Simon Wood

Well, it’s January, and time to make/break those New Year’s resolutions again.  My only resolution failed to make it beyond 9am on the first day back at work, when all plans of using the office stairs each day went out the window – or, more accurately, up in a lift. And on the subject of resolutions, have you set yourself or your company any customer experience resolutions this year? Have you declared 2013 to be the year of the customer or the year that you introduce new customer loyalty programmes – or something similar?

Well in case you haven’t yet set any resolutions (or like me you’ve set one, broken it straight away and now need a new one), here’s a suggestion: make 2013 the ‘year of managing emotions’.  Now I don’t mean you should you start trying to keep a stiff upper lip or even that you should get carried away and start having emotionally themed days (‘Perturbed Friday’ will be uncomfortable for everyone, no matter how good ‘Delighted Thursday’ was, and nothing will get done on ‘Indecisive Tuesday’). Instead, think about what you can do this year to understand the emotions being created in your customers.

Now this idea won’t be new news to some of you.  In fact, I would say that how we measure emotion in customer experience research has been a bit of a buzz topic in the last 3-6 months – and it’s a trend I see continuing. Why? Well our understanding of how consumers make decisions is evolving rapidly and at the heart of that are emotional instincts.

The influence of experience on how we think (and decide)
The Maya Angelou quote “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” seems to be quoted everywhere I go at the moment – and with good reason. Angelou hit on a crucial element; we form memories that drive behaviour, and powerful emotional reaction drives that.

People far more intellectual than me have studied the brain, and the prevailing thinking (pardon the pun) seems to be that we have, broadly speaking, two forms of consciousness.  I’ll leave it to better-qualified others to go into the detail, but in summary we have a slower, rational consciousness for occasions when we really need it, and an intuitive, unconscious self that has the task of running our day-to-day lives efficiently. This intuitive consciousness is successful because it uses heuristics – shortcut rules of thumb to decide the best course of action.

These heuristics are reinforced by affective memory structures in our brains; networks of neural connections associated with things we recognise, and with the emotions they provoke.  Personal experience is amongst the most powerful force for creating these connections and not all are created equal.  Neural connections created by repeated experience and during emotive experiences – such as fear and anger – are stronger and more durable.

Interestingly, the experiences of other people, particularly trusted friends or family, can themselves help to form stronger affective patterns, attaching considerable value to positive word-of-mouth from these sources. The experience that guides instinctive decisions isn’t always a consumer’s own – helping explain why so many of us are concerned over levels of recommendation and the impact of word of mouth!

What does this mean?
I hope the above was interesting, but what does this mean for customer experience research?  Put simply, the experiences your customers have with your brand (and with your competitors) will create the neural connections that cause them to instinctively react to your brand.  The more they experience the same service/reaction, then the stronger that bond will be in their minds; and the more emotionally charged their experience feels, the more it will stay with them and form their instinctive consciousness.

It is this instinctive consciousness that will then decide how loyal your customers desire to be and whether they advocate your brand.  Managing this becomes crucial.

For research, measuring just how satisfied customers are or how likely they are to recommend suddenly doesn’t seem to go far enough!  What we really need to do is to understand how customers instinctively feel – and how their experiences are affecting that instinctive reaction.  Therefore, we need to make sure we have the necessary measures in our customer experience surveys – whether transactional or relationship – to allow us to really understand customer emotions.

Yet even when we understand customer emotions, we need to move beyond this to start managing them – ensuring we create the right ones, and eradicate the wrong ones.  Customer experience research needs to provide the answers and guidance to companies so that they can achieve this – managing the emotional experience and not just measuring satisfaction.

Where do we go from here?
Generally we face a potentially huge problem – much of traditional research taps into the slower, rational consciousness, rather than the instinctive one.  Yet this issue can be largely solved through the use of better questioning, better techniques and better metrics.

The challenging part is rethinking how we build our understanding of the brain and the way decisions are made into actual actions – focussing on the heuristics that matter and ensuring that experiences form these in a positive way.   It won’t be easy, but the more we can link real world decision making into the way we think and work, the better and more useful our results will be.

Now having given my own brain a bit of a workout there, I’m going to try tapping into my rational mind to find a new New Year’s resolution that will hopefully make it beyond day 2 (all suggestions gratefully received)!

Simon-Wood2-e1357579054993Simon Wood is Head of Stakeholder Management Research at TNS UK.

The views expressed in this blog posting are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of TNS, nor of its associated companies.