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Putting the sensory into the customer experience

A few years ago, a study was published that showed that walking barefoot on the Earth, a process referred to as “grounding,” helps with “inflammation, immune responses, wound healing and prevention, and treatment of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.” A hundred years ago, such a study probably never would have been done because, for one thing, walking around barefoot was such an ordinary thing to do. But today, when a person can spend their entire day immobile, staring at a digital world, we need scientists to tell us to walk around barefoot. In addition to this study, there have been several others proving the importance of touch and the human need for “blue space”, or natural water bodies.

We need sensory experiences to be healthy. In fact, one article explained that it’s our senses that differentiate our way of understanding the world from the way a computer or machine does. In the International Journal of Bifucation and Chaos in Applied Sciences and Engineering, the author explained: “Machines process information that is fed to them. Brains construct hypotheses and test them by acting and sensing. Brains do not process information because the intake through the senses is infinite. Brains sample information, hold it briefly, construct meaning, and then discard the information.”

That explains why we may forget the exact details of an interaction or a historical fact, but can be left with strong feelings about it. And it’s a perfect explanation for why companies that want consumers to remember and feel loyal to them need to incorporate sensory experiences to create memories and emotional connection.

[Read also: Neuroscience: today's tool for understanding customers and ourselves]

Things you can touch, feel, and smell

This is an area of vast interest. Back in 2011, a study was published in the European Business Review about how sensory experiences help with customer value creation around specific products. Many conferences that deal with marketing today talk about the need for sensory and immersive brand experiences. But outside of clothing or personal goods, how do you create a sensory experience around something that may be conceptual, or that doesn’t automatically suggest smell, touch, and sound?

But outside of clothing or personal goods, how do you create a sensory experience around something that may be conceptual, or that doesn't automatically suggest smell, touch, and sound?

One company that’s leading the trend is Virgin Holidays. When you go into some of their shops to book a vacation, you may be invited to strap into a virtual roller coaster, which definitely creates a memorable physical experience. Virgin also serves a signature drink. The company called upon IBM’s Watson to synthesize the emotions, memories, and experiences people have around their vacations and distilled that data into a holiday elixir, a “bespoke rum blend” designed to taste like a month off. In some stores you can get a complimentary manicure as an amuse bouche to a week at a spa. You can also book your vacation while relaxing in one of the same airplane seats their premium customers travel in—

The Laundress, an online and physical retailer that sells laundry and fabric care items, is a Pinterest-fantasy of home hygiene where you can touch and smell, as well as see, their white-on-white soaps, towels, cleaning supplies, and organizers. This is not a motley assortment of random cleaning supplies in the junk aisle at the grocery. This is like Marie Kondo on steroids, elevating cleaning to something nearly spiritual.

Companies might be tempted to jump on the bandwagon and add any old sensory stimulation to their customer experience—aromatherapy diffusers! Massage chairs!—but the experiences your company dreams up should be directly in service to your brand and customer experience goals.

[Read also: Don’t ignore customer data; use it to create a better experience]

As Tim Wade, co-founder of CXLab says, it’s more of a science than an art. CXLab uses neuroscience experiments to test people’s biometric responses to environments. When they work with a company (Virgin is one of their customers), they start with a lot of testing. Just asking people what they like often reflects what they think they like rather than what they ultimately choose.

“It’s going to be about trying things,” he said. “You can think the smell of banana is going to work really well, but actually it doesn’t…. Lots of organizations are going, ‘Yes, the CEO likes the taste of banana on lip balm,’ and that’s how they make the decision. But when you ask people about it and what they think and what they’ll do, they often have a different, unconscious response when they’re making a decision.”

Another company CXLab worked with was Honda. The car company wanted to improve its sales experience and sales revenue. CXLab began by recording and studying interactions between customers and sales people, capturing biometric information such as heart rate, and observing facial expressions and body language.

“The typical showroom is a very hard environment,” Wade said. “You have hard tiles, hard chairs. Studies show that if you sit on a hard chair, you’re going to be a harder negotiator than if you sit on soft chair. We designed blue room, a room within the show room that had blue walls, soft carpeting, soft music, soft lighting, a pleasant fragrance—everything designed to make the customer relax.”

While auto sales reps have a reputation for using cruel and unusual punishment to make people buy cars—endlessly checking with a non-existent manager, making sure people miss lunch—CXLab gave sales people a different training.

“We could see why customers didn’t buy,” he said. “We could provide the biometric information to the sales team and provide training for how to be better at recognizing these moments. We approached it from a different perspective. It wasn’t the rational reasons the customers were giving. We could see through the research what their real reasons were.”

The blue room and the softer approach resulted in a more than 30 percent hike in like-for-like sales, a 12 percent rise in profit per unit, and a 62 percent increase in staff retention rates. After all,

The blue room and the softer approach resulted in a more than 30 percent hike in like-for-like sales, a 12 percent rise in profit per unit, and a 62 percent increase in staff retention rates.

[Read also: How the Design Institute for Health reimagines patient healthcare]

But what if you don't have a retail store?

It’s one level of challenge to create a sensory experience in a retail environment, but what about creating a sensory experience for something that isn’t designed to engage the senses at all? Think: most business software. Is there any way for purely digital companies to create sensory experiences?

I floated my ideas for a sensory software to Wade:

Every mode of work has its own sensory experience. There are background themes—forest, ocean, art exhibit, Times Square—with accompanying sounds. When you need to be creative, the background is blue and green abstract art, and jazz, all of which have been shown to boost creativity. When you have post-lunch drowsiness or a boring job to get through and need motivation, the background is yellow and orange, Mardi Gras or solar flares, and Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida.”

I asked Wade if I could pull this off, along with a haptic glove to stimulate the nervous system or simulate the experience of petting a purring kitten, for those stressful moments as, say, a customer service agent.

“Absolutely you can do things like that,” he said. “You can control the digital environment better than retail experiences. You can’t have smells coming through the screen…yet. But I absolutely see how testing different colors might make people more creative or work faster.”

Currently, he said, they’re doing work measuring call center agents’ biometric responses when the customer is getting stressed and when the agent is getting stressed, and learning how to create interventions in those situations. It’s his belief that companies that want happy customers need to take the same behavioral science approach with employees as with customers. Presently though, despite the large amount of interest, he said the world is just at the beginning of understanding how to create sensory customer experiences.

Currently, he said, they're doing work measuring call center agents' biometric responses when the customer is getting stressed and when the agent is getting stressed, and learning how to create interventions in those situations.

“We’re pretty much at the beginning,” he said. “Behavioral science has come a long way in the last 10-to-20 years. We’re dealing with the unconscious and that’s starting to kick open some dubious science around these things. But getting people to sign off on spending money to understand it is quite hard. It’s quite new.”

So, massage chairs and aromatherapy it is.