Graduate from the Marshmallow Challenge to the Marshmallow Test

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Congratulations! Your customer communications have passed the Marshmallow Challenge – you have started A/B testing and tracking customer interactions and using this feedback to help you make your communications more impactful and engaging. But do your customer communications pass the Marshmallow Test?

In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, psychologists at Stanford University designed the Marshmallow Test to study delayed gratification. From Wikipedia:
In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small reward provided immediately or two small rewards (i.e., a larger later reward) if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned. (The reward was sometimes a marshmallow, but often a cookie or a pretzel.) In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores,[2] educational attainment,[3] body mass index (BMI),[4] and other life measures.[5]

For over three decades, the study had been done many times over with similar results. Until, in 2012, a group of researchers from the University of Rochester altered the experiment to understand whether the researcher running the experiment could have an impact on the outcome.

In the modified study, rather than providing a marshmallow up front, the researchers came in and told the children that they had forgotten the marshmallows and had to go and get them. But, they would be back shortly with some art supplies for them to work with while they waited for the marshmallow test. With one group, the researcher returned in a few minutes with the art supplies prior to starting the marshmallow experiment – with the second group, they never actually showed up with the art supplies at all.

The result was a dramatic shift in the children’s ability to wait. The tester group that received the art supplies waited up to four times longer (12 min) than the unreliable tester group for the second marshmallow to appear.

What does this tell us about customer communications?

Building trust with your customers means communicating effectively with your customers regularly, and delivering on communications when they are expected. Especially important is to map “moments of truth” for your customers – moments that are emotionally charged and occur when your customer has invested energy into a desired outcome – to ensure that quality communications are delivered to customers in that moment.

In the excellent book Mapping Experiences, author James Kalbach identifies such key moments for customers as:
• Stimulus: the very first time customers become aware of a given product or service.
• First moment of truth: the decision to buy a product or service.
• Second moment of truth: the first experience customers have using a product or service.

These three moments are the “make or break” moments for customer communications, where our company brand is truly established in the mind of the customer. Delivering in these moments creates a strong long-term relationship with your clients, while failing to deliver has the opposite impact.

The marshmallow experiments highlight for us the importance of delivering on regular customer communications, but also of delivering during key moments of truth. For a banking customer, these may include mortgage origination documentation, fast turnaround on loan applications or accurate, easy to understand credit card statements. For insurance customers, this may mean a seamless, easy claims process. The key is to ensure that you have put in place strong, interactive communications that give your customers piece of mind that you will deliver during key moments of truth.

The learnings? Identify the moments of truth for your customers and align your customer communications to deliver the clearest, most timely and most engaging communications possible for customers going through those buying cycles.

If you do, your customers will be willing to give you that extra level of support and patience when it might be needed later down the road – with the confidence that your organization will be there to deliver when you are needed most.

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