There’s a lot of buzz around the future of customer interactions. We’re beginning to meet robots and chatbots in the world and workplace, and are deluged with stats about the interconnectedness of devices and all the ways our data will feed ever-smarter algorithms. What lies ahead feels uncertain, except for this: we’re moving toward a future where consumer interactions will be easier, more efficient, and personalized. Which is great—but also something altogether different from personal.
When it comes down to it, I appreciate when my subscription service (any of them—Birchbox, Stitch Fix, Winc) recommends a product that I end up loving, but it’s also the human touches that make a difference: a handwritten note from a stylist, or the carefully curated recipes and playlists that come with the wine. They’re human-created details that speak to me as a fellow human (who agrees that a rosé-flavored popsicle sounds like an awesome idea).
As we look ahead, it sometimes seems like we’re clinging to our humanity as a desperate marketing ploy to assuage our fears at becoming irrelevant, but it’s more that the creep of technology has forced us to take a closer look at what it means to be human. One thing that sets us apart from our highly capable bots is our ability to form deep, nuanced, emotional relationships, however messy or mysterious they might sometimes be. We’re good at relationship-building, and that’s good for business.
One thing that sets us apart from our highly capable bots is our ability to form deep, nuanced, emotional relationships, however messy or mysterious they might sometimes be.
As businesses compete for customers’ attention, your ability as a brand to form an emotional connection with consumers is what will build loyalty, explained James Wright, a senior partner at Lippincott, a brand, innovation, and culture consultancy. But any old emotion won’t do. Wright spoke at the National Retail Federation’s BIG show earlier this year to make the case for happiness. Viewed through a customer happiness lens, it might be that we’ve been approaching customer experience design all wrong.
The customer experience doesn’t matter
In business, we often map the customer journey and then dissect the overarching customer experience so that we can optimize each interaction point. Improving each touchpoint makes a lot of sense except… that’s not how our brains work. As Wright shared, “the in-the-moment interaction often matters less than the anticipation and the ‘afterglow’ around the interaction.”
On stage, Wright referenced research around the impact of anticipation on happiness, which studied a group who looked forward to going on a vacation and a control group who remained at home. Not surprisingly, the group that anticipated vacationing was happier—but only for a time. Afterward, there was no significant difference in happiness between the two groups.
“Anticipation is not pre-interaction or pre-anything. It’s a joy in and of itself,” Wright said. “Wanting is better than having, believe it or not.”
“Anticipation is not pre-interaction or pre-anything. It’s a joy in and of itself. Wanting is better than having, believe it or not.” - James Wright
In a business context, this translates to there being more satisfaction in the anticipation of making a purchase than in actually making it, or in owning the desired item. It also means that anticipation is not only part of the customer journey, but a large part that we may be counting out.
Understanding our need systems
Humans are hardwired to seek. We’re forward-looking, pioneering, and uncomfortable resting for too long on our collective laurels. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is vital. From a biological standpoint, it means that the dopamine into our bloodstream by our “seeking system” gives us a larger emotional boost than the opioids released by our “finding system.”
Wright broke down the customer experience into three distinct periods of time, mapped to “need states”:
Anticipation: When customers have positive expectations about an upcoming experience or purchase, their overall happiness is impacted. In this need state, customers want to feel special.
Interaction: A customer’s in-the-moment engagement with a product, service, or experience is important—but not as important as their experience before and after the engagement. In the moment, customers want to feel recognized.
Afterglow: When customers have a positive memory about an experience, it becomes a deciding factor of repeat interactions. In this need state, customers want to feel delighted.
These are not three equal parts that make up the whole of the customer experience; instead, they play a disproportionate role in driving loyalty. Anticipation matters the most, followed by the afterglow.
Halo or horns?
When it comes to the afterglow of an experience or interaction, we’re reliant on memory. That’s tricky business, because our memories are flawed. Humans tend to recall only the most painful or pleasurable part of an experience or interaction (the peak), and the very end of an experience or interaction. What happens in between is almost irrelevant, though it’s got a name—duration neglect. This period of faulty memory keeps us from thinking logically about an experience and so we’re biased in hindsight by the peak of the experience, and the end of it, whether those moments were good or bad.
Humans tend to recall only the most painful or pleasurable part of an experience or interaction (the peak), and the very end of an experience or interaction. What happens in between is almost irrelevant.
“As humans we are story-biased. We want to fit experiences into a narrative that fits us,” explained Wright. It’s why the story that brands tell through marketing and advertising matters less than the story that consumers build for themselves as they interact digitally and physically with your brand.
Designing for customer happiness—how to do it
Knowing that happiness impacts brand loyalty means that we can design experiences that provoke and promote happiness, and deliver experiences that meet customer desires or need states.
To begin, consider the customer’s journey with your brand before a sales interaction. What are you doing to build excitement and fuel fantasies? Wright shared these three (naughty-sounding) tips to help send dopamine into high gear:
Tease your customers. Directors sell movies with movie trailers. It helps to show the goods—or, at least, some of them. Or invite customers to an event without giving away the details (just be prepared to wow them once they arrive). Fashion designer Alexander Wang did this by inviting people to a “one-time only” special event that turned out to be a *free* sample sale (and “frenzied scramble”).
Tempt your customers. Get your customers thinking about the possibilities. The Four Seasons leveraged Pinterest to get consumers pinning and planning vacations, which they could then send to a Four Seasons specialist for concierge service, whether for help booking or for feedback. Give your customers a way to see what they can do with your product or service and then help turn that temptation into a reality. This is a good time to pull in social media and have consumers engage with their network.
Treat your customers. Freebies or samples are a great way to tease and tempt customers, but try treating your customers to something truly unexpected. Restoration Hardware’s 3 Arts Club Cafe, for example, mixes art, entertainment, and food—and all the furniture just happens to be for sale. Or consider how Uber surprises customers with things like free ice cream delivery or rides with kittens.
During the anticipation phase of the customer journey, the customer wants to feel special. Perhaps you can provide exclusive access to products or services, or to share something about themselves, or their plans, with their social network. Introduce a challenge or goal. From a design perspective, brands should be focused on inspiration: Help the customer to see new possibilities and to imagine a desired outcome.
As the customer moves closer to an in-the-moment interaction or touchpoint, personalization becomes important. In this part of the journey, customers want to feel seen and heard by the person they’re interacting with. You know their name, and their preferences. You’ve made the interaction easy on them, and have respected their time. In-the-moment brand experiences should promote immersion, because customers feel happier when they can focus and feel guided toward a destination, rather than be overwhelmed by choice. Customers should walk away from the interaction feeling confident that they made the right purchase decision.
As customers move out of the interaction, consider whether you’ve given them something new to seek and eventually find. Perhaps you can introduce a new ritual, or close the interaction with a way to redeem points or rewards, so that the highest point of the interaction, and the ending, are both strong. This is another great time to reintegrate with social media and to focus on driving specific behaviors. Give customers a call to action and a way to share their experience on their social networks and become a brand advocate.
Finish strong—or course correct
For any company, customer service is a key customer touchpoint in the customer’s overall journey, either directly after an interaction or as a later follow-up. It’s here that the pressure is on, given that consumers remember the end of an experience and are influenced by the quality of that interaction.
During the afterglow phase, you don’t want to ask consumers to talk about an experience that was negative—it only amplifies that experience. Instead, Wright recommends steering the customer away from the negative experience, and replacing it with a positive experience. When an interaction goes awry, there’s an opportunity to rewire and reinforce the end by surprising or treating the customer. Flight attendants at Southwest Airlines, for example, surprised customers with a pizza party when their plane was grounded too long. In another example from Wright, Mint.com got creative with their 404 page and offered site visitors the option to visit another page on the site or to go on a date with one of their UX designers. These are very human adds, designed to make customers smile, to otherwise complex or carefully-considered considered customer experiences.
Happy customers are loyal customers
Most loyalty programs are transactional—buy nine coffees, get one free. But, said Wright, 77 percent of these programs fail within the first two years because, “an excessive focus on ‘transactions’ comes at the expense of an emotionally resonant experience—how a customer feels is a better predictor of loyalty than traffic or unique visits. Simply put, making customers feel happy through a positive interaction with the brand is a bigger driver of loyalty than deals and discounts.”
”Simply put, making customers feel happy through a positive interaction with the brand is a bigger driver of loyalty than deals and discounts.” - James Wright
The proof is in the numbers—The Harvard Business Review reported that customers spend at least twice as much with brands that make them happy.
In the end, we know that happy customers are the not-so-secret sauce to a successful business, but we’re not always thinking about how happiness actually works, or designing for happiness in the moments that count. The customer experience Wright described is really a long thread of experiences surrounding in-the-moment interactions. There’s a lot of room to get creative around designing that extended customer experience. It conjures an easy analogy, wherein the customer becomes a friend that we care to stay in good graces with—a friend we talk to in between visits, one whom we make plans with and sometimes try to surprise, and whom we listen to in the moment, over coffee. We say goodbye with a hug, or a gift, and we leave feeling pretty good, looking forward to the next time.
Suzanne Barnecut loves reading and writing stories of all kinds and duration. She is a frequent contributor to Relate, and creates brand content and tells customer stories for Zendesk. In her spare time, she can be found writing fiction, reading The New Yorker, and consuming (too many) pastries from San Francisco’s bakeries. Find her on Twitter at: @elisesuz.
Original illustration by Andrea Mongia.