Customer Experience: Beyond Better Sameness

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

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

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

For examples:

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

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

umpqua_bank_logo

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

wegmans_food_markets nugget_markets

Unless what you’re after is better sameness…

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


This includes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Beneath the Voice of the Customer

Doesn’t it make sense that:

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

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

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

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

Elevators

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

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

Jam

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

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

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

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

The Economist Subscription Options

The Economist Subscription Options

The ad offered three subscription options:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Vast Majority of Human Experience is Subconscious

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

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

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

VOC Iceburg

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

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

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

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

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

Experience Miner Toolset

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

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

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

Most Efforts to Improve Customer Relationships are Misdirected!!!

Virtually every conversation about Customer Relationship Management is focused on improving the relationship between a company and it’s customers.  While this is might be a valuable thing to think about, I believe it’s largely inconsistent with the kind of thinking required to actually improve the customers’ experience.

While customers are extremely interested in relationships… I think it is quite dangerous to assume that your customers have any interest in having a “relationship” with your organization.  

So, what relationships do customers care so much about?  Your customers care about their relationships with other people.  This can include the other significant people in their lives.  In a business setting, it can include your customers’ customers, colleagues, etc…   At a much deeper level, customers care about their “relationship” with themselves; who they are and what they want to be.

We’ve learned that:

You can create a highly differentiated customer experience if you focus on improving the relationships that customers actually care about!

Here are a couple of examples from our client work:

  • We worked with a leading provider of group health insurance.  Group health insurance is sold to employers through brokers.  The most critical relationship to optimize in order to sell more group health insurance is the relationship between the broker and the decision-makers in the employer organization (these are the broker’s clients).  Our experience redesign for this leading group health insurance provider focused entirely on helping the broker be more successful in meeting the changing needs of their clients.  This lead to an improvement in the brokers ability to acquire, retain, and manage their client relationships.  As a by-product, our client sold much more group health insurance.

  • We worked with a leading tire manufacturer that sells replacement tires through independent tire shops.  While this tire manufacturer’s customers (the tire shops) were asking for improvements in service levels like availability and turnaround time on tire orders and improved pricing, etc…   All of these customer requests were “table stakes” sort of expectations.  What we found is that by focusing on the most critical customer relationship (the relationship between the tire shop and the consumer), we were able to identify significant opportunities to improve the relationship between the tire shop and consumer.  These were things that the tire shops would have never asked for, such as services that made it easier for the tire shop to provide tire storage, mobile mounting, enhanced product selection services to the consumer.

  • We worked with a leading provider of broker-dealer services to independent financial advisors.  These financial advisers rely on a broker-dealer for trade settlement, commission processing, reporting, compliance, education, etc…   The financial advisors were always looking for improvements in these basic services.  However, we found that it was most important to pay attention to the how the needs of the end investor (the financial advisor’s client) were changing and how these changes were impacting what it takes for financial advisors to be successful.  We were able to identify significant growth opportunities by looking past what the financial advisors were asking for… to uncover opportunities to make the financial advisors more successful in meeting the changing needs of the investors.  This include programs for client acquisition, on-line client account tools, etc…

  • For a leading provider of assisted living facilities (nursing homes), we realized that the most critical relationship to improve is the relationship that exists between the resident and the primary family caretaker.  This primary family caretaker was typically the youngest daughter of the resident. 

  • For the leading jewelry retailer (referenced in early posts), we found that the key to really innovating the customer experience was to focus on improving the relationship between the gift giver and the recipient.

  • The innovative grocery chain, H-E-B, has recently been branding their experience around “Come Home a Hero!”  H-E-B operates in the southwestern US; with a high mix of Hispanic customers.  With these customer segments, the relationship between the person who does the shopping (often the man) and the person that makes the meal and the family that consumes the meal is particularly important.   If you’ve ever been sent to the store for groceries, you know getting the wrong thing can lead to tension.  H-E-B is focusing their experience on the relationship between the shopper and the shopper’s family.   This includes bundled meal selections and many family-oriented services (check out their website for more info).

This list of examples could go on and on.   When we recognized that creating a great customer experience has to do with improving the relationships that customers care about… not the relationship the customer has with the organization… we actually started to tell our clients “stop listening to your customers so much!

Of course, we were doing this to be provocative.  You do need to listen to, acknowledge, and selectively address what customers ask for.  However, if you really want to improve their experience, you need to look past what they ask for and find ways to improve the relationships they really care about.  Listening too much to the “voice of the customer” can lead to over-delivery on table stakes expectations and simple satifiers.  The “voice of the customer” is usually not the place to go to find opportunities for creating a breakthrough experience.

In summary, if you want to improve customer relationship and different your experience in the process… get creative around improving the relationships customers’ care about.  If you can improve the customers’ experience you’ll get the business benefits indirectly.