The Peak Customer Experience

It’s about the experience stupid!

Can you imagine someone who works every possible angle to get a date with a special person and then doesn’t bother to shower, shows up late and is in a bad mood all night? That’s just crazy or stupid. But many companies are fine spending millions to attract new customers only to neglect the most important part—the customer’s experience with the company.

Every organization faces a critical choice in determining how it will deliver brand and customer experiences—either go through the motions or resolve to deeply understand customer needs and create experiences that truly matter.

Customer loyalty and advocacy—the goals of great customer experience—are born from trust and faith, essential human emotions. Companies that create great customer experiences heed Maya Angelou’s words, “…people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Some experiences matter more than others

Clearly, some experiences along the customer’s journey are more emotional, and thus more important, than others, but many companies overlook this obvious fact, creating needless complexity that leaves them data rich and insight poor. Decisions based on superfluous data prove to be ineffective, illustrated by a survey in which 80% of companies believed that they delivered superior customer experience while only 8% of their customers agreed.(1) In reality, there may be dozens, even hundreds of touch points, but only a few are significant and actually contribute to forming the emotional bonds that truly create customer loyalty and advocacy.

The Sloan Management Review suggests, “Organizations in general have found success in identifying and focusing on points in the service cycle where emotions tend to be high. Rather than include everything, it helps to simplify by concentrating on the strong positives and negatives.” (2) For example, showering and showing up on time.

Memory and peak-end experiences

According to psychologists, emotions influence what customers remember. (3) Further, exactly what we remember is determined by the intensity of emotions created by an experience—not the overall experience. Nobel laureate and father of behavioral economicsDaniel Kahneman described this with the Peak-End Rule, citing that past experiences are judged almost entirely on the intensity of emotions at their peaks and the end point, the most salient resolution of a brand encounter or experience.(4) Virtually all other information appears to be forgotten, including net pleasantness or unpleasantness and how long the experience lasted. For customer experience managers, this means the points of most emotional intensity and the end or resolution of a brand encounter have a disproportionate amount of influence on the customer’s overall perception of the experience.

Emotional intensity and the power of positive experiences

Every customer encounter and interaction has potential to shape the customer’s perception—intentionally or unintentionally. We know consumers prefer brand encounters when the peak-end experiences have a sufficiently positive emotional intensity. This has been demonstrated empirically through a number of studies. Even television commercials that induce positive feelings are rated more highly by consumers if the commercials have high peaks of intensity and strong positive endings.(5)

To create positive, memorable peak and end experiences, it’s necessary to know which moments have the greatest emotional intensity. It is also imperative to know which underlying emotions are associated with each moment—and the triggers for these emotions.(6) Typically, the underlying cause for an encounter that evokes positive or negative experiences is deeply rooted in the consumer’s nonconscious memory.

The need to know why versus what

An excellent example is seen in London where the rail authorities realized a negative experience was created while commuters waited for trains to arrive at their station. On deeper discovery, it turns out the reason why this experience causes emotional anxiety isn’t as much from the waiting as not knowing when the next train will arrive. Will it be 5 minutes or 20? Once officials installed digital displays indicating the time until the next train would arrive, customer experience statistics improved. In retrospect, it’s easy to see how replacing ambiguity with order reduces anxiety, but it took decades of poor customer experience before anyone realized why, and how this key emotional insight could be utilized to design dramatic improvement.

To successfully shape the customer’s journey, it’s necessary to understand more than what customers are responding to.(7) It’s essential to understand why. Knowing why enables companies to align touch points with positive drivers for behavior, creating customer experiences that consistently generate brand loyalty. And, dates that lead to second dates!

Our white paper on Peak Customer Experience offers more details.

1. Tuning in to the voice of your customer. Harvard Management Update. 2005;10(10).

2. Dasu S, Chase RB. Designing the Soft Side of Customer Service. In MIT Sloan Management Review. Fall 2010.

3. Ledoux JE. Systems and Synapses of Emotional Memory. In: Memory: Organization and Locus of Change. Squire LR, Wienberger NM, Lunch G, McGaugh JL, eds. New York: Oxford University Press; 1991.

4. Kahneman D. Objective Happiness. In: Kahneman D, Diener E, Schwarz N, (eds.). Well-Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology. New York: Russel Sage. 1999: pp. 3-25.

5. Baumgartner H, Sujan M, Padgett D. Patterns of affective reactions to advertisements: the integration of moment-to-moment responses into overall judgments. J Marketing Research, 1997;32: 219-232.

6. Oliver, Rust, Varki. Customer delight: foundations, findings and managerial insight. J Retailing. 1997;73(3):311-336.

7. Bargh J. What have we been priming all these years? On development, mechanisms, and ecology of nonconscious social behavior. Eur J Soc Psychol. 2006;36:147-168.

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