Category Archives: Experience Design

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.

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Choice Architecture: Designing Experiences that Influence Behavior

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

In order to keep things simple, classical economics has always assumed that people act based on a relatively stable set of preferences.  However, in real life, this is far from true.  People typically don’t know what they want until they see it… they construct their preferences and work through decisions as they understand their alternatives in context.  Subtle differences in the design of that context can have a significant impact on the decisions customers make.  In fact, research in the areas of cognitive psychology and behavioral economics has shown that…

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

For Example….

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

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

The Economist Subscription Options

The Economist Subscription Options

The ad offered three subscription options:

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

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

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

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

Choice Architecture:  Designing Choices that Influence Customer Behavior

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great Customer Experiences are Music to My Ears…

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

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

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

Behavioral Engineering and the Design of Influential Experiences: Example – Influencing Sustainable Behavior

Let me start this important topic with a few points that should be intuitively obvious:

  • The benefits associated with delivering an outstanding customer experience accrue from influencing customer behavior
  • Customers either deliberately or incidentally change what they do when they experience something that makes them feel or think differently
  • In most competitive markets, there are straightforward financial benefits associated with changing customer behavior. These positive changes in customer behavior lead to increased retention, wallet share, referral rates, etc…
  • The levers for changing customer behavior generally involve finding ways to understand and influence customers’ perceptions of the value they receive

Moving beyond these obvious points, things get much more interesting when the objective is design experiences that influence behavior towards more altruistic ends.  For example, many regulated utilities are launching energy conservation and demand response programs.  The objective of these programs is to shift customer behavior related to energy consumption and conservation.  While there might be marginal direct benefits (e.g., reduced rates, etc…) experienced by the customer as a result of changing their behavior, there are also environmental and social benefits the customer may not easily perceive.

As we’ve been engaged with clients working on this problem, it’s become clear that there’s a lot that any company can learn from this more challenging experience design problem.  For example, the airlines have done a good job of influencing customer behavior regarding online check-in and the use of kiosks rather than agents, despite initial customer tentativeness and resistance.

What Comes First:  Attitudes or Behavior?

While it seems natural to assume that customers’ beliefs and attitudes are precursors to their behavior, practical experience supported by numerous academic studies have demonstrated that the linkage is highly complex.  For example, many people have attitudes and beliefs consistent with environmental conservation yet do not exhibit any significant conservative behavior.  A person’s expressed beliefs and attitudes about environmental issues are not a strong indicator of how that person will act relative to those issues. In fact, you can’t even assume that a person who identifies themselves as an environmentalist will necessarily have either a solid understanding of the issues or be any more willing to modify their behavior to make it more environmentally friendly.

As discussed in Doug McKenzie-Mohr’s and William Smith’s book, “Fostering Sustainable Behavior,” a few illustrative examples include:

  • “Participants in an intensive 3 hour energy conservation workshop indicated greater awareness of energy issues, more appreciation for what could be done in their homes to reduce energy use, and a willingness to implement changes. However, based on follow up visits, actual behavior did not change. The only difference in behavior between participants and non-participants is that eight of the forty participants had installed the low-flow shower head they were given for free at the workshop.” Geller, E.S. “Evaluating Energy Conservation Programs: Is Verbal Report Enough?” Journal of Consumer Research, 8, 331-335
  • “Individuals who hold attitudes that are strongly supportive of energy conservation were found to be no more likely to conserve energy.” Archer, D., Pettigrew, T., Constanzo, M., Iritani, B., Walker, I. & White, L. “Energy Conservation and Public Policy: The Mediation of Individual Behavior” Energy Efficiency: Perspectives on Individual Behavior, 69-92.
  • “500 people were interviewed and asked about personal responsibility for picking up litter, 94% indicated that individuals have a responsibility for picking up litter. However, when leaving the interview, only 2% actually picked up the litter that had been “planted” by the researcher.” Bickman, L “Environmental Attitudes and Actions” Journal of Social Pscyhology, 87, 323-324.
  • “An investigation of the differences between recyclers and non-recyclers found that they did not differ in their attitudes towards recycling.” DeYoung, R. “Exploring the Difference Between Recyclers and Non-Recyclers: The Role of Information” Journal of Environmental Systems, 18, 341-351.

There are several factors that contribute to a disconnect between a person’s attitudes and their behavior.  Each of the following reasons influence whether or not a person engages in any new behavior, despite their attitudes towards that behavior:

  1. Lack of Knowledge. Inconsistency between a person’s expressed attitudes and their behavior might be partially attributable to a lack of understanding of what to do or a lack of understand the implications of their actions.  While numerous studies show that information or education alone has little or no effect on behavior, it is still a critical enabler.
  1. Perceived Barriers. External barriers and constraints set limits on what can be accomplished by just changing a person’s attitudes.  The higher the barriers, including expense, inconvenience, and technical difficulties, the less the effect attitudes will have on a person’s behavior.
  1. Perceived Benefits. A person may have to incur immediate and well-defined inconvenience, uncertainty, and monetary costs in exchange for longer term benefits experienced by the broader population rather than the individual themselves.  This is related to Hardin’s metaphor of the Tragedy of the Commons.

In general, behavior competes with behavior.  People consciously or automatically make choices between alternative behaviors.  When they do, people naturally gravitate to behaviors that have high perceived benefits and few perceived barriers or costs.  In general, people also naturally pay the most attention to short-term benefits and costs.  While perceived benefits and barriers / costs vary dramatically by individual, there are usually common elements shared by customers within a given customer “personae.”

As a result, a behavioral engineering approach is often most effective.  It is generally more cost effective to try to change behavior directly than to do so via a change in attitudes across a large population.  We have found that attitudes are just as likely to be a consequence of behavior than the cause of behavior. Or, as we like to say, you often “act your way into a new way of thinking, rather than thinking your way into a new way of acting.”

As McKenzie-Mohr and Smith summarize, much of the practice involves influencing behavior in specific ways by:

  • Increasing the customers’ perceived benefits of the desired behavior
  • Decreasing the customers’ perceived barriers to the desired behavior
  • Decreasing the customers’ perceived benefits of the current or competing behavior(s)
  • Increasing the customers’ perceived barriers of the current or competing behaviors(s)

The high level steps include:

  1. Identifying Specific Perceived Barriers and Benefits.  This requires field-based observation and elicitation research (See:  Observation and Elicitation: We Like to Watch!) focused on surfacing:  What makes the desired behavior difficult/easy?  What are the perceived positives and negatives?  Who wants you to do it and who doesn’t care?  This qualitative research is used to clearly identify the ways that  customers experience the barriers and benefits.
  2. Clustering Perceived Barriers and Benefits by Personae.  The initial observation and elicitation research is generally followed by a more quantitative study that clusters and prioritizes barriers and benefits for different customer personae.  (See:  Personae-Driven Customer Experience Design)
  3. Designing Behavior Change Programs by Personae.  In general, program design starts by targeting the most “influencable” personae first.  Characteristics of effective program design typically include the following elements (See:  Influential Experiences and the Psychology of Escalating Commitment):
    • “Easy to get started” initiating actions and reinforcement
    • Gaining visible commitment (e.g. written commitments)
    • Creating meaningful incentives and penalties
    • Emphasizing personal contact
    • Encouraging development social norms and leveraging social pressure
    • Designing prompts / reminders for new behaviors.  Helping people remember – making it difficult for them to forget.
    • Measuring and reporting progress against individual and community goals.
  4. Piloting and Refining Behavior Change Programs.  It is very important that any programs be tested and refined in the field.  This can be done with a sample or segment of customers.  The purpose of this pilot is not just to evaluate the design but to improve it with observation and feedback gained from the participating customers.
  5. Rollout and Evaluate Results.

Here are a few situation-specific lessons learned:

  • Efforts to encourage people to conserve energy must provide information that can help them understand what the effects of specific changes in behavior will be. For example, the information on a typical electric bill is not detailed enough. These bills typically summarize overall usages. This doesn’t give consumers any clue as to the relative effect of various resource-conserving actions. As a result, misconceptions about the impact of various actions persist despite educational efforts to change them (e.g., the impact of turning off lights vs. making less frequent use of the clothes dryer).
  • Providing incentives can be effective. However, if incentives are significant, many people come to believe they are acting only for the incentives. They may begin to require larger incentives to do things that they might previously have done only with small incentives. In these situations, the behaviors often stop as soon as the incentives are removed. In general, people tend to sustain changes in behavior when they have chosen those behaviors without the influence of significant incentives or penalties.
  • Attitudes about specific threats are more predictive of behavior related to those threats than general concerns about the environment are predictive of general environmentally friendly behavior. For example, attitudes towards recycling are more predictive of recycling behavior than are general concern about the environment.
  • Stronger commitments yield more persistent behavior. A commitment accompanied by an agreement to promote target behavior among neighbors has more behavioral influence than just the expression of commitment by itself. Encouraging customers to commit to a more specific goal is more effective than more general goals to conserve energy.
  • Aligning consequences to behavior is critical. For example, having customers pay for trash pickup based on the amount of trash they produce is more effective than impassioned pleas to reduce trash.
  • While publishing typical customer behaviors can generate peer pressure, it is a double edged sword. It can encourage people who are already doing both better and worse than average regress to the norm. Publishing exemplary behavior is an alternative to publishing average behavior.

This is a topic we’ll continue to explore as we progress in our work with utilities on the design of more influential programs and experiences.

Influential Experiences and the Psychology of Escalating Commitment

Would you decide to just go out and spend $15,000 on tools to do a little work around the house?  Are the improvements to your backyard worth the $12,000 you ended up spending?  Would you decide to invest $3,000 on repairs to your old, unreliable car, even though it was only worth about $4,000 in the first place?  Or, is your prize collection of beanie babies, figurines, watches, or ­­­­­________­­­­___ (fill in the blank) really worth the thousands you’ve spent on it over the years?

If these were single, rationally considered decisions, you probably wouldn’t have made them.  However, as psychologist Robert Cialdini observed, a person’s commitment to a particular course of action sometimes “grow legs.”   Once we become clearly committed, we have a strong tendency to gradually increase our level of commitment to that course of action.  In doing so, we often lose sight of the original reasons and justification for choosing that course of action in the first place.

For example, it’s not unusual for the owner of an old car keep incrementally spending money on repairs as things break down… first the brakes… then the muffler… then the transmission… etc… hoping that each of these repairs will be the last.  As the bills mount, the owner often becomes even more determined, “I’ve already spent more than $2,000 repairing this thing.  I’m not going to back down and, in effect, throw that money away.”

This very common pattern is called irrational escalation and describes situations in which people make seemingly irrational decisions in order to justify the decisions they’ve already made or the actions they’ve already taken.  Irrational escalation shows up in a wide variety of situations including:   bidding wars that occur during auctions or corporate takeovers; military strategy (consider the Vietnam and Gulf wars); corporate or market investments that wind up “throwing good money after bad;” “collector” behavior; or the escalating cycle of retribution and punishment that occurs when a husband and wife become locked into a contentious divorce.  In addition, clever salespeople or fundraisers often employ “foot in the door” techniques that take advantage of people’s tendency towards irrational escalation as small initial commitments eventually build towards large commitments.

Although much of the research on commitment has focused on this negative behavioral cycle, the escalation of commitment is not always negative! Whenever we commit our time, energy, hearts, and minds to a worthy cause, it can have a very positive influence on our identity and our future behavior.  Over time, under the right conditions, we eventually have a hard time letting go; our positive behavior becomes less about “what we do” and more about “who we are.”  The positive escalation of commitment can describe how people adopt healthy behaviors like getting regular exercise or engaging in wellness programs… or become involved charity work and community service.

Recently, I’ve been studying the process people go through as they increasingly commit to energy conservation behaviors or “green” causes.  It seems that people typically adopt a conservative or green attitude in baby steps.  As they take each step, it reinforces their focus and awareness, as well as, their sense of identification with an aligned set of underlying values and beliefs.

Many utility companies are starting to more actively promote energy conservation or demand management (shifting use to off peak times) programs.  The effectiveness of these programs is highly dependent on the careful design of offerings, communications, and feedback mechanisms that get a “foot in the door” and build customer commitment incrementally from there.  Effective programs make it easy for customers to get started and then carefully reinforce a gradually increasing level of association with being a conservative, ecologically and economically minded consumer.  These programs can amplify customers’ commitment by providing positive feedback and by making the customer’s commitment publicly and socially visible.

Effective design of influential energy conservation and demand response programs is highly customer personae dependent. Obviously, not every customer has the same beliefs, attitudes, priorities, and behaviors related to energy use, conservation, the environment, and social responsibility.  In many ways, the adoption of energy conservation programs is similar to the adoption of wellness programs.  Some people readily adopt these programs because they fit with the way they already think.  For example, some customers have an “independently healthy” or “naturalist” personae related to their health.  On the other hand, some customers will never engage in a wellness program; they might have more of an “avoider” personae regarding their health.  However, there are several personae that are more influenceable.  The most effective programs must be designed to resonate with the mental model of these customer personae.

Cognitive Dissonance… Driving the Escalation of Commitment

One of the factors that drives the escalation of commitment is cognitive dissonance.  Cognitive dissonance was first identified in the 1950s by psychologist, Leon Festinger (see:  The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance and When Prophecy Fails).  Since that time, it has grown to become one of the central theories of social psychology.  A great, more recent book on the topic is Carol Tavris‘ and Elliot Aronson’s Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me):  Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts.

Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person simultaneously holds conflicting ideas or beliefs.  Because holding two conflicting ideas or beliefs creates an unpleasant tension, people are naturally motivated to reduce it.  Dissonance reducing behavior is ego-defensive; by reducing dissonance, a person gets to maintain their positive self-image; an image that depicts them as a good or smart person.   Cognitive dissonance often produces behavior that is apparently irrational; although, to the person, it may seem very sensible.

Understanding and leveraging cognitive dissonance is a powerful tool for designing customer or employee experiences that positively influence a person’s thinking and behavior… and drive the escalation of commitment:

  • Justification and Filtering. Following a decision, especially either a difficult one or one that involves a significant amount of time, effort, or money, customers almost always experience dissonance. Did they do the right thing? The chosen alternative is seldom entirely positive, and the rejected alternatives including the “do nothing alternative” are seldom totally negative. After a significant decision, customers typically seek reinforcement that their decisions were good ones by seeking information that is reassuring. If at all possible, they try to convince themselves and others that it was a logical and reasonable thing to do. They avoid thinking about either the negative aspects of the choice they’ve made or the positive aspects of the un-chosen alternatives. In designing customer or employee experiences, it is important to arm customers with the story they’ll tell themselves and others. In many cases, it makes sense to continue marketing after the sale in a way that provides people with the ammunition they need to justify the decision they’ve made.
  • Responsibility. Dissonance effects are greatest when (1) people feel personally responsible for their actions and (2) their actions have serious consequences. If there is a significant amount of external reinforcement or incentives, we may not “own” the decision. For example, offering rewards to individuals for performing even the most pleasant activities decreases the intrinsic value of those activities and reduces the individual’s responsibility for having done it. This is why “incentive programs” not only don’t build permanent behavior, but may undermine it in some cases.
  • Consistency and Escalation. In the absence of strong conflicting signals, dissonance reduction will reinforce actions consistent with earlier commitments and behavior. In addition, once a small commitment is made, it sets the stage for ever-increasing commitments. The behavior needs to be justified, so attitudes are changed; this change in attitudes influences future decisions and behavior. When customers commit themselves in a small way, the likelihood they will commit themselves further in that direction is increased. This process of using small commitments to encourage people to accede to larger commitments has been dubbed the “foot in the door” technique. It is effective because having done the smaller favor sets up pressures toward agreeing to do the larger favor; in effect, it provides justification in advance for complying with the large requests.
  • Irrevocability and Inevitability. Two of the most important characteristics that effect cognitive dissonance are the relative irrevocability and inevitability of the decision. Irrevocable decisions always increase not only the dissonance but the motivation to reduce it. Once we’ve committed ourselves to an irrevocable course of action, it’s in our best interests to justify the decision we made and avoid conflicting information. In addition, research shows that a person’s dissonance is reduced with choices they see as inevitable.

In summary, designing influential experiences requires an understanding of cognitive dissonance and, in particular, how cognitive dissonance drives the escalation of commitment.   More on this in future posts.

Customer Experience and the “Element of Surprise”

How do you get your customers to talk about the experiences they’ve had with you?   Over the past week, I’ve had a few conversations with executives about improving their organization’s Net Promoter Score (NPS).  While there are certainly differences of opinion on the importance of NPS as a central metric for an organization’s performance with customers (see Randy Brandt’s Core Customer Metric blog), it goes without saying that…. customers telling other prospective customers great things about your business is…  well… a great thing.  Each of the people I spoke with have invested a considerable amount of money making incremental improvements in their products and services and are frustrated by their inability to move their NPS.

What motivates people to proactively tell stories about their customer experiences?  What is it about an experience that makes it a story worth telling?  What are the social and psychological benefits of telling these stories?  Telling stories is one of the ways that we connect with and relate to each other.   It’s a way that we blow off steam when we’ve had something frustrating happen to us.  It’s also a way that we re-live the positive experiences we’ve had… or even a compelling way to share a story about “the next cool thing” we’ve found.

One of the most important drivers of both positive and negative word of mouth is the element of surprise.  This can be a single big surprise or a steady stream of small surprises that build over time.  If you have an experience that surprises you in some way, it creates an orienting response… you pay attention to it.  It might be something small, like a salesperson that is friendlier than expected.   Or something more significant, like Delta Airlines knowing it was my birthday and giving me a bottle of Champagne as an unexpected surprise.  This happened 8 years ago and I still talk about it.   The same thing happens with negative surprises.  We’ve all had them… and we’ve all told lots of people about them.

Some industries, like the airline industry, seem to be highly skewed towards lots of negative surprises.  Delays, cancellations, change fees, lost luggage, inconsistent service from gate agents and flight attendants, etc…   On the positive side, every once and a while a flight attendant or gate agent might be surprisingly pleasant or helpful, or you might get an unexpected upgrade, or something like that.  However, it’s difficult to have these small, infrequent positives ever outweigh the big, relatively consistent, negatives.   Other industries, like consumer banking, seem to be devoid of positive surprises with a smattering of negative surprises like late fees, transaction charges, etc…

Psychologist John Gottman has done some very interesting research on “Why Marriages Succeed or Fail” that seems like it might apply to other long-term relationships.   Based on his analysis of 700 relationships, Gottman found that a central predictor in the success and failure of these relationships was the balance of positive and negative interactions.   These were the interactions where there was something surprising, however small.  These could be small expressions of love, humor, and small recognitions, as well as, negative surprises like sarcasm, annoyance, sniping, or complaints.  He found that there is magic ratio of 5 positive surprises to every 1 negative surprise.  If the positive-to-negative ratio dipped below 5 to 1, the relationship began to spiral downwards.  If the ratio of positive-to-negative surprise ratio rose above 5 to 1, the relationship became stronger.

I would suggest that a similar logic applies to customer relationships.  If you want to build higher levels of customer loyalty and get to the point that customers start generating positive word of mouth, I think creating a drumbeat of small positive surprises is important.  There are always going to be times when the customer has a negative surprise but having a balance of positive surprises should offset this.  I would also suggest that these positive surprises can’t be programmatic and predictable, otherwise they’re not surprises.  They also can’t be delivered in a way that becomes perceived by the customer as an entitlement.  This is how structured “loyalty programs” lose their effect over time.

Most of the design work that we do with our clients is focused on creating a concise set of “signature experience” elements that:  get the customers attention, reinforce the brand story, and are perceived by customers as a difference in kind (surprisingly different) rather than a difference in degree (better sameness).

So, what’s the balance of positive to negative surprises you deliver to your customers?

Influential Experience: Framing and Priming

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.