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.

Choice Architecture: Designing Experiences that Influence Customer Behavior

Well-designed experiences influence behavior.   A well-designed customer experience can influence customers to return for additional purchases, spend more money during each purchase, and tell lots of other potential customers about the experiences they’ve had with your business, etc…    In addition, a well-designed customer experience can influence customer behavior in a way that decreases the cost of service.   For example, the experience can be designed to increase the likelihood the customer will place an order or look for service on the web rather than calling the call center.  Additionally, I’m doing an increasing amount of work with energy companies who traditionally haven’t paid much attention to customer experience.  However, many of those companies are now focused on designing services and experiences that influence customers’ conservation and consumption behavior.

In order to keep things simple, classical economics has always assumed that people act based on a relatively stable set of preferences.  However, in real life, 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 understand their alternatives in context.  Subtle differences in the design of that context 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.

For Example….

…How Including an Irrelevant Choice Can Influence Customers to Spend More?

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.

Choice Architecture:  Designing Choices that Influence Customer Behavior

Customers always have choices.  Choice architecture is the deliberate design of both the choices and the context for those choices in order to influence a person’s behavior.  The most obvious, classic examples of choice architecture come from the design of retail stores and merchandise displays, restaurant menus and buffet lines, print and online catalogues, etc…  I got my start in customer experience 25 years ago designing store layouts, merchandise displays, signage, and promotions that increased customer profitability.   I’ve learned that there are three components that need to be addressed: 1) the Choice Design (the customer options including the information provided about those options), 2) the Choice Pathways… the sequence or placement of those choices in time and space, and 3) the Choice Environment including peripheral cues like signage, lighting, other people in privacy/public space, etc…

Let’s look at a simple illustrative case.  A well-designed restaurant menu can be a great example of choice architecture based on sophisticated menu psychology.   It turns out that there is a predictable Visual Choice Pathway people typically follow when they read a menu.  For example, when most people open a four page menu, their eyes go first to the top of the page on the right side.  A smart menu designer generally places one of the highest profitability items at the top of this page.  Then, most people’s eyes will move down towards the center of that same page.  An even smart(er) menu designer will put the most expensive item towards the center of the page… not because they think the customer will order it… but because it will tend to prime the customers’ expectations about what they’re likely to spend.  In most cases, customers will then look at the items immediately above and below the most expensive item.  Those two items immediately above and below the most expensive item are deliberately two of the most compelling selections on the menu… and are the most commonly ordered items designed to generate the most profit on the menu.  There have been numerous examples of restaurants that have been able to significantly shift their average ticket size based on the design of the menu.  (See:  Reading Between the Lines: The Psychology of Menu Design or Basics of Menu Psychology).

A similar thing happens in high end retail boutiques.  The sight of those $295 jeans (I still can’t believe it!) subtly prime the customer to feel that $125 jeans are a bargain.   The $295 jeans sell a lot more $125 jeans.  We’ve seen the same sort of thing in jewelry stores, hospitality companies, and many other diverse situations.

Although these examples are intriguing, it’s important to recognize that examples of choice architecture are literally everywhere.   For example:

  • The design of an election ballot is an example of choice architecture. Experiments have shown, if a candidate is listed first on the ballot, he may well get a 4% increase in votes.
  • When a doctor describes alternative treatments available to a patient, it is also an example of choice architecture. Research has shown that if a doctor says 90% of patients are alive five years after a certain procedure, far more people opt for that procedure than if the doctor says 10% of patients are dead five years after having it.

Choice architecture applies just about any product or service company that offers alternatives to their customers.   This can be anything from insurance companies that offer coverage options, banks that offer different financing or deposit products, business services firms that propose alternative approaches to their clients, etc…

Unfortunately, most companies don’t think about choice architecture effectively… actually in most cases, they don’t think about it at all.  Often a company will just throw a bunch of alternatives at their customers and count on the customers to sort it out.  As a result, they miss significant opportunities to drive additional revenue and profit.  The most important starting place is to understand much clearer how customers make decisions and design an experience that fits the way customers think (i.e.,  Design from the Mental Model of the Customer).  See:  Optimizing the Most Critical Elements of the Customer Experience: Customer Choices and Cognitive Ergonomics: Framing and Priming the Customer Experience.

This is an area that is getting an increasing amount of academic attention. Richard Thaler, Director of the Center for Decision Research at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, and Cass R. Sunstein are authors of the excellent book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (see also:  Designing Better Choices (LA Times Commentary) by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein).  Thaler and Sunstein provide several interesting examples of how organizations can improve the decision making effectiveness for their customers and employees.  This includes:

  • If we want to increase savings by employees, employers might … enroll them automatically in a 401k plan, unless they specifically choose otherwise.
  • If we want to increase the supply of transplant organs in the United States, we could assume that people want to donate, rather than treating non-donation as the default.
  • If we want to increase charitable giving, we could give people the opportunity to join a plan, in which some percentage of their future wage increases are automatically given to charities.
  • If we want to respond to the recent problems in the credit markets, we could design disclosure policies that ensure consumers can see exactly what they are paying and make easy comparisons amongst their possible options.

Thaler and Sunstein describe three key elements that are important to designing a choice architecture that leads to better results for individuals and society:

  1. Default Design. Whatever you chose as the default option has the highest likelihood of being selected.  For example, the states that have organ donation as the default option when individuals get a drivers license have a much higher acceptance rate.  In fast food restaurants, highly profitable combo meals have become the default option… customers often need to explicitly ask for just the burger. Design architects need to pay careful attention to the default option.
  2. Providing Feedback. People respond to feedback about their decisions.  For example, in some markets electric utilities are starting to provide specially designed bulbs (called orbs) that glow red as homes use higher levels of energy.  These devices have influences customers consumption behavior and have proven to reduce energy use during peak periods by 40% in Southern California. (find reference and make sure I’m using the right terminology)
  3. Anticipating Errors. People make mistakes and it’s possible to design a choice architecture which anticipates these mistakes and thus leads to better outcomes.  Thaler and Sunstein have been promoting the example of “Save More Tomorrow” programs, which help employees set aside future pay hikes for retirement. “Save More Tomorrow is based on the same principle of expecting error,” he said. “We ask people if they want to commit now to saving more later, because all of us have more self-control in the future. The first company that adopted it tripled savings rates, and the program is now spreading.”  They also use the example of the Paris subway card, which allows users to insert it into an electronic turnstile in any of four ways to gain entrance to the subway.  Compared that to most payment kiosks in which there are 4 possible ways to insert your credit card… only one of which will work.

This is a topic with a lot of subtlety and power… if you’re looking for additional practical insights, feel free to post a reply or get in touch.  In summary…

If you offer customers options and you don’t think about choice architecture…

…you are almost certainly missing significant opportunities to improve profitability.

Great Customer Experiences are Music to My Ears…

Listening to music is one of the most meaningful experiences in our lives.  I’ve been spending some time thinking about how great customer experiences have a lot in common with the great music that makes a difference for people.  Here are some initial thoughts:

  • It Moves You. Great music is about the transfer of emotion not just the delivery of any kind of rational value.  If you’re like most people, music has a strong impact on how you feel; it gets you up, it makes you cry, it turns you on in other ways I won’t go into here.  Both of my kids are musicians and we are always discussing the difference between music that is expressive (influences how people feel) versus music that is impressive (well executed but sort of cold).  Similarly, great customer experiences are expressive; they have an effect on the way customers feel.  It’s most important to realize that what the customer feels about the company is secondary! Of primary importance is how the company makes customers feel about themselves.  If the experience makes customers feel great about themselves, then by association, the customer will feel great about the company.   You can be effective at executing customers transactions or efficiently and effectively answering their questions… but how you make customers feel about themselves is critical.  (See: Cognitive Ergonomics: Customer Experience and Our Search for Meaning)
  • It has a Melody. Most great music has a melody.  Even the most complex, improvised jazz has a “head” or theme that ties the whole piece together.  Not only does music have a melody, but it’s kind of important that everyone in the band actually knows what that melody is.   Great customer experiences have a melody too.  It’s intentional.  Everyone in the band (organization) actually knows what it is and plays it together.  However in the large majority of organizations, the customer experience just defaults from the bunch of stuff that people do.  There’s no deliberate Customer Experience Specification and, as a result, each individual just plays their own tune… and it sounds like crap.  (See: I Got a Song it Ain’t Got No Melody… I’m Gonna Sing it to My Friends).
  • It has Memorable Hooks. Think about your favorite songs.  You remember the hooks.  Sometimes you have a hard time getting them out of your head.  Do you think the songwriter left those hooks to chance?  No way!  Effective songwriters are very deliberate about the “signature” hooks they build into their songs.  Songs without those hooks may be pleasant enough to listen to but listeners will find them difficult to remember and will be significantly less likely to want to hear them again.  The same is true with great customer experiences; they have “signature” hooks.  These are the things that you do that get the customer’s attention and help them understand how your experience is different than all the other experiences they’ve had.  Think about the best experiences you’ve had as a customer.  In most cases, you remember a small set of signature hooks that got your attention and influenced your memory of the experience.  What are the signature elements of your customer experience?  (See:  Novelty Seeking and the Design of Differentiated Customer Experiences)
  • It Balances Predictability and Surprise. Listening to music resonates with the way our brains continuously predict what will happen, are comforted when things are largely predictable and are stimulated by the occasional surprises.   This is one of the reasons why music is so important to us.  How often are you listening to a song and anticipating the lyrics and melodic phrases just before they happen.   The songs that people are most drawn to (in addition to the factors above) are the ones they’ve come to know well enough to be largely able to predict what will happen next… but have not heard so often that the song becomes totally predictable.  Great customer experiences also resonate with the way people continuously predict what will happen, are easy to engage with since things are largely predictable, and are occasionally stimulated by surprises.  (See: Customer Experience and the “Element of Surprise”)
  • It is Naturally a Social Activity. This is the thing that’s most interesting to me at the moment.  For the overwhelmingly large majority of human history, music was a communal, social activity.  People gathered around the cave or campfire and made music together.  Everyone participated.  Something strange happened as we emerged from the dark ages.  For some reasons, the world divided into the musicians and the listeners.  Musicians were often trained “professionals” that would entertain groups of passive listeners.  Occasionally, the listeners would sing along but, unfortunately, this division started to make some people feel embarrassed about their inability to carry a tune.  During the same era, the business enterprises that emerged reflected a similar divide.  There were professional producers and passive consumers.  Today, we’re seeing a significant return to both music and enterprise as a social activity.  This is being driven by the emergence of prosumers and the enabling power of social media.  The music industry is in the midst of a major shakeup now that just about any reasonably capable person or group of people has the tools to create and distribute music.  In many cases, these people can create or just mash up music in a virtual environment… often incorporating publicly available loop or even pirated samples.   Similarly, prosumers are taking control of creating or personalizing the customer experiences they want to have… not just passively consuming the experiences that companies want to give them.   The emergence of these Next Generation Experiences is one of the most profound developments I’ll cover more in future posts.

So… there are a few initial thoughts.  I’d love to hear what you think particularly any suggestions regarding how great customers experiences are like music.  Cheers, Frank

The Anatomy of Wow!

Over the past year, I’ve had the chance to post a wide range of thoughts on the ways that organization’s can leverage a deep understanding of their customers in order to design and engage customers in experiences that drive the growth of their business.  I recently took the opportunity to step back and reflect on the most important things I’ve learned over the past 25 years.  This post summarizes those most important things.  I’ve tried to make this concise… but will provide links to other posts that provide more insight.


Designing Influential Experiences

Wow Experiences exert a powerful influence on how people think, feel, decide, and act… because they’re designed from the mental model of the experiencer not the mental model of the provider.  Wow experiences create a high level of commitment, energy, and “word of mouth” by improving peoples’ lives.

  1. Wow Experiences change how people feel and are designed from a deep understanding of what people desire.  People don’t buy products or services, they buy Desired States.  What Emotional Outcomes should the experience generate?
  2. Wow Experiences deliver Innovative Solutions to people’s underlying, end-to-end problems. Finding these solutions requires getting below-the-surface of existing touch points.
  3. Wow Experiences generate viral stories.  Prime the story people will tell around an influential Experience Storyline.
  4. Wow Experiences resonate with the seemingly irrational ways people decide.  Design experiences that shape Preference Construction and overcome Behavioral Barriers.
  5. Wow Experiences are pleasantly surprising.  Design a small set of highly differentiated Signature Experience Elements.
  6. Wow Experiences are engaging and personal.  Enable people to Co-create and Personalize the experience, as well as, Influence and Collaborate with others.
  7. Wow Experiences recognize everything communicates!  Eliminate negative cues and align positive cues to influence the story and how you make people feel.


Delivering Influential Experiences

Customers’ experiences with any organization result from the behavior of a self-reinforcing, deeply entrenched organizational system.  Traditional approaches to defining and implementing a new experience fail because they underestimate limits imposed by legacy mindsets, processes, systems, and culture.

  1. Wow Experiences start with clear description of the intended experience – from the customers’ perspective. Align on an Experience Specification that describes the customers’ emotional & rational outcomes.
  2. Wow Experiences rely on Experience Value Management to focus improvements on fundamentally shifting the economics of customer relationships.
  3. Wow Experiences require shifting organizational behavior. Surface the Unwritten Rules that predispose the organization to deliver the current experience.
  4. Wow Experiences require specific employee experiences not just “engagement.” Diagnose how employee experiences reinforce Unwritten Rules and design specific Employee Experience Interventions to shift those Unwritten Rules.
  5. Wow Experiences require the holistic design of enabling Processes, Structures, and Management Systems.
  6. Wow Experiences have a limited shelf-life. Continually Refresh and Preserve a differentiated experience.
  7. Remember that, no matter what business you’re in… You’re in the Hospitality Business!


Here are a selection of links that provide some more insight into the points summarized above:

Why Customer Experience Initiatives Fail?

The Customer Experience Does Not Happen at Your Touchpoints

Cognitive Ergonomics: Designing Experiences that Fit the Customers’ Mental Model

Personae-Driven Customer Experience Design

Optimizing the Most Critical Elements of the Customer Experience: Customer Choices 

Cognitive Ergonomics: Customer Experience and Our Search for Meaning

No Matter What Business You’re In, You’re In the Hospitality Business 

Helping Customers Lose Wait

How Employee Experiences Drive Organizational Behavior

Neuroeconomics Overview: Understanding “The Mind of the Market”

The ways we think about money and make financial decisions are typically far from rational.   We get upset when we find out that another person is getting a better deal, despite the fact that we were perfectly happy a minute ago.  We spend more for well-known brands that have no difference in real quality.  We invest in punishing others for perceived “violations in justice” despite the fact that there are only negative consequences for ourselves.  We spend a lot of money on things we want that, in the end, don’t make any difference in our level of happiness.

Despite the considerable evidence that we think and act irrationally with money, most of this irrationality makes much more sense when you look at our behavior from the perspective of our long history as small bands of hunter-gatherers operating in an environment of limited resources and high risk.   We just haven’t fully adapted to the relatively recent development of our consumer-trader society.

If you’re looking for a good introduction to behavioral and evolutionary economics leading up to the emerging field of neuroeconomics, check out Michael Shermer‘s The Mind of the Market.  The Mind of the Market is an easy to read summary of some of the work of many of the brilliant contributors to this field including:  Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s  groundbreaking work in behavioral economicsLeon Festinger’s study of cognitive dissonanceJohn Nash on the Nash EquilibriumRead Montague’s work on decision making,  Daniel Gilbert’s  study of happiness and the problem of affective forecasting, and more…

For a short teaser, read Shermer’s recent essay:  Why People Believe Weird Things About Money

Most business leaders make the assumption that their customers are rational decision makers.  As a result, they make investments in developing products and services that have rational benefits.  Much of our work with clients involves helping them understand how to influence more powerful customers experiences by designing what they do from the seemingly irrational “mental model of the customer.”   If you’re interested in more perspective on this, check out the following Customer Innovations blog posts:

Framing and Priming the Customer Experience

I’ve gotten accustomed to taking my car to the Jiffy Lube near my house.  Over the 30 years that I’ve been driving, I’ve had the full range of good and bad experiences with auto service shops.  However, this Jiffy Lube has a distinctive and effective way of interacting with me regarding the cost of my service.  At the end of each visit, they bring me over to a terminal that we can look at together – side by side; they walk me through each of the service elements that were performed along with the cost of each service; then they apply a series of discounts to the individual services, as well as, loyalty discounts that consistently bring my total cost down to about 60-70% of sum of the individually itemized costs.   I have always walked out of that particular Jiffy Lube feeling like I’ve saved money and that they appreciate my business.    I’ve also always walked out feeling like many of the companies I advise could learn a lot from that relatively simply but very well designed and deliberate interaction.

This interaction is an example of category of experiential design levers called framing effects.  Rather than just presenting the price, Jiffy Lube framed it in a way that highly influenced my experience of saving money.  There are a wide set of framing effects that influence how people interpret and evaluate their experiences.  For example, consider the following two scenarios:

  1. You live around the corner from an electronics store that carries the new computer speakers you’ve been looking at for $100.  You also learn that a discounter, located ten miles from your house, has a special on the same speakers for half price: $50. Do you drive the 10 miles?
  2. You live near an electronics store that carries the new computer you’ve wanted for $2000. Ten miles from your house, another store is carrying the same computer for $1950… a savings of $50.  Do you drive the 10 miles?

As you might guess, research has shown that many customers who would make the drive for scenario 1 might not for scenario 2.  On a rational level, this makes little sense since the value of the drive is identical:  $50.  However, a $50 savings on a $100 item is framed differently than a $50 savings on the much more expensive item.

If you consider how we process the experiences we have, it’s easy to see that it’s far from rational or logical.  Our experiences are highly influenced by subconscious shortcuts that have an enormous influence on how we think, feel, and act.  Many of these shortcuts lead to apparent contradictions with what you’d expect from a more rational decision maker.  This post will cover some of the tools for positively influencing both the quality and profitability of the customers’ experience.

Pioneering behavioral economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky conducted extensive research into framing effects.  One of the other frames they studied involves loss aversion.  For example, if you were offered a gamble with a 10% chance of winning $95 and a 90% chance of losing $5… would you take it?  Most people would not.  Now suppose you were offered the chance to buy a $5 lottery ticket for a 10% chance of winning $100.  Many of the people that rejected the first alternative would accept the second despite the fact that the expected value of each alternative is exactly the same:  $5.  However, the alternative that involves voluntarily paying $5 rather than taking a chance of “losing” $5 is framed differently.

Loss-aversion framing also contributes to the fact that many customers do not make purely rational decisions regarding insurance.  For example, the expected value of many insurance policies is generally in the neighborhood of 50-60%.  You might compare this to the return on putting your money into a slot machine… an expected value of 90%.  In general, the most economically rational decision is to self-insure to the extent possible and only buy insurance as necessary to cover catastrophic events.

In addition to framing effects, another influence lever in the design of the customer experience is priming.  Priming involves activating an association in memory just before a person completes an action or task.  In an interesting experiment, also conducted by Kahneman and Tversky, subjects were asked to provide the last four digits of their social security number.  They were then asked to estimate the number of doctors in Manhattan.  Very surprisingly, the estimates that subjects gave were positively correlated with the last four digits of their social security number; people with high social security numbers gave higher estimates and people with lower social security numbers gave lower estimates.

In a similar experiment, subjects were asked the last two digits of their social security number and then asked what they would be willing to pay for a consumer product (e.g., bottle of wine, wireless computer keyboard, video game).  Similarly, the price customers were willing to pay was positively correlated with the (random) digits of the customers’ social security number.  For example, subjects with social security numbers in the bottom 20% priced a bottle of Cotes du Rhone wine at $8.64 versus subjects with social security numbers in the top 20% who priced the same bottle at $27.91.  (See: “Tom Sawyer and the Construction of Value” by Dan Ariely, George Lowenstein, and Drazen Prelec).

Good sales people understand how priming creates an “anchor point” that affects a customer’s subsequent decisions.  If I’m selling men’s suits, the first suit I’ll show a customer will be well above the price I’d expect the customer to pay.  As I show the customer that suit, I’ll make sure the customer knows that I’ll find something that meets their needs, so as not to scare them away.  However, in most cases, the higher the price of the first item I show, the higher the customer will end up paying for the item they eventually choose.

In working with a leading retailer, we looked at the impact of signage on drawing customers into the store and influencing their eventual purchase.  We found that signs signaling a lower price at the store entrance would draw customers into the store while progressively higher priced signs as the customer moved further into the store increased the chances that customers would be willing to pay for higher priced items.

Several years ago, I had the chance to work with Christine Boskoff, who was one of the most successful high-altitude mountain climbers in the world and the owner of the leading outdoor adventure travel company named Mountain Madness.  Her question was how to improve word of mouth about Mountain Madness in order to attract new clients.  The recommendation I developed with her was that, on the last day of each trip, there should be a final celebration involving a ceremonial round of “storytelling.”  In this storytelling ceremony, each participant would have a chance to share the personal story of their adventure, what it meant to them, and what their most positive takeaways were.  The act of telling their own story, in addition to listening to the stories of others, has a powerful effect to prime and prepare clients with the “personal legends” they’ll share with others when they get home.  In the course of telling and retelling these legendary stories the most compelling aspects are typically “sharpened” while any of the less positive or inconsistent aspects are “leveled” in order to fit with a more compact storyline.

Framing and priming effects operate at a predominantly subconscious, reactive level and can have a significant impact on the perceived quality and actual profitability of the customer experience.  For more information on how customer process the experiences they have see:   Designing for Customers’ Reactive, Deliberative, and Reflective Experiences.

Before I go, I’ll leave you with one final priming example:

You have exactly five seconds, not a second more, to multiply:

2 x 3 x 4 x 5 x 6 x 7 x 8

Write down your answer.  Now, ask a friend to multiply, again in exactly five seconds:

8 x 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2

Now, compare the two answers.  Besides the fact that you both got the answer wrong (the answer is 40,320), you should notice that your answer is smaller than your friends.  If you’re like most people, you started out multiplying 2 x 3 x 4 to get 24… x 5 to get 120… then ran out of time and had to quickly estimate the rest… but didn’t multiply by enough.  Your estimate was primed by the 120.  On the other hand, your friend probably started multiplying 8 x 7 to get 65… x 6 to get 390… before running out of time and having to quickly estimate the rest… but he too didn’t multiply by enough.  His estimate was primed by the 390.

Designing “Socially Influential” Experiences

Years ago, P&G ran a promotional campaign in which customers could win prizes for writing the best essay about why they loved one of P&G’s products.  In response to this promotion, tens of thousands of customers voluntarily submitted short essays for the chance of winning.  This brilliantly influential campaign leveraged one of the same techniques used by the North Korean military to influence prisoners of war during the Korean conflict.  Prisoners were given the opportunity to describe, in writing, increasingly anti-American positions as a means of receiving better treatment. It turns out that people have a strong naturally tendency to believe and behave in ways that are consistent with positions they’ve taken in writing or in any other public setting.  The more these positions are taken voluntarily, the stronger the effect.   For P&G, having customers volunteer to take a public position on why they loved one of the products was profoundly influential; obviously the most glowing essays had the greatest chance of winning.

(Note:  Want to try this out; ask a few colleagues or other people that are important to your career if they’d be willing to post a positive recommendation of you on Linked In).

Virtually every experience we have takes place in a social environment that exerts a powerful influence on the way we think and the way we behave.  In this post, I’ll describe a couple of the social forces that shape how people think, feel, and act.  I will also illustrate some ways that organizations can create experiences that positively influence their customers and/or employees and that remove the barriers to profitable, effective behavior.  These experiences can be described as socially influential.

First let me rewind a bit… about a hundred thousand years into the past.  For 90% of human history, people lived as hunter-gathers in small nomadic groups.  In this environment, where food and other resources were in short supply, an individual’s survival and the survival of their offspring was highly dependent on collaborating effectively with others while establishing and reinforcing their position within their social group.  Virtually all exchanges took place within the context of close, ongoing relationships.

Over this extended period, natural selection reinforced a set of hardwired “mental programs” that contributed to our success in this hunter-gather environment.  These mental programs naturally and, in many ways, subconsciously lead us to: associate with people or groups that strengthen our identity; behave in a way that is consistent with that identity; worry about what others think of us; engage in reciprocal “I’ll scratch your back, you’ll scratch mine” exchanges; keep tabs on our relative levels of indebtedness with others; react in empathetic, altruistic and, in some cases, self-sacrificing ways; become envious or angry at inequities; vigorously attempt to level or punish perceived injustices; as well as, be wary of and prejudiced against strangers from outside our group.

It’s only been over the last 10,000 years, that small nomadic bands have given way to larger tribes, states, and nations.   Much of todays even more complex social environment, integrating global trade, governments, legal systems, corporations, schools, online communities, etc…, have only developed very recently.  As a result, many of our subconscious “mental programs” don’t quite fit the modern social environment… so completely different than the environment within which these programs evolved.  This leads to a wide range of behaviors that are seemingly irrational in our modern age, such as:

  • We still have a strong tendency to define the “in-groups” we’re part of while circling the wagons and behaving antagonistically towards members of our perceived “out-groups.”
  • We tend to pay substantially more for popular brands while rationally realizing there may little or no difference in quality.
  • We acquire massive amounts of stuff and then need larger and larger homes to keep all our stuff in.
  • We become angry when we learn that people who don’t appear to be more capable than us are making more money.
  • Make incur personal costs to punish “cheaters” we don’t know and may never see again. This can include getting angry at another driver who cut you off in traffic and attempting to “get back at” that driver by tailgating or other aggressive driving. It can also include becoming irate at shoppers who skip in front of you in line.
  • We have a tendency to be drawn towards hearing stories about the demise of successful people we don’t know.

Identity and Belonging. In any social environment, people tend to behave in a way that is consistent with their identity.  Outstanding customer experiences reinforce brand values that the customer can identify with or create opportunities to display that identity to others.  The most powerful customer experiences don’t focus on what the customer feels about the company; the most powerful customer experiences are focused on what the customer feels about themselves.  How do you want your customers to feel about themselves when they do business with you?   Some companies have this down:  REI (Recreational Equipment Inc) is delivers a strong identification experience; for customers that are or aspire to be hikers, climbers, campers, and outdoorsmen.  Other strong identification experiences include:  Body for Life, USAA, Apple, Nike, etc…

The groups that customers belong to, or aspire to, shape their identity.  For many customer segments, it is important to give your customer something to belong to.  This has nothing to do with blatantly self-serving loyalty programs.  Many of the strongest and most successful experiences have found ways of providing something that the customer feels good about joining.  USAA and American Express (Card Membership) are two examples.

Consistency. A powerful part of managing our social self involves consciously and subconsciously maintaining the consistency of our beliefs and our behavior.  Most people subconsciously try to justify and act consistently with their earlier commitments and behavior.  This is a powerful tool for influencing customers.  When any individual announces through their behavior, verbally, or in writing that they are taking a position on any belief, they will tend to strongly defend that belief regardless of its accuracy even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  After many significant purchases, customers will feel compelled to act consistently in subsequent purchases or in explaining these purchases to others.

Customers will naturally feel a stronger emotional connection with experiences that reflect choices they’ve made themselves.  People tend to accept inner responsibility for behaviors or commitments when they think they’ve chosen to perform them in the absence of strong outside pressure or economic incentives.  Outstanding experiences reinforce the choices that customers have made… thank you for choosing us…

Reciprocity. Most people feel obligated to repay the genuine favors, gifts and invitations they have received.  This is particularly true when these favors are not part of an obviously institutionalized marketing or service campaign.  An authentically offered thank you call; genuine customer recognition (not programmatic); rewarding the best customers with little extras; etc…  Spontaneity and authenticity is key.  It can’t feel like it’s a programmatic thing.  While structured loyalty or rewards programs tend to drive rational repeat purchase behavior but not necessarily higher levels of satisfaction.  People habituate to rewards quickly when the rewards are relatively predictable.  However, people respond much more positively to rewards when those rewards come across as gifts that are novel, unexpected, and authentic.

Robert Cialdini, in his classic marketing book, “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion“, reinforces the value of giving before you ask to receive.  In general, people are more compliant with requests from those who have given them something… anything, even the gesture of a gift. For example, the American Disabled Veterans organization, mailed out a donations request to its list with an 18% success rate; and, when they split tested this with a “personalized” address sticker campaign–they nearly doubled their success rate to 35%.

Customers often also feel obligated to accept things that are offered to them as long as they feel that these do not create obvious indebtedness.  But when customers do accept gifts that are authentically and individually offered, there is often a subtle, yet unshakable, feeling of indebtedness that encourages customers to return the favor.

Cialdini also describes reciprocal concessions.  Customers often feel obligated to make concessions to someone who has made concessions to us.  Asking the customer to make a very substantial commitment and then “conceding” to accept a shorter term, smaller scale or lower commitment can take advantage of this effect.  Suppose I call you up and ask if you’re willing to donate a weekend of your time to a charitable cause and then, when you say you can’t spare the time, request you make a $50 donation.  The response rate for this request is substantially higher than if I just call and ask for the $50 donation.  The request for a large commitment creates stress.  My suggestion that you make the donation in stead lets you off the hook.

Social Justice. Customers will be frustrated if they feel that others are receiving better service, preferential treatment, or lower pricing.  This happens all the time when stores, banks or toll plaza’s open new lanes.  This also shows up as customers who demand that they wait in two or more lanes simultaneously.  Service and pricing in the airline industry tends to undermine the customer experience in this area.  (See: Cognitive Ergonomics: How Customers’ React to Violations of Justice)

Social Proof. Most customers will tend to look at what other people do or think is appropriate and act accordingly.  Show your customers and prospects that others are agreeing to and using the products and services you offer.  We tend to find socially acceptable reasons to justify our actions and motivation.  It is important to provide customers with the story they will tell others about their choices and experience.

Conformity. Most people tend to agree to proposals, products, or services that will be perceived as acceptable by the majority of other people or a majority of an individual’s peer group.  One of the most powerful elements of an influential customer experience includes ways of showing the customer that “everyone’s doing it.”  This ranges from including “Top 10 lists” on websites to promoting the market leadership position of a product or service.

One of the other ways of demonstrating the popularity of a product or service is to promote its scarcity.  In general, we tend to see opportunities as more valuable to us when their availability may be limited.  The feeling of limited availability has always been used as motivator in the sales experience.

Authority. Many people find it difficult to defy the wishes of someone in authority telling them what to do.  Titles, stature, clothes and trappings that may signify authority of an influencer in the purchase decision frequently condition this.  Messages are more influential when their source is perceived to be expert and trustworthy.  Influence is increased if the message apparently opposes the source’s self-interest or if the source does not seem to be trying to influence.

Liking. We generally prefer to comply with requests from or associated with someone we know and like.  This is frequently influenced by physical attractiveness, similarity, compliments, familiarity, contacts and cooperation.

This has been a quick summary of the social influence levers that can be pulled in an experience design.  I’m looking forward to exploring these in a more comprehensive way in future posts.  Cheers.