Why ending well is so important

noun_finish line_113911Our memories and perceptions of experience are much less concrete and rational than we like to imagine.

If you don’t accept that, go away and read Kahneman or Ariely, and then we’ll talk.

One particular mental bias that should be at the forefront of our minds when planning customer experiences is the “peak-end rule“.

Simply put, this rule states that we judge an experience* based on how we feel at its most extreme point and at the end. There are subtleties around the length of the experience, and how long-lasting the effects are, which you can read about in the Wikipedia article.

What I want to focus on is the importance of ending customer journeys well (and the end may well be more important than the peak). Whether it’s the big-picture of a customer lifetime, the detail of individual interactions, or the many journeys of all sizes in between, we often let the customer experience peter out instead of ending with a bang.

This is madness.

In many cases the single most powerful change you could make to seize control of the customer experience would be to ensure that you finish strongly. Schedule a call to make sure the customer got what they needed. Send a thank-you note. Go out of your way to make their transition to a new supplier seamless.

The peak-end rule means that you’ll leave the customer with a powerful positive memory, and that’s bound to pay for itself.


* Trying to get psychologists to define what exactly we mean by “an experience” is fun, but the word does seem to correlate with a consistent mental concept shared by all of us.

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What can we learn from HMV?

hmvLike many music fans of a certain vintage, I was sad to hear that HMV has again entered administration.

As a kid, HMV was where I’d spend hours every Saturday flipping through racks of vinyl, tapes, and eventually CDs before deciding where to put my hard-earned* money.

I’m not alone in feeling a sentimental affection for the brand. Penny Anderson’s opinion piece in the Guardian led to a wave of protest on Twitter, mostly from people whe’d be ticking similar boxes to me on the “About you” section of a survey.

While reading the responses, something occurred to me – I haven’t actually bought anything from HMV since before the last time they went into administration.

I suspect many of the angry Twitter commenters haven’t either. Now, HMV’s fate can’t be put down to one cause, whether it’s “asset-stripping” owners, online retail giants, or expensive high street business rates. I’ll let better-qualified people pick over the bones, but you should always be sceptical about simple explanations.

What interests me is the disconnect, exemplified by me, between the affection that many have for the brand and actually putting cash in the till.

As someone who spends his time telling organisations that customer satisfaction and loyalty lead to business success, you can see why this creates an awkward situation for me. Why do so many people feel so warmly about HMV, but don’t choose to shop there?

The answer, again, is too complex for any single explanation. Nostalgia is different to how I feel about the current customer experience. My musical tastes have evolved (a bit) since I was 13. It’s easier to access bands directly online (through sites like Bandcamp). Etc, etc.

What should we learn from HMV? That your brand’s history is an asset, but not one you can keep riding forever. Nostalgic affection is not  the same thing as liking or finding value in the current customer experience. Brands need to find ways to engage each new generation of customers, and evolve the experience as their needs and expectations change.

Doing that consistently well is every bit as difficult as it sounds.


* Well, hardish-earned

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Why experience design & storytelling need emotional messages

noun_Underwater Shark_625795 (1)Albert Mehrabian might be the most misquoted researcher in history. People have used his findings to argue that most communication is nonverbal, which is clearly (and provably) nonsense.

His research showed that we like people if what they say about their feelings matches non-verbal cues such as tone of voice and body language.

If there isn’t a match we tend to trust the non-verbal cues more. In other words, if you say “Oh, how fascinating, do go on.” while looking around and shuffling your feet, I’ll conclude that you’re not that interested in what I’m saying.

This principle of matching, or congruence, is really important for customer experience design and storytelling.

What’s beneath the surface?

That’s the key question. Strip away the words, and what do the non-verbal cues and signals say to the customer? “Your call is very important to us.”…yeah, right.

Gerald Zaltman’s classic book “How Customers Think” is a great starting point for thinking about the unconscious cues that can have a big influence on the customer experience.

Say what you mean, mean what you say

Authenticity is a much abused word. “How do you do authenticity?” a drinks company executive apparently once asked Innocent Drinks. Authenticity is not something you do, it’s something you are.

That doesn’t mean you have to wash all your dirty linen in public, but it does mean you have to tell the truth, and you have to keep your promises (explicit and implicit). Making sure there’s good congruence between what you say and what you do ties directly back to Mehrabian’s work.

Show, don’t tell

Maybe I’m unusually cynical, but I instinctively assume the opposite of any adjectives that people or organisations apply to themselves. Don’t tell me you’re reliable, show me by consistently delivering.

Beyond your behaviour, it’s more powerful to embed messages about yourself in implicit claims through branding than it is to claim them in words. Don’t tell me you’re innovative, show me through your design choices. We’re usually less cynical about messages that appeal to our unconscious mind (try watching an emotional film without the music track and you’ll be amazed how little impact it has on you).


Tell the whole story

Turn to advertising to learn how to tell stories that communicate at the verbal and non-verbal levels simultaneously. Notice how they put the factual messages in the verbal channel, and emotional persuasion in the visuals, music, metaphor, etc.

Take cleaning products as an example. If you transcribe the advert all you’d see is factual claims (“kills 99.9% of germs fast”), but the power of these ads is in the emotional triggers around disgust and fear (the image of a mother wiping her child’s highchair with a raw chicken breast.

Good storytelling uses the respective strengths of verbal and non-verbal channels to multiply impact with rational and emotional messages that support each other.

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Shielding customers from choice

noun_choice_1714276It’s easy to believe that choice is a good thing for customers.

Doesn’t it stand to reason that more choice means that each customer will be better able to find something that meets their particular needs?

Customers hate choice.

Why? Because choice means thinking, and we avoid that whenever we can (as behavioural economics has proven over and over again).

I was put in mind of this by the latest McDonalds ad campaign, entitled “Grown Up“. In it we see a father and his little girl enjoying a day together, capped of (of course) by a trip to the golden arches.


Once there, dad is totally flummoxed by the new ordering screens, and his daughter steps in to show him what’s what, followed by the caption “The moment they surprise you”.


Dad’s slight bemusement is a familiar feeling for a lot of parents, watching their kids instantly intuit how to use the latest dizzyingly complex technology.

It must also be a sign, I think, the McDonalds has been getting some feedback that its ordering screens are not seen as easy to use. Why not? I suspect because there are simply too many choices.

The choices aren’t new, but customers used to be shielded from them by staff.

One of the big customer experience challenges for organisations, as self-serve and digital journeys become more common, is how to preserve flexibility without overloading customers with choice. In many cases, AI offers a possible solution. More often, we’d be better off simplifying the journey with sensible (and popular) defaults.

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Leadership: from good to great

noun_248063Gianandrea Noseda is one of the world’s leading conductors, acquiring a reputation for revitalising and improving orchestras.

This Economist article looks at his recent work as music director at Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra (NSO), which he joined last year. It has some valuable lessons about leadership and transformation.

The Economist quotes Noseda on what he is trying to achieve:

“You have to make the musicians feel that they’re burning in their hearts and souls.”

That sounds very romantic and artistic, doesn’t it? How does he do it?

“…you don’t get there through philosophy, but through rehearsals.”

Inspiring ambition, coupled with pragmatism and hard work, is his secret. I suspect that’s a recipe that would work just as well for any leader who wants culture change to deliver tangible benefits.

As the Economist observes,

“…being great, rather than merely good, matters…a reputation for greatness attracts better musicians and larger audiences…”

Vision and execution are equally important, and coupled together they can create a culture of excellence which is self-reinforcing and delivers increasing financial rewards. We could all do with a dose of Noseda from time to time.


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Measuring emotion


Is it possible to measure emotion?

I don’t think so, at least not with a survey. Emotions are largely unconscious and experienced in the moment; asking customers to accurately remember and score them after the event misrepresents the nature of emotions.

That doesn’t mean we should give up on the idea of trying to understand emotions. Here are some tactics we can try…

Qualitative research

Qualitative research is all about trying to build up a picture of how customers think and feel, and the context that shapes that. Emotions, as we saw in a previous post, are a vital part of the picture.

The mistake people often make is thinking that qualitative research is about what customers say. It’s not, it’s about why they said it. Good qualitative research digs beneath the surface to understand the deep psychological needs and reasons for customers’ behaviour, thoughts, and feelings. That’s where the emotions sit.

How do we do that? It starts by asking probing questions, but ultimately it means we need to add a layer of interpretation; so qualitative research is never entirely objective. To counteract the subjectivity of interpretation, we can turn to established models.

Models to interpret

In her excellent book “MindFrames“, Wendy Gordon outlines 6 distinct lenses we can use when trying to make sense of what customers say, based on decades of practice. This is a good example of a tendency that all qualitative researchers have to build up mental models to help them translate from what customers say and do in order to understand why.

Good researchers keep up to date with what the cognitive sciences have to tell us about how the human mind works, looking for ways to translate that into the messy real world of customer experience.

Measurement (not questions)

What about measurement? Why can’t we take something like Plutchik’s list of basic emotions and ask customers to score them on a scale? There’s nothing stopping you from trying, but I don’t believe it often works. Introspection is a terrible tool for understanding our unconscious mind, and you’ll find that a few easy to articulate emotions such as “anger” dominate.

So what can we do?

  • Focus on causes and outcomes. Qualitative work can highlight which events and behaviours cause emotions, and which outcomes derive from them. Those are often easier to measure quantitatively.
  • Interpret. Know that what customers say is not always the true cause. If they give a low score for waiting times, understand that anxiety may well be the real problem.
  • Use non-survey methods. Sometimes it’s possible to measure emotion in the moment, without asking customers directly. IDEO’s laugh detector is a good example of this.
  • Quantify verbatims. Customers usually reveal more about their emotions in their verbatim comments. It’s relatively easy to find (or build) dictionaries that will score comments for emotion. This works to a point, but be aware that you are only working at the surface level of what customers say, not at the deeper level of why.

The future for emotions

The latest scientific evidence suggests that emotions may be less innate, less universal, and less monolithic than they feel to us. Lisa Feldman Barrett in “How Emotions are Made” says:

“…your emotions are not built-in but made from more basic parts. They are not universal but vary from culture to culture. They are not triggered; you create them. They emerge as a combination of the physical properties of your body, a flexible brain that wires itself to whatever environment it develops in, and your culture and upbringing, which provide that environment.”

That points us even more firmly away from trying to measure them in any straightforward way.






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Don’t you owe customers a reply?


I was chatting to a taxi driver on the way to see a client the other day, and he asked  what I do.

I explained that I help companies understand their customers.

“You mean you send out those surveys that I never answer?”

It’s a depressingly common reaction. If people are to be believed, it’s a miracle that we manage to persuade anyone to take part in our research.

My taxi driver went on to explain why:

“There’s no point because they never reply to you, however much time you take explaining how you feel, or how the service could have been better.”

I think that’s a really interesting perspective. For our business to business clients, it’s normal to respond to customers individually based on their answers. You need to learn general lessons, sure, but you also need to address individual concerns and show that you value their feedback.

What about business to consumer clients? We usually recommend a “hot alert” system, passing on any customers with a burning issue for the client to resolve, but that’s not what the taxi driver was talking about.

He was talking about the lack of respect customer satisfaction surveys often show for customers, asking them to spend 10 minutes to submit carefully considered responses…which are then aggregated into a mass for impersonal analysis.

I think he’s right, we owe customers more than that.

If we’re worried about falling response rates (as we should be) then we need to do something about it. I suggest starting with a simple promise…

If you complete a satisfaction survey for us, and you want a personal response, you’ll get one.

For anyone who really cares about what their customers think I can’t see any reason you wouldn’t want to do it, and I’m willing to bet it would improve your response rate.


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Why customer emotions matter

noun_1325508Emotions have a big role in the decisions we make.

Our brains work by taking in information about the world, processing it, and responding in appropriate ways.

There are 2 separate systems at work. Different authors call these the “Low road” and the “High road”, “System 1” and “System 2”, or “Hot” and “Cold”.

They all basically make the same point—unconscious decision-making is quicker and easier, so we tend to trust it rather than making the cognitive effort to think consciously1.

Emotions are a special category of unconscious decision making oriented towards avoiding damage (fear, disgust) or getting something we want (joy, anger). They are, to quote the MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences,

“A process that functions in the management of goals.”

It follows that emotions are important for anyone who wants to understand the customer experience or purchasing decisions, but emotions don’t factor equally in all decisions. We rely on emotions when there isn’t much perceived differentiation between suppliers. This is something David Ogilvy knew…

“The greater the similarity between products, the less part reason plays in brand selection…”

David Ogilvy

…and which research has confirmed. The research also helps to quantify which types of products tend to be a more emotional or more rational purchase decision (there are some examples in the diagram below). Emotion vs Reason3

Relative importance of emotion and reason2

When it comes to the customer experience, it turns out that emotion totally trumps reason. A good example is waiting times—it’s the quality of the wait that matters, not the quantity. Customers don’t evaluate the length of the wait rationally, they respond emotionally to how long it feels.

Designing experiences that create the right emotions is what sets great organisations apart from others whose products and services are just as good in purely functional terms. To do that, we need to understand customer emotions and what shapes them.

Is it possible to measure customer emotions? Maybe, but that’s a post for another day…

  1. Kahneman’s “Thinking fast and slow” is the must-read in this area.
  2. Adapted from A. Chaudhuri “Emotion and Reason in Consumer Behaviour


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Experiments to learn about action

noun_1280396I usually describe my job as helping clients to understand their customers and staff.

In particular, I help clients to understand how people think and feel (their attitudes), how those relate to their experiences, who they are (segmentation), and what they do (behaviour). Usually the ultimate reason is to answer the question…

“If we do X what will happen to Y?”

Learning about people

There are basically two tools in the researcher’s armoury: asking questions and observation. Which works best? Broadly speaking we know that observation works better for behaviour, because people aren’t very good at remembering or (in particular) predicting what they do. We ask questions because it’s the only way to try to understand what’s happening inside people’s heads. It’s not perfect, but it’s often the best tool we have. Where possible, combining both techniques can give insights that neither on its own is capable of.

In either case, however, we’re simply bystanders observing what happens to customers. That means that it’s very difficult to prove the links we identify, especially if we want to predict what will happen if we make a change of some sort.

It’s the knotty old problem of correlation versus causation. The classic example here is the early 20th century study that found a significant link between US households which owned a vacuum cleaner and those that sent their kids to college. The link is true, it held for the population at the time, but it isn’t a direct causal relationship.

The point here is that the correlation holds for prediction (if I know whether or not you have a vacuum cleaner I can make a better-than-chance guess about whether your kids are at college), but fails for intervention (buying a vacuum cleaner doesn’t make it more likely that my child will get into Harvard). That’s why observational studies are flawed if we want to draw conclusions about what actions to take.

Learning about action

To prove a case for intervention, in other words to answer the question “If we do X what will happen to Y?”, we almost always* need to use an experiment. Experiments can be very difficult to design well, so read up on the details, but the important principles are:

  • You need a control condition to serve as a baseline
  • Participants are randomly allocated to receive control or treatment
  • Participants shouldn’t know which group they’re in
  • People interacting with the participants shouldn’t know what group they’re in

It’s usually difficult, and often impossible, to meet all these conditions in practice for the kinds of customer experience change we’re looking at, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to do the best we can.

One place where the experimental approach has taken hold is in digital A/B testing. Web design (A/B testing is almost an illness at Google) and communications (email subjects etc) understand the value of making data-based decisions about which choices will deliver the best results.

Another is in the public sector, where the popularity of “Nudge” theory has seen behavioural economics tactics teamed with experiments to see which messages have the most impact on behaviour. This discussion of Kirklees Council’s GDPR mailings is an interesting example.

It’s high time we spread that enthusiasm for experiments throughout the rest of the customer experience.

Experiments are the only way for businesses to know the impact of planned changes on customer attitudes and business success.

* There are times it is possible to prove causation from correlation, but it’s tricky. Judea Pearl’s Book of Why is probably worth a read if you’re interested in this stuff.

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Truth, beauty, purpose

noun_82995What makes for compelling communication?

Whether it’s a data visualisation, a written story, or a Hollywood movie, you need to create something of lasting value.

I think that comes down to three things:

  • Truth
  • Beauty
  • Purpose

That sounds unbearably pompous, even as I type it, but should it? Most of us are conditioned not to talk in such grand terms, but it’s by creating work that has, in its own small way, those attributes that we create value for others and find value for ourselves.

Thinking deliberately about all three helps us to make the most impact with everything we do. Let’s look at each in turn…


Authenticity and trust are essential for your audience to give what you’re saying credence. That means being clear on what’s fact, what’s opinion, and what’s vision. Do your own actions support what you’re saying? Have you got the right experience to make your case?

Sometimes it means proving your argument, but it always means making sure you’ve tested your case properly. Do you know the margin of error for your data? What was the response rate?

Truth is not the opposite of lying, it’s the opposite of bullshit, as Harry Frankfurt’s classic “On Bullshit” explains. It takes work.

To be true, a story must be:

  • Honest
  • Credible
  • Built on solid foundations


Aesthetics provoke “oohs” and “aahs”, but they’re not simply a case of style over substance. Beauty attracts attention, makes your message memorable, and creates value in its own right.

As John Heskett points out in “Design: A Very Short Introduction“, the idea of form versus function has led us to undervalue the importance of design as a deliberate act of creating meaning for users. Utility (what something does) and significance (what it means to us) are much more helpful concepts, and remind us that value is always embedded in culture.

One of the best ways to make your story memorable is to find a beautiful image, metaphor, or phrase that captures its essence. Bobette Buster, in “Do Story” calls this the “gleaming detail”.

To make your story beautiful:

  • Polish and refine your first draft
  • Remove anything superfluous
  • Encapsulate the truth in a “gleaming detail”


Great stories are not just a sequence of events, they have a universal quality that makes them stand for more than themselves; they have purpose. The opposite of purpose is the dreaded “so what?” which you must pre-empt if you want your message to land.

Start by being clear on what you think the central point is. What is the heart of your message? What’s your product for? Boil it down to an elevator pitch or tweetable length, and polish that until you’re totally sure about it. Ask yourself what you would do, if you were in your audience’s shoes.

Be ruthless in removing anything that doesn’t contribute to that central message, however interesting or even insightful it might be, but spend time to explain the “why” as well as “what” of your message by sharing a passionate vision of the future.

To be purposeful:

  • Focus on a clear central message
  • Be clear about the action you want your audience to take
  • Paint a vivid picture of the future you’re striving for


Truth, beauty, and purpose are the attributes which connect the disciplines I am most interested in aside from understanding customers—design and storytelling. Good stories and good designs are those which use all three attributes to add value to the world.

They’re not alone in relying on truth, beauty, and purpose. Anything we create, and I believe nearly all work should be creative, comes down to those three things. That’s why they’re as important for our own sense of value as they are for the recipient.

Everyone in the world of customer research talks about “actionable insight”, and that’s where I think this way of thinking is invaluable. Insight gives you truth, but it can’t do the rest on its own. You need to team insight with storytelling and experience design to drive action.

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