The Psychology of Great Customer Experience

A few weeks ago, I had written part one of the series on the psychology behind customer behavior. I had talked about the importance of first impression, respecting your customers, how to deliver personalized experience, and the infamous paradox of choice. I promised you a part 2 to the series and here it is. In this post I will be discussing three more triggers that steer customer behavior—reciprocity, halo effect, and emotions.

#5 The Norm of Reciprocity

Reciprocity is something that we all feel as human beings. #psychology #customerbehavior Click To Tweet

When someone passes me in the corridor and says hello or smiles at me, I feel compelled to return their greeting. I am sure I am not alone in feeling that way. Have you noticed that when you don’t return the greeting though you’ve noticed it, it makes you a little uncomfortable? I feel out of balance and I keep an eye out for that person so that the next time I pass by them, I make sure I greet them.

This is a social behavior that operates on what is commonly known as the norm of reciprocity. This social construct affects us everyday and across cultures and has been studied since the good ol’ days of Aristotle. Why does the human brain feel the innate need to return the favor when someone does or gives us something nice?

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In 1976, sociologist Phillip Kunz and Michael Woolcott conducted an experiment. They sent out handwritten Christmas cards with a note and photograph of Kunz and his family to approximately 600 strangers. Yes, you read that right. They mailed out these cards to complete strangers. Now, what would you do if you received such a mail from a stranger? It turned out that Kunz and Woolcott received nearly 150 replies. People responded with generic holiday cards, photos of family and pets, and long detailed letters on what’s been happening in their lives over the past years. Though they hadn’t actually met Phillip or Michael, 20% of the recipients felt the need to respond to the Christmas card with their own.

This is an illustrative example of the universal tendency in human beings to reciprocate to an act of generosity or kindness. This tendency has existed even in the stone ages and has stayed alive through to this day because of its survival value for us, the human species. Richard Leakey, a famous archaeologist, notes that it is this norm of reciprocity that carries the essence of what makes us human.

“We are human because our ancestors learned to share their food and their skills in an honored network of obligation.”

The Norm of Reciprocity and Customer Experience

Within the context of customer service, reciprocity has fascinating effects. Remember the last time Uber/Lyft gave you an upgrade to a premium ride at no cost? How did you feel? A little surprised but happy nevertheless. And then you excitedly talked about it with your friends or peers. If they asked me for a review right after that ride, I’d gladly write them a happy note. As an organization or a customer support agent, when you go out of your way to do something nice for your customer, it creates a subconscious need in them to return the favor in the form of a positive review or word-of-mouth marketing.

When you ‘wow’ your customer, they will want to return the favor. #psychology #customerbehavior Click To Tweet

Trumpeted Reciprocity in Customer Service

The norm of reciprocity is of two types — trumpeted reciprocity and surprise reciprocity. Trumpeted reciprocity is something that happens when you make deliberate efforts to wow your customers and the customer support world is never short of such stories.

Of the 233 orders I’ve placed with Amazon, I never once received a damaged product. Amazon is known for its customer service. And having worked at Amazon, I know the extreme lengths to which Amazon goes to make sure they put their customers first.

When a customer receives a damaged product, they raise a return request and the item is duly replaced. This is a process that most online retail companies follow. However, things work a little differently in Amazon.

When there are more than two replacement requests for the same item, Amazon disables the ‘Add to cart’ button until all the stock for that item in all their warehouses is checked and confirmed as undamaged. Amazon takes deliberate and proactive measures to not only ensure that the damaged items are replaced with good ones, but also sees to it that damaged stock for that item is no longer shipped to customers in the future.

This is a subtle gesture that customers are probably not even aware of. But every time they place an order, they are sure that they will not receive a damaged product or item from Amazon. And this in turn builds brand loyalty.

Surprise Reciprocity in Customer Service

Surprise reciprocity happens when you make subtle gestures to wow your customers. #customerservice #psychology #customerbehavior Click To Tweet

I am an Apple fan girl. I love their products. There is something about the gadgets that speaks volumes about the brand. What makes Apple different from the rest of the gadgets companies? There is deliberate effort put into making every touch point of the customer’s purchase journey a great experience. Apple doesn’t just agonize over the hardware of its products but also over how they are packaged.

For months, a packaging designer was holed up in this room performing the most mundane of tasks – opening boxes.

… Apple’s packaging room at one point was filled with hundreds, yes hundreds, of iPod box prototypes so that Apple could determine which box lent itself towards evoking the emotional response Apple was looking for upon opening up a product for the first time.

If you have unboxed an iPhone or an iPad, you’d know what I am raving about—it is an experience in itself. Apple sweats the smalls things. It doesn’t stop at just building great products; it builds great customer experiences. This takes brand loyalty to such great heights that customers wait in line through the night when a new iPhone is launched.

#6 The Halo Effect

In his book, ‘Reputation Marketing’, Joe Marconi talks about how books that have ‘Harvard Classics’ written on the front cover can quote a higher price for the same book without the endorsement. The same is true with celebrity endorsements in the fashion industry. By adding a popular designer’s name to a pair of denims, companies increase the price of the denims. Similarly, in B2B businesses, influencers are sought after by companies to amplify brand reach. It seems like they are blessed with the Midas touch — any piece of content or brand they share or associate with gets a lot of attention. Why? This is what is popularly known as halo effect.

psychology customer experience

The halo effect is commonly associated with marketing. It is a bias, a sort of a mental shortcut, that makes us transfer our feelings about one thing to something entirely unrelated. These shortcuts are useful, in the sense that they help us make decisions faster but not quite accurately. In the instance of the celebrity endorsement, we think that if our favorite celebrity is endorsing a brand then it truly must be a good brand worth the price tag.

Our brain is a funny thing! Though it can understand the halo effect intellectually, it does not know when it actually happens. We allow our decisions to be influenced or driven by the halo effect without even realizing it. That’s why the halo effect works brilliantly in favor of the marketers. But let’s not forget that it’s a social bias which can be extended to customer experience as well where plenty of human interactions occur every day.

The Halo Effect and Customer Experience

As mentioned earlier, if you like one aspect of someone or something, you’ll be positively predisposed towards everything about them. On the other hand, if you dislike one aspect of someone or something, you’ll be negatively predisposed towards everything about them.

Leveraging the halo effect is some tricky business in customer service. We all know that customer interactions are not devoid of expectations. Customers assess their experience with your company based on your brand reputation. Let’s consider the example of McDonald’s that claims to keep the taste of its burgers consistent across the world. However, the experience at a McDonald’s outlet in the city isn’t the same as the one in a suburb. What do you think is different?

For one, there is McDonald’s massive reputation (either good or bad) that plays on your experience. Then there are the local flavors that also influence your experience. Now, it’s a whole different perspective of the dining experience if you simply removed the McDonald’s brand logo from the menu. You see, your brain has associated a certain level of expectation from the brand. When the logo is removed from the menu, your brain doesn’t know what to expect and it lowers your expectations of the dining experience.

Now, if you think you know a McDonald’s burger without its packaging, I bet you’d be wrong.

Leverage the Halo Effect for Better Customer Service

Think about it — if you were able to create a positive experience for your customer, it will have a positive halo effect over your entire brand or company. If your interaction leaves a bad taste in your customer’s mouth, it will eventually create a negative halo effect.

How to Implement This in Customer Service?

When customers reach out to you for the very first time, they have lower or zero expectations from your brand. Remember the case where the brain is clueless of what to expect when there are no prior associations? Use the opportunity to wow them the first time they reach out to you. Give them something positive to associate your brand with. This could include instant responses when a customer contacts you or giving them a solution to the issue in the first response itself. This first positive association will guide how they experience your brand in the future. But that does not mean you will stop with the first best impression. You need to continue doing the good work and create great experiences for your customers consistently.

Now, what about someone who comes with high expectations because of your brand’s huge reputation? This may put a lot of pressure on your customer support team. But you need to keep in mind that in such cases, even if you have done the right thing but it falls short of the customer’s expectations, they might still deem the interaction a bad one. Make sure you do everything you possibly can to match your customer’s expectations. And if you do manage to wow them, you will have won a loyal customer and a brand ambassador for life!

#7 Emotions

A few years ago, I used to train people on how to deliver an impressive talk or keynote. One of my favorite analogies that I used in my sessions was ‘The Elephant and the Rider’. This analogy was originally presented by Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. And it goes like this —

There are two sides to every person — the emotional side and the rational side — the elephant and the rider respectively. Picture an elephant with a rider perched atop the elephant and holding the reins. What do you perceive?

psychology customer experience

At first it appears that the rider is the leader, the one in charge and in control of the situation. But the rider’s control is a little unstable because the rider is so small compared to the elephant. And if at any given point, the two have a disagreement on which direction to take, the rider will surely lose. As Chip and Dan Heath go on to reiterate that the rider (the rational side) is completely overmatched to the elephant (the emotional side).

“The rider is completely overmatched.”

The theory is clever because it tells us how differently each of the two sides of our brain influence our thinking. Though the rider is well reasoned, he will need to take mammoth efforts to steer the elephant away from where it wants to go. How does this translate in a customer support world?

Emotions and Customer Experience

Emotions are key to human interactions. They make a world of a difference when you interact with your customers. When you are trying to sell a product or service, you spend a lot of time trying to justify the service with data and facts. Though it might work for the rider, we often forget that it is the elephant that needs to be moved to make a decision. We operate with the belief that logic and reasoning are the cornerstones of all business decisions. But we’ve got it wrong—we fail to see that emotions play a bigger role in making these decisions.

Build communications and propositions for Elephant thinking. #customerbehavior #psychology #tips Click To Tweet

For example, in one of the super bowl ads, Microsoft presents an emotional message by showing how technology is empowering a six-year old boy, born missing the tibia and fibula bones in both of his legs, to experience life in newer ways. What it didn’t do is appeal to logic or reasoning—there were no numbers, stats, data, only an emotional story. Similarly, in customer service, we need to build our customer communications and experiences for Elephant thinking.

How Important are Emotions in Customer Service?

Let’s say a customer contacts your organization with a pressing problem. Do you simply give them a solution or do you first address their frustration with the broken product and then provide a solution? In both the cases, the customer is given what they were looking for — the solution. Logically, the customer should be content in both the scenarios. But it isn’t the case. What do you think is wrong with the first approach of providing the customer with just the solution?

psychology customer experience

Every customer issue or interaction has two parts to it — the emotional side and the rational side. The customer’s mind is like the elephant when they first call you with a problem. They are frustrated with the product you sold to them that is now broken or isn’t working properly. And there is no way you can make that frustration go away with just a fix to the broken product. You need to first empathize with them, calm them down, talk to the elephant before you can give them a solution or rationalize with the rider.

So, What Next?

These customer behavior cues are easy to identify or leverage. Find ways to make customers feel unique and special with the help of these cues. It can include simple gestures like what Amazon did — identifying repeat issues and setting up a process in place so that customers do not have to experience those issues in the first place. It can be throwing in a surprise element like freebie when a customer makes a purchase. Or it can be a call to your customer to wish them on their birthday. So, what are you going to do today to make your customer’s day?

P.S: If you enjoyed reading this article and would like to learn more about the psychology behind customer behavior and how to improve customer experience, let me know with a comment here.