You Can’t Create a Great Experience Without First Relating to Your Customers


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Look up the MSN Encarta Dictionary for the verb "experience" and you will find the following definition:

  1. Have personal knowledge of something: to be exposed to, involved in, or affected by something
  2. Feel something: to feel a particular sensation or emotion

Although you may not realize it, the definition’s focus on personal knowledge, involvement and feelings lies at the heart of every customer experience. It also describes some of the key features of how our brain makes sense out of the things we experience.

Bernd Schmitt of the EX Group describes how the brain works in his 1999 book, Experiential Marketing. It all starts with the senses. When I walk into my local bakery to buy croissants for breakfast, the first thing that hits me is the blast of warm air when I open the door and the mouth-watering smell of fresh bread. And as I live in Germany, the bakery is crammed full of many different types of bread on display; a visual feast.

With all of my senses now switched on by the German bakery experience, my body responds automatically with a range of pre-determined responses. In particular, my mouth starts to water at the prospect of warm butter-croissants for breakfast. This, in turn, triggers memories of the delicious taste of the hot latte macchiato coffee that my wife is, no doubt, preparing while I fetch the croissants. So far, my body and brain have been on autopilot and I haven’t had to actually think once. And I probably couldn’t stop my mouth watering even if I tried!

This is exactly how the majority of the things we experience are handled by the brain. Neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio of Iowa University Medical School and Joseph LeDoux of the New York University Center for Neural Science suggest that as much as 95 percent of the things we experience in everyday life are handled automatically without much conscious thought, by the combination of our senses, the emotional responses they trigger in the body and the feelings they produce.

Think and act
Back to the bakery. Fumbling in my pocket for money, I realize that I have forgotten my wallet. I don’t normally forget my wallet, so I can’t respond on autopilot. And although it’s not the first time I have forgotten it, I still have to think what to say to the woman serving me. It is cold outside, so I don’t want to have to go home empty-handed and then come straight back with my wallet. I would much prefer to stop when I drive past on the way to work and then pay.

Relating to younger customers: Experience redesign at Carnegie Hall

Since its opening in 1891, New York’s Carnegie Hall has been a magnet for classical concert-goers. In particular, the Isaac Stern Auditorium with seating for more than 2,800 has seen some of the world’s greatest conductors, soloists and ensembles perform there.

The reclamation of the former Recital Hall in 1997 for its original purpose (it had been a movie theater since 1960) created an opportunity to capture a younger, more cosmopolitan audience for the now renamed Judy and Arthur Zankel Hall.

Perhaps surprisingly, despite its long history of concert giving, the Carnegie Hall organization had little understanding of its customers and of their feelings about the “Carnegie Hall experience.” Bernd Schmitt’s EX Group worked closely with Carnegie Hall to gain a deeper understanding of its customers and of their concert-going requirements. Immersing customers in the concert-going experience, Carnegie Hall leadership discovered that although customers had positive overall feelings about the experience, younger customers found it was too traditional.

As a result, they extensively redeveloped the Zankel Hall experience to bring a contemporary, innovative feel to its core strengths of tradition and world-class performance. In particular, the staff introduced an adventurous program of new and different concerts, lower prices, better intermission facilities and an edgy look to design and marketing to provide the sort of experience that younger customers expect.
—Graham Hill

This is one of those unexpected 5 percent moments when you have to consciously think about what to do next. The same way that you do when you experience something new for the first time.

The woman behind the counter knows me and readily agrees for me to pay later. I pick up the croissants and head out the door. I must try and remember to stop and pay for them. But what if the woman hadn’t known me? Most likely I would be on my way home empty-handed. The ability to relate to others and understand their feelings is a key human ability enabled by recently discovered "mirror neurons." It is also one of the things that make humans the social animals we are.

Bringing it all together
Although this is a simple everyday experience, it shows exactly how the brain works. First we have to sense the experience. This automatically triggers a range of pre-determined body responses and emotions associated with it. It also evokes memories associated with the same or similar experiences in the past, which, in turn, trigger their own feelings. Assessing the many thousands of experiences we are involved in every day would be exhausting if we weren’t able to do it on autopilot most of the time.

If something unexpected happens, or the experience is unduly complicated, the brain consciously thinks through the situation and decides upon the best response. This also evokes memories associated with the same or similar experiences in the past and how we handled them. This enables us to act on the unfolding experience. As we become more used to the experience, we may start to relate to it and, particularly, the people who play a role in delivering it. It should be no surprise that in her research into what drives "real relationships," Veronica Liljander of the Hanken Business School found that knowing people at an organization was the reason most of the 5 percent of customers who typically have a real relationship with an organization have that relationship.

Designing experiences for the brain
So what does that mean for designing everyday customer experiences, the sort you receive when you walk into a bank branch, phone your mobile provider or take a flight with a no-frills airline?

First, it means designing sensory cues into the experience. Cues are like sensory signposts that help the customer to respond in an appropriate way, with the right emotions and feelings about the experience. As Martin Lindstrom suggests in his book Brand Sense (February 2005, Kogan Page), experiences should be designed to engage all of our senses, not just the visual one.

Because the customers’ brain will be on autopilot for much of the time, the experience should be designed to be as comfortable and familiar as possible. In addition, research has shown that the brain is not very good at multi-tasking, so the experience should also be designed to be followed in simple step-by-step sequence. That doesn’t mean that it must be bland and boring, but it does mean that it must be easy for the brain to make sense of the experience as it unfolds and be clear how the customer should act next. Unfortunately, much of what passes for experience design today is done in support of the brand and not in support of the customer. Research by the English customer experience consultancy Beyond Philosophy shows that more than 80 percent of customers find that experiences don’t match the promises made in brand communications. And that more than 80 percent of them are disappointed.

The final factor in designing experiences is building roles for other people into them, both as service staff to support the experience and as other customers whom we will enjoy the experience with. As John McKean shows in his book Customers Are People: The Human Touch (December 2002, John Wiley & Sons), it is often interactions with other humans that makes the difference between a memorable and an unforgettable experience.


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