R U Feelin’ It? Customers, Employees and Emotional Connections

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Feelings about an experience, an emotional attachment to a brand/company/product are more important than rational assessments of performance in explaining customer experiences, customer loyalty and employee engagement.

There, I said it: emotions trump reason in explaining both relationships with customers and employees and, more importantly, their future behavior. Emotional bonds endure. Rational bonds (that is, those based exclusively on a reasoned assessment of performance) simply are less sticky.

Performance Matters, But . . .

You can’t fail to deliver against expectations: that’s a short pier to disaster. You (and your competitors) stay in business by virtue of delivering good products and services at a given price point. But performance, quite frankly, often isn’t differentiating. That’s why performance ratings typically are clustered in the “top 2-box,” consumers are “Promoters” for multiple companies in the same category and satisfied customer defect.

So while your company can’t afford to fail to perform and disappoint customers and employees, good performance by itself is insufficient to building and reinforcing bonds with key constituencies. Recent data from TNS regarding car repairs at dealerships illustrates this point: among those customers who rated the quality of the work as excellent, just over half came away with strong positive feelings about the experience, while the remainder said they didn’t have any feelings regarding the service experience. When we looked at the strength of the relationship to the car brand, the first group (which felt delighted) registered dramatically stronger relationship scores than those who said the work was excellent but came away with no feelings regarding the experience. Both groups said the quality of the work was excellent; but for those who felt an emotional void about the experience, the rational assessment of the work didn’t translate into stronger bonds. In other words, the lack of emotional attachment essentially undermined the impact of the quality of the service performed.

This seems to fly in the face of reason: if I make widgets, what more do I need to do than to sell great widgets? Yes, it does “fly in the face of reason,” as reason is not the primary criteria upon which people act and make decisions. It’s the emotional hook that carries the day; reason simply comes along for the ride (and provides an after-the-fact rationalization for the emotional decision we already have made). My widget customers need to be “feelin’ it” about the use of my widgets.

Emotions Drive Memories

For an experience to have any impact it must be memorable. Interactions that are promptly forgotten evaporate into the ether. For all intent and purpose, they might not even have happened.

The key to making something memorable is an emotional hook. Emotionless experiences “bounce off” customers and employees. A top-quality car repair and great widget without any emotional connection are eminently forgettable. Emotional interactions, on the other hand, “stick to the ribs” and are the stuff of which memories are made.

It is a huge mistake, however, to think of an emotional void as neutral, as if it’s a three on a five-point scale. An emotional vacuum – as the car repair example illustrates – is a vulnerability. While an emotional void is better than eliciting negative feelings (after all, negative memories are the stickiest of all), a lack of emotional attachment is a weakness that makes the relationship less stable. The absence of an emotional connection is like leaving your customers and employees yawning about your company, products or brand.

The Measurement Challenge

Emotions are visceral. They are subconscious reactions that precede our conscious “thinking” and processing of information. By definition, emotions aren’t accessible by our conscious thought processes. Herein lies the measurement challenge:

• If our emotions are subconscious, precede and are inaccessible by our thoughts
• And when we answer questions or write something we are tapping our conscious thought processes
• Can people accurately tell anyone (or, for that matter, themselves) how they feel?

As a practical matter, most researchers rely on how consumers and employees consciously describe their emotions in direct response to questions (please rate your feelings on a scale from . . . or how do you feel about X?) or inferences drawn from the words people use to describe their experiences (via some form of text analytics or sentiment analysis). While these approaches are viable and clearly are superior to relying solely on performance quality criteria, these tools can only be as good as the ability of individuals to consciously articulate their subconscious feelings.

Neuro-measurements – the use of neuroscience tools to measure neurological and physiological responses to stimuli – offer promise. Measuring and tracking respiration, sweat, heartrates, brainwaves, eye movements and other subconscious psycho-physiological autonomic responses are efforts at getting at someone’s “true” responses or feelings instead of relying on their ability to say how they feel.

Neuro approaches, however, present challenges of complexity, individual baselines and norms (not to mention questions about ethics and intrusiveness). Wiring/connecting people up for measurement, moreover, presents obvious challenges of scalability. In small group or one-on-one settings, be it for User Experience or other types of work, on the other hand, these tools can dramatically improve our ability to delve into feelings without problems of scale.

Implicit association measurement – which measures the characteristics people associate with a company/brand/product – has promise as a readily scalable solution for survey applications. Implicit association, which often relies on how quickly or accurately people respond to questions as opposed to what people say, may not generate the type of scalar data that readily lends itself to key driver analysis or other types of modeling, but these approaches probably will evolve over time. Implicit association also carries extra overhead in terms of survey space (it is not a single question) and faces the hurdle of (lack of) familiarity.

Applied neuroscience tools no doubt will continue to evolve and improve. At this juncture, at least, however, neuro-measurements should be used in conjunction with traditional measurements, not as a replacement.

The Recipe and the Conundrum

Do good work at delivering products/services/experiences that meet the needs of customers and employees, but remember that these increasingly are table stakes to remain competitive. Focus more effort on delivering experiences that leave a positive emotional imprint that makes customers and employees feel good about your company.

I know the pushback: business is not a feel-good activity. That misses the point. The objective is to motivate customers and employees to do those things that create value for the company. That is, companies want customers that continue as customers, buy other products and services, recommend the company to others; and they want employees that stay as employees, deliver great customer experiences, recommend the company as a great place to work. Strong emotional bonds – AKA making customers and employees feel good about your firm – are key to motivating those behaviors that drive a company’s success.

Creating that emotional bond and measuring it are the challenges.

1 COMMENT

  1. This post is as timely as it is important. Increasingly, b2b and b2c companies have come to understand that there is much more to value generation than just functional performance. And, as you discussed in the post, the approaches for effectively defining, measuring, and understanding, consumer emotions and their impact on experience memory continue to evolve in ways that will better enable insights to be leveraged.

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