.com, “objectify” means…

  1. To present or regard as an object
  2. To make objective, external, or concrete.

Objectifying people generally involves intentionally or unintentionally treating them as a means to an end, without any deep, visceral understanding of their lives, feelings, priorities or preferences.    As a result, organizational behavior tends to be at best – reactive, and at worst, self-serving and manipulative.

There are several indicators of businesses that objectify customers.  People in leadership positions don’t spend much time in open dialogue with customers about what they need and what’s working and not working about their experience.   Insights about customers tend to be surface-level descriptions.  Conversations about customers tend to be abstract and removed rather than concrete and personal.   People on the front line may be following the process but, at best, “pretending to care.”  The company might measure customer satisfaction with the company’s touch points but doesn’t really know what customers do end-to-end, how they make choices, and how the overall experience makes them feel.

These characteristics stand in stark contrast to businesses that appear immersed in their customers’ lives and, as a result, deliver a very personal, human experience.   As consumers, we recognize these businesses.  They range from the small and local (e.g., your favorite restaurant or local retail establishment) to the larger scale businesses of which my favorites include Chick-fil-A, Zappos, Nordstrom, Umpqua Bank, and Apple.

Personifying Customers:  Empathy in Action

In order to create real loyalty and sustain customer-focused innovation, organizations need to adopt a discipline for personifying customers.   This is even more critical as organizational transparency increases.  Personifying customers includes structured ways to embed empathy in the core processes of customer discovery, design and delivery.   Empathy is the identification with or vicarious experiencing of the situations, feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.   The core processes include:

  • Empathic Discovery.  Most of what companies know about their customers tends to be descriptive and data driven:  who they are, where they live, what they’ve purchased, how long they’ve been a customer, etc… There may be a segmentation analysis that groups customers by attitudes, etc… However, in most cases, there is no rigorous framework for personifying customers in a way that builds empathic understanding.  This includes structured ways to answer:  who are these people, what are the situations they’re in, what’s important to them and what are they trying to accomplish, how do they evaluate alternatives and make choices, what do they do outside of the limited set of contacts with our business, and what emotional states influence behavior?  
  • Empathic Design.  Empathic design leverages empathic discovery in order to create products that allow customers to more easily accomplish the goals that are important to them.  This includes designing products and services that customers love because they’re meaningful and make them feel good.  This often includes the design of products, services, or modes of interaction that customers don’t even know they desire or, in some cases, solutions that customers have difficulty envisioning due to lack of familiarity with the possibilities offered by new technologies or because locked in a old mindset.
  • Empathic Delivery.  Customer service is a monologue; it’s about technical delivery, standards, and execution.  The company decides what to do and how to do it.  Well-designed and executed customer service usually does a good job of meeting customers’ baseline needs and expectations.  On the other hand, empathic delivery is a dialogue.    It’s about watching a customer’s experience with every sense and following up with a thoughtful and appropriate response that demonstrates that you really care and are on their side.   It enables the organization to surround products and programmatic services with personal touch.

Unfortunately (and fortunately for competitors), empathic delivery is rare in the business world.  Processes, policies, metrics, resource constraints, as well as more deeply entrenched unwritten rules often get in the way.  Since empathic delivery cannot be fully scripted, it leads to significant implications for the employee experience.  Employees must have enough “elbow room” to do the right thing for customers.  This requires a deliberately designed pattern of interventions in the employee experience including recruiting, incorporating, training, communicating, measurements, and rewards.  It also involves surfacing the unwritten rules that may be driving employee behavior inconsistent with the desired customer experience.

Integrating Customer and Employee Experience

Not surprisingly, putting empathy into action requires a tightly integrated perspective on customers and employees.   You can’t treat customers with empathy without doing the same for employees.   This is one of the reasons that many of the companies that appear on Fortune’s list of best places to work are businesses that deliver a very effective customer experience.   However, as covered in several previous posts, a highly engaged workforce is necessary but not sufficient.  (See:  A Break in the Service Profit Chain:  Why Increases in Employee Engagement Don’t Improve the Customer Experience).  In addition, if you’re interested, please feel free to check out the white paper titled:   “Getting the Employee Experience Right:  Creating Employee Experiences that Drive Business Growth.”

Customer Innovations works with leading brands to “embed empathy” into the design and delivery of experiences that are both positive for customers and profitable as well as strategically relevant for the business.

Getting the Employee Experience Right: Creating Employee Experiences that Drive Business Growth

As many businesses are beginning to look towards economic recovery, we’ve seen a growing recognition of the importance of the employee experience.   I suspect this may be a recognition of the vast amount of stress in the workforce.   For many companies, significant portions of the employee base are facing deep economic hardships.  Employees have been working harder than ever in an effort to keep their jobs and pick up the slack as their companies have cut positions and reduced spending.   As the economy and the job market improves, these employers may be facing latent turnover of some of their best people.

At the same time, companies interested in making more strategic investments to accelerate growth will need to have a highly engaged and aligned workforce.   Over the past several years, we’ve been working with a diverse set of of clients on a rigorous integration of customer and employee experience design.

Here is a summary of what we’ve observed and what to do about it:

Observations:

  • The experience customers have with any organization is the product of behavior that emerges from a complex organizational system.
  • Every organization is strongly predisposed to deliver the current customer experience based on deeply entrenched legacy effects, beliefs, values and unwritten rules. These legacy effects are reinforced by employee experiences at every level of the organization.
  • Most customer experience efforts significantly underestimate the difficulty of shifting legacy effects. In some cases, organizations create a vision for the desired customer experience that is fundamentally at odds with the character and culture of the organization. As a result, their initiatives fail to produce a noticeable shift in the customers’ actual experience.
  • Any effort to fundamentally improve the customer experience must first decode how and why the organizational system produces the current experience. This understanding allows executives to identify what changes are feasible and what specific interventions are necessary. Without this understanding, efforts to change the behavior of the organizational system are likely to be naïve.
  • Delivering a substantially different customer experience requires a holistic, end-to-end perspective on the employee experience. Within that holistic perspective, targeted employee experience interventions must address and rewrite any “unwritten rules” that produce behavior inconsistent with the intended customer experience.
  • By creating a strong linkage between the customer experience required to drive profitable growth and the employee experience required to generate this customer experience, a company can justify and prioritize investments in the employee experience.

Recommendations

  • Describe the experience you intend to deliver to customers. Describe what customers are trying to accomplish and map the end-to-end activities customers follow to accomplish those things. Then detail the experience you want them to have. What do you want customers to feel after their interactions with you? What are the company’s ultimate goals for delivering a powerful customer experience beyond the transaction itself – for example, additional sales, word-of-mouth marketing?
  • Identify the organizational and individual behaviors required to generate that customer experience. What do people and the organization need to do consistently to create the intended customer experience? What specific changes in behavior are needed? What must front-line employees do differently, and what decisions should front-line employees be empowered to make to solve customers’ problems? How do the work and behaviors of behind-the-scenes employees, plus their interactions with the front line, affect customer experience?
  • Identify the business processes, practices and unwritten rules that have to change to produce the required behaviors. Diagnose how and why your company generates the current customer experience. This must be based on rigorous examination of the experience from your customers’ perspective. Identify where bottlenecks in service occur, where the smooth flow of customer interaction is interrupted. Measure alignment of customer-facing processes, roles, measurements and rewards, and surface the unwritten rules that drive individual and group behavior related to the customer experience. What exactly do the unwritten rules encourage people to do, and how do the resulting behaviors facilitate or interfere with the intended customer experience?
  • Design specific employee experience interventions that remove the barriers and rewrite the unwritten rules. Map the end-to-end employee lifecycle and identify what your employees experience along the way. Model and segment employee populations, measure their fit with “ideal employee profiles” for different roles and correlate with customer experience and business performance. The appropriate interventions may be in how you attract, incorporate, engage, retain or enrich employees’ work. Because useful interventions can be made anywhere in the employee lifecycle, you must be rigorous in determining where to intervene and where to invest in employee programs. The goal is not just to design a compelling customer experience, but to enable employees to understand their connections with the customer experience and feel empowered to deliver the designed experience.
These observations and recommendations are described in more detail in the following white paper:   CI – Getting the Employee Experience Right 2011
You can also check out the following related blog posts:

Outcomes-Based Experience Design


Chris O'Leary

Bridging the Gap Between Customer Experience and Business Outcomes

by Chris O’Leary, COO, Customer Innovations, Inc.

In the 25 years we’ve been helping companies design customer experiences, one of the consistent challenges has been to estimate the business impact of specific experiential improvements.  The fact is that many customer experience (CE) programs simply fail to make a compelling argument about the business value that will be generated by specific CE innovations. In the absence of a compelling business justification, executive support and sponsorship may be weak or even absent, orphaning the CE program and robbing it of the executive leadership it needs.

In their efforts to generate a business justification, Customer Experience (CE) managers frequently try two approaches.  Neither approach has been consistently effective in earning senior management support and sponsorship.

First, they may choose to rely on generally held beliefs about the value of customer satisfaction, engagement or Net Promoter Scores (NPS).  Often, this reliance highlights a correlation between these indices and some business outcome (e.g., revenue growth or market share), but treats it as though it was a causal relationship. (see: Keiningham et al., “A Longitudinal Examination of Net Promoter and Firm Revenue Growth,” J. Marketing, Vol. 71  July, 2007, pp. 39-51)

In addition to the confusion of correlation and causation, we’ve also seen many cases in which high satisfaction or NPS scores actually co-exist with declining revenues, market share, and profitability.  These measures reflect how customers feel about the company and not how the company may make customers feel about themselves.  As a result, they are poor predictors of how customers will actually behave.

The second approach, of course, focuses on generating cost savings and efficiencies, most often at the service touch points.  Unfortunately, service efficiency is almost always more important to the company than to the customer, and efforts to streamline or automate the touch points typically end up working against the quality of the overall customer experience.  (See:  The Customers’ Experience Does Not Happen at Your Touchpoints).

What is needed is a fundamentally new approach to focusing and justifying investments in customer experience innovation, one which directly addresses the core challenge of connecting specific experiential innovations with measurable business objectives.

For some time, we have been using a new approach to CE business justification called Outcomes-Based Experience Design, which represents a 180-degree change from common practices:

  • Rather than trying to justify potential CE innovations by predicting or projecting hoped-for business outcomes, this approach starts by clearly defining the desired measurable business outcomes and working backward to identify the innovations required to generate those outcomes.
  • Rather than relying on self-reported satisfaction, loyalty and NPS scores, this approach targets concrete business and customer behavior outcomes, both of which are measurable at the individual and the aggregate level.  Satisfaction, loyalty and NPS are interesting, but should NEVER be used to justify investment in experience innovation!

Rather than competing for attention, funding and time with other business initiatives, this approach anchors CE to the existing strategic priorities, which is where CE should have been all along.

Figure 1: Outcomes-Based Experience Design

As illustrated in Figure 1, the Outcomes-Based Experience Design approach introduces a new measurable outcome, Behavioral Outcomes that connects Experiential Outcomes and Business Outcomes.  Linking Experiential Outcomes and Business Outcomes in this manner enables CE program leaders to define and measure the specific business value that is being created, and this provide a rigorous business justification.

The model works in two directions.  The first direction, going right to left, illustrates the design relationship. When designing the experience innovation, one starts with the business outcome of interest, then determines the specific customer behavior that needs to be influenced, and then designs the specific experiential interventions that are required.

Second, the model illustrates the causal relationship going left to right.  The only way that CE innovation can create a business benefit is by influencing a specific change in customer behavior and choice-making.  The difficulty in business justification discussed earlier arises from the fact that it is so difficult to predict how customers in general will respond to different CE innovations, and even more so for specific groups of customers,

Outcomes-based Experience Design generates a host of critical benefits.  First and foremost, it positions CE innovation as a tool for achieving the priorities of executives and senior managers, NOT competing with those requirements.  Second, it provides metrics and measurability at each stage of the causal relationship.

Third, it allows companies to invest only in those innovations that will influence the target customer behavior, and stop investing in potentially expensive initiatives which may not matter to customers or for which they are not willing to pay.  Identifying (and terminating) uneconomic CE investments will often fund new investments that are far more impactful and that generate meaningful business benefits.

One final note:  This model is effective only if we understand how and why customers behave as they do.  Without the ability to link individual characteristics to the decisions and choices a customer makes, there is no way to design experiential interventions that will be effective in influencing the target behavior.  More important, there is no way to assure that  an experiential intervention targeting undesired customer behavior (e.g., attrition), will not adversely affect desirable customer behavior (e.g., retention, growth).

The necessary foundation of Outcomes-Based Innovation, therefore, is the ability to understand how and why customers make the choices that they do, and to use that information to influence those choices.  The scientific and methodological basis for this understanding has been previously discussed here (Getting Beneath the Voice of the Customer) and here (Customer Experience:  Beyond Better Sameness); practical challenges and applications will be discussed in the future.

Behavioral Portraits and the Design of Influential Experiences

“Remember… you’re unique… just like everybody else.” Although, it may be a little funny to say it that way, thank heavens for diversity!  For as much as we all have in common, our lives are more interesting because we’re not all the same. We’re interested in different things, we like different music, we’re attracted to different kinds of experiences, and we have unique emotional reactions to the situations we’re in.

Over the past 25 years, Customer Innovations has worked with a wide range of leading companies on the design of products, services, and experiences that influence customers.  In the course of that work, we’ve helped clients understand how their customers’ think, what their customers’ feel, and how and why customers behave the way they do.  That insight is used to design things that really matter to customers; that make a difference in their lives; that are intuitive easy to navigate; and that influence behaviors that make more money for our clients.

In this post, I will describe one of the key tools we use to do this work, called a Behavioral Portrait.   A Behavioral Portrait is rigorous approach to understanding the important ways that different people are attracted to, engage with, and respond to different kinds of experiences.  It also explains why people have widely varying and highly individual emotional and behavioral reactions to the same experiences.  The Behavioral Portrait tool is used to identify key behavioral differences between different customer personae (for more information see the following posts: Personae Driven Experience Design and What is the Difference Between Personae and Segmentation?).

The Behavioral Portrait measures preferences in five major areas that have a profound effect on the design strategy for influencing customers sensitive to these preferences.  These areas are:

  • Novelty Seeking. Describes the degree to which a person is attracted to, comfortable with, and exhilarated by new and unfamiliar experiences.  Novelty Seeking includes individual measurements for curiosity, impulsiveness, and extravagance.
  • Harm Avoidance. Describes the ways a person engages with ambiguity, risk, and unpredictable interactions with people they don’t know.  Harm Avoidance includes individual measurements for anticipatory worry, fear of uncertainty, and shyness with strangers.
  • Social Orientation. Describes a person’s preferences for social interactions and connections that influence their experiences and their lives. Social Orientation includes individual measures of introversion/extroversion, sentimentality, attachment, and dependence.
  • Decision Style. Describes a person’s preferred mode of perceiving and interpreting information and then making decisions based on that information.  Decision Style includes individual measurements of perceptual breadth, detailed versus conceptual interpretation, and analytic versus synthetic decision-making.
  • Behavioral Activation. Describes the unique ways a person initiates action, as well as, their degree of focus and persistence over time and in the face of obstacles. Behavioral Activation includes individual measures of energy, directedness, criticality, and single-mindedness.

Customers have different reactions to product, service, and experience design/  execution based on their preferences.  For example:

  • Higher harm avoidant customers tend to get stressed about elements of the experience that are unpredictable, confusing, or seem risky.  Higher harm avoidant customers also tend to react more negatively to any embedded element in the experience that might be perceived as a “violation of justice.”  For example, in a restaurant, they will react more negatively if people seated after them are served before them.
  • More socially oriented customers will go along with the behavior of others and will respond more strongly to social influence.  For example, more socially oriented customers will respond more positively to conservation programs that illustrate how their behavior compares with others (e.g., your electricity usage is 57% higher than the average for your neighborhood… or… the blue recycle bins are at the curb for every house on my street except for mine).
  • Higher novelty seeking customers will tend to be the early adopters of the latest and greatest new technologies. They’ll tend to engage more readily with interesting information about products and services.  They’ll tend to experiment with alternative medicine.  Our research also indicates that they are more attracted to and more likely to return frequently to restaurants that offer a diverse experience or change up their menu.

We’ve found that by understanding the behavioral preferences for different customer personae allows us to design products, services, and experiences that engage a wider range of customers.   You do this by allowing for personae-sensitive pathways.  For example, you provide a high-novelty seeking pathway that customers can opt into if they desire that.  However, you don’t force the low novelty-seeking customers through that pathway because it’s likely to make them feel uncomfortable.

Customer Innovations has developed several tools for measuring these behavioral preferences.  These tools include:

  • The full Behavioral Portrait tool – an 85-question instrument that takes about 12 minutes to complete and provides a reliable measure of an individual’s preferences across the 5 dimensions and 17 sub-dimensions described above.   This full Behavioral Portrait tool is used as part of in-depth personae development research.  It’s also used to provide rich feedback to individuals about their preferences.
  • A streamlined Behavioral Indicator tool – a 17-question set that can be embedded in a quantitative survey in order to correlate a respondent’s behavioral preferences to their response to other questions about their experience, their attitudes, or their preferences for new product or service concepts.

If you have an interest in learning more about the approach outlined above or any of the associated tools, please let us know.

Customer Experience: Beyond Better Sameness

So… we’re ten years into the Experience Economy and, over that time, there’s been an explosion of attention and investment in creating and improving customer experiences.  Even in this midst of very challenging economic environment, it’s hard to find a company that isn’t either actively involved in or planning customer experience investments.   As the economy now starts to show signs of turning around, we’ve observed an increasing level of interest in getting closer to customers.

Despite the attention paid to customer experience, with a few exceptions, people are no happier with their experiences as customers today then they were 10 years ago.  It’s as if the majority of customer experience efforts have produced little more than “better sameness.”   Better sameness is doing what you’ve always done… and what pretty much all your competitors do… a little bit better and faster; providing friendlier customer service, incrementally faster response times,  a more appealing retail environment, a more streamlined web catalog and ordering processes, etc…

The problem is, customers don’t perceive these incremental differences.  If you’re looking for a competitively relevant improvement, you need to do something that actually grabs the customer’s attention and positively influences how they feel and what they do.  These are the only things that actually improve your competitive differentiation.  Moving beyond better sameness demands doing something that isn’t just a difference in degree; it demands doing something that’s a difference in kind.

For examples:

Southwest and JetBlue represent a difference in kind experience compared to the other major US-based airlines;

Umpqua Bank represents a difference in kind financial experience is a sea of highly undifferentiated consumer banks;

umpqua_bank_logo

Wegmans, and Nugget Market is a difference in kind experience compared to most other major grocery retailers.

wegmans_food_markets nugget_markets

Unless what you’re after is better sameness…

…the most common tools for improving customers’ experiences are insufficient ! !


This includes:

Customer Satisfaction Measurement: Most companies ask customers for subjective evaluations of the company’s or product’s performance on the assumption that these expressed attitudes drive behavior, such as repeat purchases or positive word of mouth.  Unfortunately, decades of research into the correlation between evaluations and subsequent behavior show, although the link exists, it tends to be relatively weak.  Most customers who switch said they were satisfied.  Satisfaction is not an emotional state that powerfully drives behavior.  In order to get beyond better sameness, companies need to surface how the the experience influences customers’ perceptions and feelings about themselves not the company.

Voice of the Customer Insight: Listening to customers is critical for gaining insight into their lives, their goals, their needs, as well as, their frustrations, feelings, and behaviors.  However, as Henry Ford said, “If I asked customers what they wanted, we’d just have ended up with faster horses.”  In addition, what customers say they want is not often well-correlated with the deeper goals and subconscious factors that influence their behavior.  In many cases, what customers say they want is inconsistent with what ultimately drives their behavior… leading companies to invest in the wrong things.   Getting beyond better sameness involves engaging customers in fundamentally different kinds of conversations and getting beneath the surface of what they say to understand their deeper goals and the experiences they’re having.

Touchpoint Mapping and Service Level Improvements:  Touch point mapping is a highly company-centric activity.  Customers’ experiences do not just happen at your company’s touch points.  Customers follow an end-to-end set of activities that make sense to them given the goals and needs they’re trying to address.  You can’t understand and meaningfully improve the customers’ experience by just looking at and incrementally improving service levels at your touch points.  As customers go about their busy lives, they rarely pay attention to or act on any of the incremental service improvements at the existing touch points.  Getting beyond better sameness involves creating high contrast, signature experiences that get customers’ attention, influence how they feel, and shape the story about what you stand for.

Training and Motivating Front-line Service Employees:  Having engaged, well-trained, and motivated service employees is important.  However, a lack of training and motivation is rarely the real issue behind a poor experience.  The experience customers’ have with any organization is the product of behavior that emerges from a complex organizational system. The root of that behavior is a leadership, management, measurement, and cultural environment that reinforce “unwritten rules” inconsistent with employees doing the right thing for customers.  Focusing on training and motivating employees without surfacing and addressing the unwritten rules is like hacking at the leaves rather than striking at the root of the problem.  Getting beyond better sameness involves surfacing the unwritten rules and leadership and management beliefs and behavior that constrain the experience.

Creating positively and profitably influential experiences, that go beyond better sameness, requires a more fundamental shift in perspective.  You have to focus first on how customers HAVE experiences… not on how your organization or product DELIVERS experiences.  This includes being very clear on:   What are customers really trying to accomplish?  What influences the pathway they follow in pursuing those goals?  How do they actually construct preferences and make choices along that pathway?  How does the process make them feel about themselves?  How does the experience influence the relationships they care about?  In most cases, understanding how customers HAVE experiences, leads to a completely different set of strategies for creating experiences that really make a difference for customers and the business.

Customer Innovations follows a unique Cognitive-Affective-Behavioral Engineering approach that enables companies to design products, services, and experiences from the mental model of the experiencer… not just the mental model of the company.  Over the course of 25 years track we’ve helped leading organizations realize bottom line results of 10-25% in the form of increased retention, incremental sales, reduced acquisition costs, positive word of mouth, higher price realization, and improved productivity of customer-facing operations.

The Customer Innovations approach is driven by three toolsets deliberately structured to push companies beyond better sameness:

  • Behavioral Portraits – Generates deep insight that enables you to understand why customers behave as they do and identifies the most important behavioral drivers for specific groups of customers.
  • Trigger Analysis – Surfaces how people perceive, interpret and evaluate their experience and identifies the specific customer interactions that elicit positive or negative behavioral responses.
  • Influence Strategies – Designs the product, service, and experience interventions needed to influence customer behavior and creates the mechanism for consistent delivery of those changes.

Getting Beneath the Voice of the Customer

Doesn’t it make sense that:

  • If you want to know what customers want, just ask them.
  • If you want to see if they’re satisfied with the experience, just ask them.
  • If you want to know if they’re come back or will refer you, just ask them.
  • If you want to understand what you can do to improve, just ask them.

Listening to customers is critical for gaining insight into their lives, their goals, their needs, as well as, their frustrations, feelings, and behaviors.  Unfortunately, we’ve found that most structured “voice of the customer” research is not only ineffective for designing influential customer experiences, but it can seriously undermine innovation by directing investment at the wrong things.

It’s common for companies to conduct customer interviews, surveys, and focus groups trying to understand what customers want.   The reality is that what customers say they want is not often well-correlated with the subconscious factors that influence their behavior.  In many cases, what customers say they want is actually quite inconsistent with what ultimately drives their behavior.  The key is to able to engage customers in fundamentally different kinds of conversations and get beneath the surface of what they say to understand the deeper experiences they’re having.

I first encountered this disconnect about 25 years ago.  At the time, I was working with Dick Larson at MIT.  Dr. Larson is an expert in the psychology of waiting.   The situation involved commercial real estate managers responsible for several high-rise office buildings in New York.  These managers were trying to figure out how to address customers’ dissatisfaction with the amount of time spent waiting for elevators during peak periods.  Not surprisingly, if you ask customers what they want, they’ll tell you that they want an increase in service levels:  faster elevators and less waiting.  Obviously, the complexity and cost of actually improving service levels are quite high; it would involve installing faster elevators, dedicating more interior space to elevator banks, improving the optimization of elevator queuing, etc…   It turned out that the most effective improvement was to install mirrors in the elevator lobbies.  This allowed people to entertain themselves by fixing their hair, straightening their tie, and checking each other out in a much more socially acceptable way.  The perceived experience improvement was greater with the relatively low cost mirrors than with the relatively high cost technology required to improve actual service levels.  Note:  Waiting is an important aspect of many experiences, for more information about designing better waiting experiences see: Helping Customers Lose Wait.

Elevators

In general, the design of influential experiences involves a trade-off between two strategies:  1) improve the reality of the events, service levels, etc… and/or 2) influence the way customers experience and act on those realities.   When you ask customers what they want or what they liked or didn’t like about their experience, what do they tell you?  In most cases, they only talk about the relatively obvious service levels associated with the first strategy.

Another example of this disconnect involves customers’ surface-level desires for more choice… compared with their subconscious distaste for actually having to make choices.  When conducting traditional voice of the customer research, customers often ask for a set of choices that allow them to find the alternative they prefer.  However, when presented with the range of choices uncovered in the research, the same customers find that actually making the choice exceeds both their level of motivation and capacity for processing information at the point of purchase.  In essence, giving customers the choices they request often leads to a “choice overload” that gets in the way of profitable customer behavior… in many cases, influencing them to postpone making a decision.

Jam

In one illustrative experiment, conducted by Iyengar and Lepper, consumers shopping at an upscale grocery store were presented with a tasting booth that displayed either a limited selection (6) or an extensive (24) selection of different flavors of jam.  The experimenters measured both customers’ initial attraction to the tasting booth and their subsequent purchase behavior.  While the extensive choice booth attracted more customer attention, customers presented with the limited set of choices were 10 times more likely to make a purchase.  Customers that sampled from the limited choice booth made a purchase 30% of the time versus only 3% of the time from the extensive choice booth. Leading companies are really starting to internalize this finding.  P&G, for example, reduced the number of versions of Head and Shoulders shampoo from 26 to 15, and, in turn, experienced a 10% increase in sales.

Voice of the customer research makes the underlying assumption that people have a relatively stable, conscious, explainable, and at least somewhat consistent set of preferences.  It also makes the assumption that when ask customers about their preferences they can tell you or, in some cases, when you present them with a set of forced choice trade-offs (e.g., would you prefer to buy A or B), how they choose will reflect what they do in real life.  Unfortunately, this is far from true.  People typically don’t know what they want until they see it; they construct their preferences and work through decisions as they perceive their alternatives in the actual purchase environment.  Subtle differences in the design of that purchase environment can have a significant impact on the decisions customers make.  In fact, research in the areas of cognitive psychology and behavioral economics has shown that…

…small and seemingly insignificant contextual details have a major impact on people’s behavior.

One of my favorite recent examples comes from MIT Professor Dan Ariely.  (See Dan’s great book:  Predictably Irrational)  Dan came across the following advertisement for The Economist:

The Economist Subscription Options

The Economist Subscription Options

The ad offered three subscription options:

  • Electronic Only: $59
  • Print Only: $125
  • Electronic and Print: $125

Which of these options do you think people would choose?  Why would anyone choose the “Print Only” option rather than opting for the additional “FREE!” electronic subscription?  It seems very unlikely!  In fact, Ariely conducted a test with 100 Sloan School students and only 16 chose “Electronic Only” while 84 chose the “Electronic and Print” option.  No one chose the “Print Only” option! On the surface, this option seems totally irrelevant.  Why would you even offer it?   It turns out that something very interesting happens when this seemingly irrelevant option is eliminated.  When another 100 students were offered only two choices: “Electronic Only” and “Electronic and Print”, 68 chose “Electronic Only” while only 32 chose “Electronic and Print.”

The presence of an irrelevant option influenced a more than 250% increase in customers choosing the more expensive alternative!!!

Ariely observed the following, “Thinking is difficult and sometimes unpleasant.” Cues that allow us to establish the relative value of various offerings, then, reduce the cognitive load or effort required to think about your options.  What the Economist offered was a no-brainer; while we can’t be certain that the print subscription is worth more than twice the electronic version, the combination of the two was clearly worth more that the print version alone.

In another illustrative example of how subtle environmental details influence customer behavior, Cornell University researchers Sybil S. Yang, Sheryl E. Kimes, and Mauro M. Sessarego found that by dropping the “$”symbol on a restaurant menu can have a significantly positive impact on the total ticket value.  The researchers did a side by side comparison of three ways of presenting menu prices: with a preceding dollar sign (e.g., $14.95), without a dollar sign (e.g., 14.95), and as written out prices (fourteen dollars and 95 cents).  Aside from the subtle differences in price presentation, all other aspects of the actual pricing and customer experience were held constant.  They found that the average total ticket increased by $3.70 when prices were presented without the dollar sign.  They also found that the average ticket decreased by $1.85 when prices were written out.

All of these examples illustrate a level of insight into the way people have experiences and act on their experiences that cannot be accessed by most  traditional, structured voice of the customer research.

The Vast Majority of Human Experience is Subconscious

Every waking second of the day, each of us processes just over 4,000,000 bits of sensory information.  At the same time, we get to pay conscious attention to only 7+/- higher level and relatively abstract notions about what’s happening to us, what we’re doing or planning to do, and how we’re feeling about all of this.  Luckily our brain does an outstanding job of filtering, predicting, and prioritizing all if this information in a way that makes it possible for us to be reasonably effective in the world.  The challenge is every normally functioning human being on the planet lives in a state of “naïve realism.”  This naïve realism, gives us the sense that we’re experiencing our surroundings as they actually are, rather than just as a high level abstraction of what we believe them to be.

If we are asked by a researcher to describe an experience, particularly an experience we had at some point of time in the past, the best we can do is relate what we think we remember, about how we believe we felt, along with the alibis we construct for the choices we made, in an experience that was almost entirely subconscious.  However, due to the state of naïve realism we live in, we’re convinced that our explanations have merit… despite the fact that we are just reconstructing a plausible sounding story for what we think happened.  This is the way it works for all of us.  It’s also the fatal flaw for most structured, traditional voice of the customer research.

Understanding how to design highly meaningful, differentiated, influential, and profitable experiences involves engaging people in fundamentally different sorts of conversations and listening in ways that get beneath the surface of what they say to understand the deeper, subconscious aspects of how  people actually have experiences.

VOC Iceburg

While there’s value to listening to customers’ recollections of the experiences they’ve had and their suggestions for improving that experience, what you really need to look for and understand are:

  1. Goals and Desired States
    • What set of desired states and goals are people really trying to accomplish?
    • What kinds of experiences are people attracted to and comfortable engaging with?
  2. Beliefs and Expectations
    • How do people make sense of and remember the experiences they have?
    • How do people construct situation-specific expectations and preferences?
  3. Emotional States and Triggers
    • What conscious and subconscious emotional states influence peoples’ actions?
    • How do specific events trigger emotional reactions that influence behavior?
  4. Natural Behavioral and Decision Pathways
    • What behavioral pathways do they naturally follow to accomplish their goals?
    • How do people make choices in light of these expectations and preferences?

We’ve developed an innovative toolset for answering these questions. Experience MinerTM provides a rigorous way of capturing and analyzing the most critical aspects of the way people think, feel, and act  on their experiences.  It involves a fundamentally different way of listening to what people say and watching what they do in order to identify what’s going on beneath the surface.  Built on 25 years of research into the cognitive, affective, and behavioral basis of experience, it provides the specific insight required to focus design and delivery efforts on the areas of greatest influence and financial return.   Experience MinerTM is used to identify the most influential experience elements for each target customer personae.  This insight is used to 

…design evocative experiences from the mental model of the experiencer.

The Experience MinerTM toolset consists of the following seven elements, each designed to fill in a critical piece of insight required to design experiences that influence behavior.

Experience Miner Toolset

  • Goal Space MappingTM Describes the desired states and situation-specific goals that motivate and direct the experience for each key persona
  • Experiential TemperamentTM – Profiles how temperamental differences influence the way people are drawn to and engage with novelty seeking, harm avoidance, social orientation, and persistence
  • Framing Metaphors – Surfaces the underlying physical metaphors people use to interpret, evaluate and act on their experiences in the relevant domain(s).
  • Experiential ConstructsTM – Identifies the most common, learned distinctions that enable people to recognize, categorize, differentiate, and form expectations.
  • Emotional States and TriggersTM –  Surfaces the emotional states and specific triggers across the lifecycle of the experience highlighting areas of uncertainty, stress, frustration, etc…
  • Experiential PathwaysTM – Maps the end-to-end set of activities and choice points that people follow in pursuit of their goals… including the unwritten rules and automatic behavioral scripts people apply along this pathway.
  • Experiential Choice DynamicsTM – Describes the situation-specific choice processes that people follow, as well as, how they construct preferences and make decisions that influence their behavior.

If you’re interested, I’ve covered various topics related to the elements of Experience Miner in a wide range of other posts, including: