Approach-Avoidance CX Strategies from the Buffalo River


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Oh sh*t!” was my first thought.

Our family and some friends were spending the afternoon paddling on the pristine Buffalo River in rural Arkansas. While canoeing is the main activity, it is fueled by snacks and perhaps a few adult beverages. We were pulled up on the shore swimming in the shallows and catching minnows when two uniformed officers paddled their canoe over to us. The universal response to this setting is anxiety.

We weren’t doing anything wrong that I could see…but I was going through my mental pick list of where we might be in non-compliance.

“How’re y’all doing today?” the first officer asked.

My wife and I look at each other sheepishly and said “ahhh… fine(?)” The second officer procured a tablet from his vest and start writing up what look like a citation. We chit chatted for a few minutes and then the officer looked at my 6 and 8 year olds.

“I’m going to have to give you a ticket today” the officer in the front of the canoe said while the second officer continued to scribble in his tablet.

My kids looked at me puzzled…they didn’t know what that meant. He went on to explain they were being given a ticket for wearing a life jacket (as they should) and were both handed a bright yellow piece of paper. He further explained that those tickets were redeemable for a free ice cream at the local ice cream chain. I looked at the citation and there were check boxes for other positive safety behaviors.


They wished us well and paddled off.

The unexpected appearance of a law enforcement officer invariably stirs strong emotions…usually negative ones. We have been trained to view their presence preceding something bad happening. It is basic classical conditioning. What this law enforcement agency chose to do to change this perception was genius.

Lessons Learned

First, this agency is working to undo perceptions by associating their appearance with something positive, both socially and through a reward structure. Repeated exposure will slowly change perceptions. Second, they are focusing on children, the people who are most impressionable and who need to trust law enforcement for their own safety. Finally, I have not been in law enforcement, but have to believe that delivering mostly negative experiences most of the day (tickets, warnings, etc) has to be kind of a downer. I am sure they gain some satisfaction handing out rewards. It’s not Ed McMahon prizes, but making a 6 year old girl in pigtails smile can certainly brighten anyone’s day.

This approach can be applied in other contexts as well. There are many approach-avoidance conflict situations consumers confront every day. These are situations we don’t like, but we know we have to do it. Going to the dentist, visiting the accountant, the physician, the attorney, and auto mechanic are experiences that create some degree of anxiety when we think about them.

How do we decrease this anxiety in these situations? Here are some tips.

1. Re-Prime the Experience

When we repeatedly have an experience that is negative, that becomes our expectation. Change this negative expectation by providing something positive in addition can help neutralize the negative feelings. A warm, friendly, and buoyant office environment can help reassure patients. A dental hygienist offering positive reinforcement for hygiene habits and highlighting the future end state can help reshape attitudes. Police officers handing out citations with positive consequences will change perceptions. This all helps to reshape the experience

2. Reduce Uncertainty

A had a professor once that said that the definition of fear is the anxious anticipation of anxiety. What makes a scary movie scary and freak us out when an official starts writing on a notepad? We don’t know what is going to happen next. Humans don’t like the unknown. There is a reason for that…the unknown has a habit of getting us killed. The best physicians and nurses know that informing the patient of what is going to happen before, during, and after an experience greatly reduces anxiety. Keep your customers informed even if it doesn’t really serve any apparent benefit. Knowing where your package is in the delivery process doesn’t make it come any faster, but it sure relieves anxiety about its status on its journey to you.

3. Perceived Control

Psychological research has long shown that if you give people control of situation they like it much better. In a classic experiment by Glass and Singer, two groups of participants were exposed to an unpleasant noise and told to do some busy work. One group was given a button and told that they could turn off the noise when they want, but were encouraged not to because it would ruin the experiment. The second group was not given a button. Guess which group had lower stress levels? If you said the one with the button, you are correct. Here’s the kicker; this was true for those who didn’t even use the button. Give people the perception of control, even if it isn’t a real. It reduces stress, enhances performance, and gets people to stick around longer.

4. Transparency

Another method to reduce anxiety in these situations is through ensuring transparency. Flood light into that black box. A mortgage company clearly specifying what is going to happen at each stage and revealing any and all fees up front is going to create a happier customer. Simple, easy to understand, mobile phone plans help customers understand how they are going to be charged. Allowing a customer to view their vehicle as it is being serviced gives customers a sense that there is nothing nefarious going on. People what information as to what is going on. Millennials demand it.

5. Consistency

As a general rule, consistency is critical in creating good experiences. This is especially so in situations that are deemed negative. People hate it when things are changed up with no guarantee that they will not be changed again. Life is impermanent, but most people would prefer not to think about that. They want certainty that each time they get to that rental counter that things will go down the same, no matter where they are at. Research consistency shows that people would rather have something consistency mediocre, or even bad rather than different each time. We want to be certain about what is going happen in the future.

6. Removing the Unpleasantness

I once asked a colleague who has spent much her career in hospitality what are some of the best practices in removing the unpleasantness of wait times in hotels. She rattled off a few but said the best thing you can do is “remove the wait”. Many hotels removed both check in and check out since it was a source of irritation for customers. Advances in pain management makes trips to the doctor and dentist much better than 20 years ago. The best way to reduce negative perceptions of experience is by removing that aspect altogether. While I am on it, can we please make a dentist drill that doesn’t make that noise? It’s 2016 for the love…

Free Ice Cream

Free ice cream does not solve all problems, but experiential design is not about silver bullets and quick fixes. It is about the little things that when working in concert create big changes. Those were only two officers in one canoe in a river in Arkansas. Imagine if this type of positive community policy was scaled up state wide or nationally? The benefits are many and powerful.

Have you identified those approach-avoidance experiences in your customers’ journey today? Are you using any of these strategies to counteract them? I would also be interested in hearing about any other strategies that you have seen to be effective.

Dave Fish, Ph.D.

Dave is the founder of CuriosityCX, an insights and advisory consultancy for Customer Experience. Formerly he was CMO for MaritzCX, now an InMoment company. He has 25+ years of applied experience in understanding consumer behavior consulting with Global 50 companies. Dave has held several executive positions at the Mars Agency, Engine Group, J.D. Power and Associates, Toyota Motor North America, and American Savings Bank. He teaches at the Sam Walton School of Business at the University of Arkansas. He is the author of "The Customer Experience Field Guide" available on Amazon and


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