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.

Overcoming Customer Experience Program Stress Points

Along with my colleagues at Customer Innovations, I’ve had the opportunity to help structure and manage major customer experience initiatives for a wide range of companies.    In the course of doing so, we’ve run into every imaginable roadblock and gone down our fair share of unproductive “rat holes.”   About a year ago, the Customer Innovations leadership team took a step back and summarized the stress points that organizations face as they try to build and maintain momentum with their customer experience programs.   Here’s what we came up with:

Customer Experience Program Stress Points

Customer Experience Program Stress Points

These stress points create confusion, slow or stall progress, and often partially, if not totally, derail the effort.   We’ve found that these stress points occur predictably with certain roles (e.g., the project team, executive stakeholders, support functions, etc…) and at certain points in the lifecycle of the effort.   Although they occur predictably, they tend to catch most organizations by surprise.   The key to building and maintaining progress is to know how to anticipate these stress points and manage them in advance.

Here are just a couple of the predictable stress points and what we’ve found is important to proactively address them:

  • Moving Beyond Platitudes (Executive Sponsors). Many executives have strong rhetoric around customer-focus and the need to deliver a compelling customer experience.  Very rarely do they understand how to move the organization beyond this rhetoric into action.  The experience that customers have with the business is typically the product of very deeply entrenched structural, cultural, and behavioral “legacy effects.”   Shifting the customer experience in any noticeable and profitable way involves knowing how to shift this deeply entrenched organizational behavior.  Addressing this stress point requires having a comprehensive, well-tested roadmap that allows Executive Sponsors to know how to create the conditions for success with a program that follows through on the rhetoric.  This roadmap must take into account surfacing and addressing the legacy effects that get in the way.  (see:  Centers of Gravity: Levers for Shifting the Customer ExperienceHow Employee Experiences Drive Organizational Behavior, and Integrating Customer and Employee Experiences)
  • Knowing Where to Start (Project Leadership and Support Functions). Improving the experience customers have with the organization seems all encompassing.  There are usually a very wide range of processes, functions, technology, and people that touch the customer.  Most organizations have multiple lines of business, each with multiple types of customers, and often many different channels or intermediaries that play a role.  Where do you start?  Do you try to work top-down on the things that are common across all of these dimensions or do you try to work bottom-up by focusing on individual elements of what the organization does to influence the experience?   The answer is neither… and both.  We’ve found that an iterative top-down / bottom-up process works best.  Starting with top-down principles and a unifying customer experience specification (see:  Customer Experience Specification) and then refining the principles and specification in bottom-up detailed design and pilots with individual lines of business or experience components.
  • The Experience Mapping Swamp (Project Team and Support Functions). Touch-point mapping… the analysis of how customers experience what the company does at each of the points of interaction… is the central approach used in most customer experience initiatives.    It’s very rational that the organization would want to know how it’s doing at those points of interaction.  The problem is that it’s close to useless for figuring what to do to significantly improve the experience.  In most cases, addressing the issues that get surfaced in touch point mapping exercises creates no more than “better sameness.”  (see:  Whose Experience is it Anyway? and The Customers’ Experience Does Not Happen At Your Touchpoints!)   The fact is, the customers experience doesn’t just happen at an organization’s touchpoints and, as a result, it’s really impossible to know how to meaningfully improve that experience unless you understand what’s happening at the non-touch-points.   The most effective tool for proactively addressing this stress point is making sure that the effort starts with an “experiencer-centric” definition of the experience.   (See Experience Miner: Creating Profitable, Evocative Experiences)

There are many other stress points:   Facing the ugly truth in “Coming to Terms with the Truth About Today“, overcoming the tendency to define an “Ideal Experience We Can’t Implement,”  having the guts to do drive towards “Differentiation vs. Better Sameness,” while avoiding “Painting the Surface vs. Changing the Core,”  and overcoming the “Surfacing Unwritten Rule Barriers” that make it impossible for the organization and it’s intermediaries to behave in a way that creates the desired experience, etc…  You get the picture.  We’ve developed effective strategies for addressing each of these stress points.   I’m happy to provide additional information…. just shoot me a message.

Cheers, Frank

Note:  Our stress point framework was inspired by the “Reengineering Stress Point” framework originally created by brilliant consultant,  Glenn Mangurian, while he was at CSC Index in the mid-90s’

Another note:  If you found this post interesting, you might also find the following posts helpful:

Effective Experiential Storytelling

What are the stories your customers tell about their experience with you and your business?  What do they think you really stand for?  What are the most memorable aspects of their experience?  What surprises them?  What frustrates them?  How do you make them feel?  The nature and quality of these stories has a profound impact on the success of your business.

We make sense of the world around us through the stories we tell… the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we hear from and tell to others.  If you think about the defining moments in your life, you’ll see that the stories you tell yourself about those moments have a powerful influence on your identity and the way you see the world.  Aside from these personal stories, across human history, we’ve shared meaning and knowledge with each other in the form of stories.  This includes the legends and parables shared within and across generations, as well as, the stories we share about more immediate events.

Stories are our Primary Means of Sharing Knowledge and Transmitting Culture

Humans have evolved as storytelling animals.  The story form is one of the core knowledge structures we use to encode and recall our experiences.   As I covered in a previous post (see:  Making Experiences Memorable), when we recall past experiences we actually reconstruct the experience from a limited amount of information encoded in memory.  Understanding how this happens provides powerful insight into how to design experiences that are both more memorable and more influential.

In business, the nature and quality of your relationships with customers is reflected in the nature and the quality of the stories your customers tell.  Your ability to retain customers is directly related to the nature and quality of the stories they tell themselves about their experience.  Your ability to cost-effectively acquire new customers is increasingly dependent on the nature and the quality of the stories your customers tell to other prospective customers.

The Experience Must Tell Customers the Story You Want Them to Retell

If you don’t effectively tell the story… how can ever expect that your customers will either get the message… or have the material to be able to pass the story effectively on to others.   In a previous post, I drew a parallel between experience and music.  (See:  Great Experiences are Music to My Ears).  The experience that customers have with most organizations is a lot like the Billy Preston song that goes, “I’ve got a song that ain’t got no melody.”  The experience doesn’t communicate anything effectively… it just defaults from the bunch of the things that organization does… and that bunch of things is generally all over the map.  Similarly, most organizations have a story that’s “got no message… and got no script.”

Earlier this week, I led several dozen executives from a wide range of companies through a full-day customer experience immersion event at Disneyland in Anaheim, CA.    Disney is an organization built on powerful storytelling.  There are stories of Walt; stories surrounding some of the worlds’ best loved fictional characters; the stories that unfold in movies, rides, and many of our personal memories of visits to one of the Disney theme parks.

As part of that event, we took a close look at one particularly well-crafted story; the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride.  If you’re one of the more than half a billion people that have had the pleasure of experiencing this ride… take a moment… close your eyes and recall the experience.  What stands out as most memorable?  How do you remember feeling?  Over the course of about 13 minutes, a complete and highly immersive story unfolds.

Although it might seem like a stretch, there’s a lot that most businesses can learn about customer experience by considering how they can make the experience more like “Pirates of the Caribbean.”  For example, if you work for a bank, how can you make the experience customers have opening an account, applying for a loan, developing a financial plan, etc… a “Pirates of the Caribbean” experience?  If you’re a professional or business services provider, how can you make the experience that your clients have as engaging and meaningful as “Pirates of the Caribbean?”  In order to answer that question, we must start with three common characteristics of the most engaging, memorable, and retellable stories:

1. A Simple, Purposeful Message

A simple, purposeful message is at the core of many of the experiences that people find intuitively understandable and compelling.

By “simple” I mean a message that people can understand immediately; because it’s concrete rather than abstract and doesn’t require a lot of additional explanation. In their book, Made to Stick , Chip and Dan Heath do a great job of describing how the “Curse of Knowledge” often gets in the way of communicating in ways that people can easily understand.  The more knowledge you have of the strategy and inner workings of your industry and business, the more difficult it becomes to put yourself in the shoes of customers who don’t have that knowledge.  What seems intuitively obvious, concrete, and simple to you… may be confusing, abstract, and complex for your customers.

The Heaths illustrate the “Curse of Knowledge” using an experiment conducted in 1990 by Elizabeth Newton.  In that experiment, people were assigned to be either “tappers” or “listeners.”  Tappers were asked to select from a list of 25 well-known melodies and to tap out the selection’s rhythm on the table.   The listeners would then have to guess the song the tapper was tapping.  Tappers predicted that the listeners would guess correctly one out of two times (50%).  It turns out that the listeners were only able to guess one out of about forty times (2.5%).   The tappers thought it would be easy to communicate their “message” to the listener because, as they were tapping, they were hearing the song in their head.  However, the listener wasn’t hearing that song; they were just trying to decipher the message from what sounded like Morse code.  I don’t know how many times I’ve seen people try desperately to get their customers to understand when the underlying issue is that the customer just doesn’t have the same background music playing in their heads.

Beyond being simple, the message must also be “purposeful.” It must not only clearly articulate what you stand for BUT ALSO contrast that to what you stand against.   People will find it easier to understand who you are, when it’s clear who you’re not.  Heroes are boring without villains.  Triumphs don’t make sense without understanding the challenges that made those triumphs meaningful.  Stories without tension, uncertainty, or risk aren’t worth listening to.  The conflict built into the message clarifies the things that make the experience differentiated and worth engaging in.

It’s important to choose your enemies wisely.  For example, just about every insurance company out there portrays the enemy in their story to be the uncertain outcomes they protect you against.  As a result, the message from those companies pretty much boils down to the same thing… with only minor variations on how effectively they communicate that same old story.  Compare that to Progressive that has gotten a lot of mileage out of telling a different story; a story with a message that they provide competitive quotes that enable customers to feel they’ve made a more educated decision.  Allstate is also getting traction by telling a story around the message that they recognize and reward people for safe driving.  In both of these cases, the enemies are prevailing industry practices.

One of the best examples of a simple and purposeful message is Salesforce.com’sSuccess, Not Software.”  Salesforce.com’s “software as a service (Saas)” platform allows you to focus on your sales processes rather than having to implement complex and risky CRM software.  We’ve also worked with many companies that provide further examples of strong messages:

  • Jewelry Store Message: “The Perfect Gift Guaranteed.” It’s not about selling you jewelry. It’s about helping you give the perfect gift, in the perfect way that contributes to your relationship with the recipient.
  • Mortgage Bank Message: “A Better Way Home.” It’s not about just giving you a mortgage. It’s about a well designed and flawlessly executed home buying experience.
  • Automotive Financial Products Firm Message: “Driving Dealer Performance.” Rather than just providing financing and pre-paid maintenance (to their automotive dealer customers), we work with you to measurably improve the performance of your finance and insurance operation.

In each of these cases, the message is crisp and clearly articulated.  As you may guess, this is actually quite rare.  Most organizations become enamored with a message that doesn’t really communicate anything specific or concrete.

If we take a step back and look at “Pirates,” beneath the relatively light entertainment value, the story ends up hanging together brilliantly around the message:  “Despite the adventure, there is a price to be paid for a greedy and vile life.”

2. Characters that Make Sense

The most effective stories have characters that are authentic and intuitively understandable.  These characters make the experience more concrete.  This is particularly important if the product or service you provide is complex and abstract.  For example, if you’re in the insurance business, what you sell is abstract; a policy that represents the transfer of risk in exchange for a premium.  This raises the stakes on identifying both the characters in your story, as well as, the role they play.  If you’re in the banking business, who are the characters?

The strongest brand stories have great characters.  The book “Storytelling: Branding in Practice” by Klaus Fog, Christian Budtz, and Baris Yakaboylu describe the typical characters as follows:

  • The Hero. Who is fighting for the goal described in the central premise?
  • The Adversary. Who or what must the hero overcome to achieve that goal?
  • The Supporter(s). Who (or what) assists the hero in their quest?
  • The Benefactor(s). What superior character or force(s) provides aid in the quest?
  • The Beneficiaries. Who benefits in the end?

In many situations, the company and/or its representatives are the heroes; the customers’ situation or the alternatives provided by competitors are the adversary; and customers are the beneficiaries.  This is true in the case of Salesforce.com.  Many great services businesses, like the Four Seasons, really cast their frontline employees as the heroes that overcome the ordinary and predictable in order to provide the guest the most comforting and personalized experience.  In this case, the Four Seasons plays a supporting role rather than a heroic role.  (See:  A World-Class Hospitality Experience:  Four Seasons Aviara).

In  many marginally successful services businesses, like the major US airlines or many call center operations, frontline employees wind up playing the role of victims… caught between the demands of the customer and the constraints and frustrations imposed on them by their company.  In fact, there are many situations I’ve observed where the frontline associates not only play the victim but do untold damage to the brand my making their employer the adversary (e.g., “I’d like to help you but it’s against our policy”).

We’ve also seen many examples of companies that do a great job of telling the story in a way that makes the customer the hero.  One of the best examples is the wonderful grocery retailer, H.E.B., that’s core message is “Come Home a Hero.”    In the case of the jewelry store example above, the core message of “The Perfect Gift Guaranteed” is framed in a way that the male gift giver (70% of their customer base) is the hero… and the gift recipient is the beneficiary… but with a subtle message that, when the gift experience is a WOW, the gift giver becomes the ultimate beneficiary (figure it out).

3. An Engaging Plotline with “Signature Scenes”

There are common, relatively predictable patterns to the way stories are structured.  It doesn’t matter if these are verbal, or told in books and movies.  Think about your favorite movie.  With very few exceptions, the story typically opens with an Initiating Event that gets the audience hooked and encourages them care what will happen next.  That Initiating Event introduces the tension described in the message (described above).  Then, over the course of the story, there are a sequence of memorable, Signature Scenes that gradually increase the tension.  Typically each of those scenes introduces a question about what will happen next.  By doing so, it keeps the audience engaged and increases their investment in finding out how the story will eventually be resolved.  Finally, the story reaches a climax that answers most but not all of the questions that were posed over the course of the story.   The best writers and story tellers purposely don’t answer all the questions at the end.  The presence of unanswered questions is one of the reasons why people still talk about the movie the next day and, very often, the thing that leaves them wanting to see the movie again next week.

Experience Director, Adam St. John Lawrence, in his blog Work-Play-Experience has a very insightful way of putting this.  He says great experiences, like great stories go “BOOM Wow-Wow-Wow BOOM.”

One of the reasons that “Pirates” is so engaging is that it follows a very well-designed plotline and includes highly memorable “Signature Scenes.”  Here is the plotline:

  • BOOM: The Initiating Event: After lazily floating through the bayou for just long enough to feel immersed in the environment, guests encounter Jolly Roger who issues the warning that sets up the  conflict, “Psst! Avast there! It be too late to alter course, mateys… and there be plundering pirates lurking in every cove, waitin’ to board…. there be squalls ahead, and Davey Jones waiting for them what don’t obey…Guests then plummet through two rapids drops that represent a Point of No Return.

jolly-roger

  • Wow1: Guests enter the “Grotto of Lost Souls” where they see the skeletons of three unfortunate pirates, two of whom have been run through with swords. As guests progress through this scene, the skeletons progress from realistic to much more surreal states of animation… steering the ship, drinking at the bar, and finally the captain’s remains lying in bed still studying the treasure map with a magnifying glass.

animated-pirate unforatunate-pirate

  • Wow2: The Attack of the Wicked Wench. After leaving the Grotto, guests are thrown into the middle of a battle as the ship, The Wicked Wench, is attacking the walls of the city while cannon balls splash all around.

wicked-wench

  • Wow3: Sacking the Town. As the guest round the corner, they find that the pirates have captured the town and are now dunking the mayor in the well asking him about where to find “Jack Sparrow” (Disney added the references to the movie characters in 2006) as the town’s leaders are tied up and led away.

sacking-the-town

  • Wow4: In the Town… The Wench Auction and the Chase Scenes. In a series of memorable comedic scenes, guests are offered the opportunity to “buy a bride” and entertained as they see the brides and grooms chasing after each other. The characters are animated on turntables that circle the balconies of the buildings. As we progress through this scene, the characters are shown at progressive levels of drunkenness as the town sinks into chaos.

wench-auction

  • BOOM: The Town in Flames and the Escape. Eventually, the town is in engulfed in flames with spectacular effects and burning beams threatening to crash down on the guest’s boat. Meanwhile, the pirates are either too drunk to care or they’re in jail desperately pleading with the dog to let them out. As the guests escape up the waterfall, they are entreated to a final warning from Jack Sparrow (again, added in 2006).

town-on-fire drunk-pirate begging-the-dogs jacks-final-warning

So… how does all this apply to you?  Let’s look at one of the cases I mentioned earlier; the case of a leading specialty jewelry retailer that designed their experience around the message, “The Perfect Gift Guaranteed.”  After agreeing on that message, the customer experience was then designed to deliver that message using a set of Signature Scenes organized into a coherent plotline.  The Initiating Event was a specific greeting that welcomed the guest into the store.  That welcome introduced the message of helping the customer give the perfect gift… not just selling them a piece of jewelry.  This was then followed by a set of supporting, highly differentiated, Signature Experience Elements (or scenes).   These Signature Experience Elements included:  collaborative gift planning (differentiated from traditional selling), preparing the male gift giver to “romance the gift,” ensuring customers know what will happen if the gift doesn’t work out (the “guaranteed” part of the experience), creating a wow on exchanges or returns, and a clienteling process designed to maintain the relationship with the customer for future gift giving occasions.

Similarly, the mortgage company mentioned earlier designed a set of five Signature Experience Elements that happen over the life of the customer relationship, all designed to tell the story, “A Better Way Home.”

Building on the above points, The Disney Institute’s book, “Be Our Guest” summarizes their set of principles for delivering a compelling story, as follows:

  1. Know your audience. Clearly define who are you creating the experience for?  How do they think and what do they desire?
  2. Wear your guest’s shoes.  Design and evaluate the experience from the customer’s perspective by experiencing it as a customer.
  3. Organize the flow of people and ideas.  Think of a setting as a story and tell that story in a sequenced, organized way.  Build the same order and logic into the design of customer movement.
  4. Create a visual magnet.  It’s a visual landmark used to orient and attract people.
  5. Communicate with visual literacy.  Language is not always composed of words. Use common languages of color, shape and form to communicate through a setting.
  6. Avoid overload–create turn-ons.  Do not bombard customers with data.  Let them choose the information they want when they want it.
  7. Tell one story at a time.  Mixing multiple stories in a single setting is confusing.  Create one setting for each big idea.
  8. Avoid contradictions; maintain identity.  Every detail and every setting should support and further your identity and mission.
  9. For every ounce of treatment provide a ton of treat.  Give your customers the highest value by building an interactive setting that gives them the opportunity to exercise all of their senses.
  10. Keep it up. Never get complacent and always maintain your setting.

Over the past 25 years, we’ve worked with organizations that run the range from business-to-consumer to the most complex business-to-business relationships.  In the course of this work, we’ve found that Experiential Storytelling applies equally well everywhere along this range.  In practice, the business-to-consumer companies have the easiest time understanding it… while the business-to-business companies have the most to gain.

Making Experiences Memorable

I went to a Jackson Browne concert with a group of friends a week ago.  Yes, he’s still going strong at 60.  It was a great show.  He played a sufficient number of his hits, like Doctor My Eyes and Running on Empty.   For me, the highlight of the night was a very cool version of one of my personal favorites, “Lives in the Balance.”  Like many week-old experiences, I can sit back and still visualize a few of the key moments.  At the same time, like many week-old experiences, I can feel the memories fading.  It’s not that I’m getting old (even though I am); it’s just how memory works.

There is no experience without memory

Aside from whatever you happen to be doing at this precise moment in time, all of your experiences exist only as memories.  It is, therefore, impossible to really understand the nature of experience without understanding how we remember those experiences.  In this post, I’d like to cover some of the ways that memory affects how we experience the world.  This is very important for two reasons:

  1. One of the least effective ways to understand what someone has experienced is to ask them to tell you about it after the fact.  People’s memories of their experiences are notoriously unreliable.  The implications of this are significant.  For instance, it creates a substantial limitation on how effective simple voice of the customer approaches are for understanding customers’ experiences.
  2. If you want to design memorable experiences for your customers, you need to understand three things about how memory works:  how and why people pay attention to certain features of their experience, how those features and the overall gist of the experience are encoded in memory, and how those memories are recalled.  As you will see, understanding these three things is critically important to designing experiences that are much more memorable and, ultimately, much more influential.

Before jumping into this, I’d like to borrow an interesting illustration that Harvard Psychologist, Daniel Gilbert included in his wonderful book, “Stumbling on Happiness.”   Look at the six royal cards below and pick one.  No, no… don’t tell me which card you picked!  Just make sure you remember it.  You might want to repeat it to yourself a couple of times or even write it down to make sure you don’t forget.

6-cards

Okay good!  Now that you have your card memorized, I’d like to jump into how memory influences experiences.  We’ll see how well you did at remembering the card towards the end of this post.

Memory is an internal rumor.” George Santayana

Our memories of past experiences are notoriously unreliable.  There are three factors that contribute to the problem:  1) limitations in how much we can pay attention to at any moment in time, 2) issues with the way information in short-term memory are encoded into long-term memory, and 3) issues with how memories that we do encode are eventually recalled.  Understanding each of these factors provides insight into how to design much more memorable experiences.  Let’s take a look at all three.

ATTENTION

Every second, every day, every year, our senses take in millions of bits of rich detail about our experiences… all of the sights, sounds, textures, smells, tastes, etc…  However, we only have a limited capacity to attend to all that information.  Our conscious stream of the thought relies on short-term memory.  This short-term memory provides capacity for holding a small amount of this rich information in an active, readily available state for a short period of time.  The duration of short-term memory is about 20 seconds and experiments demonstrate that its capacity ranges from about 3 or 4 elements (i.e., words, digits, or letters) to about 9 elements.

Experiences like a concert, a fine meal, a glass of wine, a movie, browsing through a store, or walking along the street are very complex, rich, and multidimensional.  While it’s possible to hold some of that rich detail in short-term memory, it’s not easily translated to long-term memory.   We use language or a sort of mentalese in order to extract what seems like the most salient features of our experiences in order to be able to think about them or communicate them later.  As a result, the morning after a concert, you only really remember which songs were played, a few features of the way they were played, and the sense about what you liked or disliked about them.

The transfer from short-term to long-term memory involves fast forgetting.  There are numerous example of this.  For the sake of illustration, suppose I had you memorize a sequence of three letters and then count backwards in groups of three numbers.  In experiments to this effect, after counting backwards for 6 seconds, most people only remember about 50% of the letters.  After 12 seconds, most people only remember about 15% of the letters.

The way we experience the world starts with a combination of selective attention supported by subconscious “gist processing.” We generally pay attention to those elements of our experience that seem most important; the elements that capture our attention because they we were looking forward to them or they stood out because they were particularly high-contrast or they caught us by surprise in some way.  Beyond the relatively small amount of information that we’re able to pay conscious attention to; we do something called “gist processing.”  Gist processing enables us to get a sense for what is unfolding around us without having to focus attention on all the details.  It operates through subconscious pattern matching.  We get the gist of what’s happening because it roughly matches experiences we’ve had in the past.

Gorillas, Doors, and Selective Attention

Research provides many interesting examples of selective attention and inattentional blindness.   In one of the most striking and well- known demonstrations of selective attention, participants watch a video of people passing a basketball between each other, and they are asked to count the number of passes.   As the participants are busy counting the passes, less than 50% of those participants notice that a person dressed in a gorilla suit walks right through the middle of the action, stops, turns, looks at the camera, and does a little dance before turning and walking off the scene.   You can see an example of this experiment in one of Michael Shermer’s lectures posted here.

Another well-known example is the ‘door study’.   In this experiment, pedestrians are stopped by a researcher who asks them for directions.  While the pedestrian is talking to the experimenter, two men carrying a door walk between the two.   Hiding behind the door is another experimenter who changes places with the first experimenter.  The second experimenter then continues the conversation with the pedestrian.  The two experimenters are purposely different in height, weight, coloring, dress, etc…  Shockingly, only about half of the pedestrians realized that they were now talking to someone completely different than the person they were talking to at the beginning of the conversation with.  I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences?  How many of times have you placed an order in a restaurant and not been able to remember who your waitress was five minutes later?   These are illustrations of a specific type of inattentional blindness called change blindness.  (Click here for some further examples).

So much for our powers of observation!  In both examples, the subjects were paying attention to the central aspect of the experience:  counting the passes or giving directions.  In both examples, subjects were also surprisingly unaware of very significant elements of their experience.  If you look at this from the standpoint of evolutionary psychology, it makes total sense.  Over history, our survival has been based on recognizing and paying keen attention to those elements of our environment that seem most important while filtering out and not getting distracted by large amounts extraneous detail.

There are serious implications for anyone trying to improve the experience their customers have with their business.  It’s very easy to waste a lot of time and money designing experience elements that customers just filter out because those elements are neither central to the goals they are trying to accomplish nor occur on the attentional pathway customers are following in order to accomplish those goals.  We’ve found that the subtle elements of experience need to be designed in a way that specifically takes into account how people do gist processing.  That is, just give people the cues that will enable them to identify the experience.  The worst thing you can do is design a set of experience elements that get the customers’ attention but don’t fit with the way they think… elements that ultimately cause the experience to be both distracting and confusing for the customer.

ENCODING

The second issue has to do with how what we experience gets encoded in long-term memory.   We obviously don’t ultimately remember everything that was available to us in short-term memory as we were having the experience.  If we did, we’d need a brain many times larger than our current brain.   So, essentially, our experiences are compressed for storage.  As these experiences are coded in long-term memory, we store a summary of the gist of what happened, tagged with information about how the experience made us feel, along with a small set of specific representations of key features.  This is what I have left in my week-old memory of the Jackson Browne concert.

How information is moved into long term memory depends on the depth with which we process information.   A classic experiment by Craik and Tulving (1975), tested the strength of memory traces created using three different levels of processing:

  1. Shallow processing: Participants were shown a word and asked to think about the font it was written in.  In other words, they paid attention to peripheral cues rather than the core element of their experience.
  2. Intermediate processing: Participants were shown a word and asked to think about what it rhymes with.  In other words, participants were asked to make an association between their current experience and other experience.
  3. Deep processing: Participants were shown a word and asked to think about how it would fit into a sentence, or which category of ‘thing’ it was.  In this case, participants were asked to directly interact with the core element of the experience… rather than just paying attention to associations or peripheral cues.

Not surprisingly, participants who had encoded the information most deeply remembered the most words when given a surprise test later.   But it also took them longer to encode the information in the first place.

Encoding Favors High Contrast, Discrete Features

The most important factor with memory encoding is that our brain does a relatively poor job of encoding rich continuous features (e.g., the way the store looked, the way the music sounded, how the food tasted, how long we waited, etc…) and are somewhat better at remembering high-contrast discrete features (e.g., whether something happened or not, what we ordered at the restaurant, the description we provided after we had the experience, etc…).

The implications of this for experience design are profound and counter-intuitive.  Many companies think about the quality of the experience their customers have in terms of a relatively large number of service levels (e.g., how long the customer had to wait for service) or subtle improvements in rich peripheral cues (e.g., store or web design).  In most cases, these improvements represent differences in degree that, even if the customer paid attention to them, would only get perceived as “better sameness.”  As important as these things seem to be to the company, the typical customer doesn’t encode their experience in a way that makes these things memorable.  As discussed earlier, these continuous variables are only important to the extent that they influence the way customers do gist processing.

We’ve found that the most memorable experiences are designed around a small number of high contrast “signature elements.”   These signature elements are the things that get the customers’ attention because they “differences in kind” rather than “differences in degree.”  Customer service is generally a difference in degree; everyone provides some level of customer service.  A specific service that is provided differently than a competitor or differently than the customer expected is a “difference in kind.”  For example, experiences at both Starbucks and Caribou coffee shops are built around differences in kind compared to other coffee shops.  There are also many specific examples, like the Renaissance Inn in Tulsa which has a totally different design for their front desk area.  This hotel has individual reception desks rather than placing a long counter between customers and the front desk clerks… like virtually every other hotel does.   As a result, out of all the hotels I’ve stayed at in the past year, this experience was memorable because it included this high contrast “signature element.”

Focusing on designing high-contrast signature elements rather than better sameness peripheral cues is a good start.  However, our memories of even the highest contrast elements of our experiences are suspect.

Encoding False Memories

“Most people, probably, are in doubt about certain matters ascribed to their past. They may have seen them, may have said them, done them, or they may only have dreamed or imagined they did so.” William James

As this quote illustrates, another very significant issue related to encoding is misattribution, bias, and the formation of false memories.  These encoding issues can have dramatic consequences.  For example, Gary Wells and his colleagues at Iowa State University did a study of 40 different miscarriages of justice that relied on inaccurate eye-witness testimony.  Many of these falsely convicted people served years in prison; some facing the death penalty.

While memory encoding errors can have disastrous consequences like this, it happens to all of us in less dramatic situations every day.  Encoding errors are a regular occurrence for most people.  These include:

  • Misattributing sources. This includes things such as thinking that you read something in the newspaper when, in reality, a friend told you. It also includes unintentionally thinking you came up with an idea that, in fact, a colleague suggested to you several days earlier. (By the way, I apologize to my very forgiving colleagues for all the times this happens.)
  • Mixing memories. There are a very wide range of ways that this happens. For example, you might think you knew something about a product you bought when, in fact, you learned about it after you made the purchase. It’s very common to add new information to memories after the fact.
  • Confusing imagined elements of an experience with reality. There are numerous experiments that point to the fact that people often imagine elements of their experiences and create memories of those elements when, in reality, those elements didn’t actually happen. For example, I was talking with someone about how much I enjoyed Jackson Browne’s rendition of the song Load Out. I had been really looking forward to hearing him do it. The issue was, when I checked the set list that was posted online, he didn’t actually performance that song that night. (See also Goff and Roediger, 1998 for other interesting examples of “illusory recollections.)
  • Consistency bias. Our memory process is “cognitively conservative.” Our lives are so much simpler if we don’t have to continually re-evaluate what we believe to be true. As a result, we tend to pay attention to and remember the information that conforms to our expectations or justifies our beliefs… while disregarding any information that contradicts those expectations or beliefs. This is an enormous factor in areas of our lives like our personal relationships or our political beliefs. Consistency bias is just one of the many biases that affect our memories.

All of these relatively simple misattributions at least have some basis in reality.  They just involve getting a little mixed up on the details.  However, we also create entirely false memories.  As William James pointed out, memories can be constructed from our realities, our imaginations, and our dreams.  For more information on this, I’d suggest checking out C. J. Brainerd and V. F. Reyna‘s  book “The Science of False Memory.”

Why All These Idiosyncrasies of Memory are Actually Helpful

Given all of the challenges illustrated above, you might think it’s amazing we can function effectively at all.  While these limitations can have a disastrous effect in certain situations, we seem to function pretty well most of the time.   It turns out that selective attention, gist processing, and limited memory encoding is a blessing.  It spares us from cluttering our minds with a massive amount of meaningless detail.   There is a positive correlation between our ability to extract and remember features of our experiences while forgetting the details and our ability to engage in abstract thought and learn from our experiences.

Consider the case of Russian journalist Solomon Shereshevskii, whose memory was so perfect he could remember everything that was ever said to him.  Shereshevskii became famous after being criticized for not taking notes while attending a speech in the mid-’20s. To the astonishment of everyone there (and to his own also, due to his belief that everybody could remember that level of detail­), he demonstrated his ability to recall the speech perfectly, word by word.  There seemed to be no limited to his detailed memory.  However, Shereskevkii’s gift had a very significant downside.  It was difficult to ignore even the most insignificant events.  He remembered every scene, word, cough, scratch, sneeze, meal, etc… In addition, all of these memories were so detailed that it was difficult for him to generalize across experiences or think in the abstract.  Shereshevskii was so tortured with the accumulation of memories over time that he had to work out ways to try to intentionally forget.

RECALL

As much as it seems like we retrieve memories from storage, this is actually a very elegant illusion.  When we remember past experiences, what we actually do is quickly reconstruct and re-imagine the events by filling in around the relatively small number of features we stored.  This whole approach is efficient because it allows us to store a large number of memories.  However, it makes the memories we do have highly suspect.  It happens so quickly and easily that we get the illusion we are actually remembering what happened while our accounts of those past experiences can be pretty inaccurate.

But our memories seem so real!  Memories of past experiences seem real because many of the same portions of the brain are activated when we remember as when we perceived the event in the first place.  For example, listening to a song on the radio involve an area of the portion of the brain called the auditory cortex.  When you sit and remember what a song sounds like, it also activates the auditory cortex.  This use of the same area of the brain is a reason why it’s so difficult to remember how one song goes while you’re listening to another song.  It’s also why you can remember the song better if you plug your ears in order to eliminate the confusion associated with the same part of the brain trying to process two different experiences at the same time.

When we remember past experiences, it has an influence on what we will remember about that event the next time around… the story gets sharpened and leveled.  Information that is inconsistent with the overall storyline or gist we remember is forgotten (leveled) and features that reinforce our beliefs about the experience are emphasized (sharpened).  Often new information is introduced after the fact.   Aside from the issues with selective attention and limited encoding of memories, this is yet another reason why relying on eye witnesses creates problems in the criminal justice system.  The way a person is questioned about their experience can subtly influence what they remember about that experience.

Daniel Gilbert also shared the following example.  Volunteers in an experiment were asked to look at a series of slides that showed a red car approaching a yield sign, turning right, and then knocking over a pedestrian.  After seeing the slides, some volunteers (the no-question group) were not asked any questions, and the remaining volunteers (the question group) were.  The question that the second group of volunteers was asked was:  “Did another car pass the red car while it was stopped at the stop sign?”  Next, all the volunteers were shown two pictures:  one with the red car approaching a yield sign and one with the red car approaching a stop sign.  They were asked to point to the picture they had actually seen.   More than 90 percent of the volunteers in the no question group correctly pointed to the yield sign.  However, 80 percent of the volunteers in the question group incorrectly pointed to the picture of the car approaching the stop sign.   Clearly, the question that was asked influenced the volunteers’ memories of their experience.

There are several interesting implications of how memories are changed as they are recalled and reconstructed.  Since I got divorced 10 years ago, I have my two wonderful children with me for just the weekends.   Since I wanted to make sure that they always remembered the time we had together in the most positive light, we’ve consistently followed a Sunday evening ritual.  In the car on their way home, we have a discussion about the weekend and we each share what we thought were our best experiences.  It’s difficult to measure the impact that this has, but I know that it’s had an effect on the positive way they remember the special things we’ve done.

In a business application of a similar approach, I had the chance to work with the late Christine Boskoff, who was one of the most successful high-altitude mountain climbers in the world and the owner of a 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.

There are a wide range of approaches we’ve used with our clients.  For example, is there a way to provide a personalized summary of the experience the customer had as a memento but do it in a way that positively reinforces the differentiated, signature elements of the experience.

Summary of Implications for Experience Design

Over the course of this post, I’ve covered the ways that memory affects our experiences. I’ve also highlighted several of the many ways that you can design and deliver more memorable experiences by understanding how people pay attention, encode memories, and reconstruct those experiences after the fact.    Those strategies include:  1) designing for gist processing and not overinvesting in service improvements or subtle cues that customers tend to filter out, 2) focusing on a small number of high-contrast signature elements that capture the customers’ attention, are easy to encode, and all contribute to a storyline that reinforces the brand, and 3) finding ways to enable customers to recall the experiences they’ve had in the most positive light.   As always, there is much more to say about all of these topics.  Feel free to submit a comment if you have questions or points to add.

OH… I ALMOST FORGOT… BACK TO THE CARDS

I hope you still remember the card you chose.  As you’ve been reading this post, I’ve been running a little web-based subroutine that was able to read your mind.  Based on the results of that little program, I’ve removed the card that you chose from the lineup.  I’ll leave it up to you to figure out how I did this fairly simple trick.

5-cards

Putting the “Customer” in Customer Experience Efforts

We’ve reached the point where most business leaders understand that their organization’s ability to effectively acquire, retain, and improve the profitability of customers is a direct result of the nature and quality of the experience those customers have.

There is, however, a fundamental problem with both the literature and management practice surrounding customer experience.  The issue is that most business leaders and management gurus focus on how companies “deliver” experiences rather than how people actually HAVE experiences. Without understanding how customers HAVE experiences, companies often end up wasting lots of time and money on improvements that don’t generate a real return because they don’t fit with and influence how customers think, feel, and act.

If you do a scan on customer experience literature, you’ll find that virtually all of the definitions start something like this:  “A customer experience results from a set of interactions between an organization and a customer… ”   In addition, most of the discussion refers to an experience as if it is a characteristic of a company.  For example, people discuss the “Disney experience” or the “Starbucks experience” or the “BestBuy experience.”   All of this represents a highly company-centric perspective.

This company-centric perspective is deeply misguided.  It often encourages business leaders to make expensive improvements that are, at best, perceived by customers as “better sameness.”  At worst, these expensive improvements go unnoticed by customers who are too busy dealing with their own priorities and their own lives to pay attention to the fine details of their interactions with the business.

Over the past 25 years, we’ve worked with and studied businesses that have effectively innovated and differentiated the experience their customers have… and, as a result, have measurably improved the acquisition, retention, and profitability of those customers.   Based on this work, there are a couple of counterintuitive things we’ve learned:

  • Companies don’t have customer experiences; only customers do. The customers’ experience takes place in one place and one place only; in the mind of the customer. That experience consists of how a customer thinks and feels across the entire behavioral path they follow in pursuit of one or more goals that important to them. Talking about a company’s “customer experience” represents a very large step in the wrong direction. It’s a company-centric way of trying to be customer-centric. (See: Whose Experience is it Anyway?)
  • Casting customers in the role of “customer” can be limiting. This is a subtle distinction with profound implications. When you consider a person or organization to be a “customer,” it’s very easy to have your focus be on what you do to serve that customer. In the course of doing that, you may not look beyond that customer role to gain a much deeper and broader perspective on who they are, what’s important to them, what they’re trying to accomplish beyond the scope of your business. The fact that they’re a customer of your business doesn’t constrain the end-to-end experience THEY’RE having.
  • Customers’ experiences don’t just happen at your touch points. In fact, we’ve seen that the most important elements of the experience don’t happen at your touch-points at all. They happen at the non-touch-points. We’ve observed that touch-point oriented approaches end up leading to incremental improvements in the service quality that either seem like “better sameness” or, worse, go unnoticed. This is one of the reasons why it’s exceptionally easy to make uneconomic improvements in the experience. Alternatively, we’ve seen that companies that can develop a deep and comprehensive understanding of what customers experience at the non-touch-points generally uncover competitively relevant ways to differentiate the experience in a way that gets the customers’ attention. (See:  The Customers’ Experience Does Not Happen At Your Touchpoints!)
  • You can’t fundamentally shift the experience by tweaking surface level cues. The experience customers have with any business is a product of complex and deeply entrenched culture, legacy effects, and unwritten rules that drive the real behavior of the organization. For example, I’m writing this on-board a Delta flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles. Delta’s been promoting the new “Delta Experience” which includes cosmetic updates to their website, changes in their pricing policies, a new highly confusing boarding process, more contemporary music during boarding, along with a couple of “signature cocktails,” and a few other peripheral cues. Do you think these surface-level improvements have had ANY deep positive effect on the overall experience customers are having? Focusing on surface-level cues is a little like hacking at the leaves rather than striking at the root of the issue. In reality, most organizations are strongly predisposed towards the experience their customers are currently having. Unless you get to the root of how deeply entrenched organizational behavior influences the customer experience, you couldn’t possibly know enough about what to do to intervene and positively shift the experience. While those cues are an important, they are insufficient. On their own they are the proverbial “lipstick on a pig.”
  • How customers feel about your business is a side effect of how their experience with your business makes them feel about themselves. If your business makes customers feel great about themselves they’ll, in turn, feel great about your business. Understandably, most business leaders want to influence and measure how customers feel about their business. This strikes me as similar to a line you might overhear on a date… “but enough about me… what do you think about me?” Very often a company can consider their interactions with a customer successful if that customer’s orders were taken, problems resolved, and questions answered. In fact, many customer satisfaction surveys simply ask customers to give the company a report card on how well they feel the company did all those things. However, in many ways companies leave the customer feeling disrespected, devalued, stupid, or frustrated. This is one of the reasons why the concept of hospitality in business is so powerful (see: No Matter What Business You’re In… You’re in the Hospitality Business).
  • The most common customer experience approaches don’t consider how customers actually HAVE experiences. If they did, they would recognize that the vast majority of the experiences people have are subconscious. In most cases, people experience the world using something that can be called “gist processing.” In other words, they get a general sense for what’s happening without having to pay attention to all the details. In most cases, this gist processing leads to the execution of “automatic behavioral scripts.” Alfred North Whitehead said it best, “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” Our ability to navigate the majority of our experiences on automatic pilot frees us up to focus our relatively limited train of conscious thought on the small number of things that seem most important to us.

In general, the best strategy we’ve found includes the following components:

  1. Design for Gist Processing. At the base level, you need to understand the perceptional process and basic constructs customers apply to navigate most of the experience relying on gist processing and automatic behavioral scripts.   When a customer enters a bank branch, checks into a hotel, enrolls with a health insurance provider,  etc… they have a set of constructs they’ve learned from past experiences and that operate within a perceptual framework that enables gist processing.  Experiences designed based on this perceptual framework and set of experiential constructs become inherently easy to navigate.    We use process called Experiential Construct Elicitation to surface and understand the constructs that are applied by different customer personae.
  2. Deliver Signature Experience Elements. This is all about getting the customers’ attention using a small number of high contrast and differentiated “signature experience elements.”   These signature experience elements catch customers by surprise, are perceived as a difference in kind compared to what they expected, and contribute to the brand story we want the experience to tell.  If you listen to customers talk about the Starbucks experience, the Whole Foods experience, etc…, you’ll see that customers consistently refer to a small set of experience elements that stand out for them as being the defining elements of the experience.  While you can spend a lot of time getting lots of details correct in the experience, having a small set of signature elements are the kinds of things that really resonate with and influence customers.

So, in summary, the essential message is… you need to understand how customers’ HAVE experiences before you can possibly know what to do to influence their experience… and ultimately, their behavior.