Getting Beneath the Voice of the Customer

Doesn’t it make sense that:

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

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

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

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

Elevators

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

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

Jam

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

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

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

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

The Economist Subscription Options

The Economist Subscription Options

The ad offered three subscription options:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Vast Majority of Human Experience is Subconscious

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

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

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

VOC Iceburg

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

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

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

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

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

Experience Miner Toolset

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

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

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.