If Customers Say They’re Happy, Why Are They Leaving?


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One of our clients, a utility, had spent millions of dollars on implementing a new bill payment system over the web, as traditional customer satisfaction surveys had shown that customers said an online bill-payment system was important to them.

But when we delved further, we discovered that, even though customers said they wanted such a system in the survey, it was really at the bottom of a list of 35 things customers wanted. At the top of the list was having the utility care about and understand customer issues. That’s the type of disconnect we see time after time between what people say and what their subconscious really rates as valuable.

My subconscious sees scuff marks in the hall, a threadbare carpet and a porter half throwing customers’ bags on the floor.

“Our customer satisfaction rate is 95 percent, yet customers are leaving us. Why?” This is a question I am increasingly asked. My answer is simple: You are measuring the wrong thing. In my view, most customer measurement is woefully inadequate. It only scratches the surface of a customer’s true experience and does not take into account the subconscious experience.

Our last book, The DNA of Customer Experience, outlined that all organizations have an Emotional Signature®, but how do you measure the emotional aspect of an experience?

Try this exercise. Think about the shoes you are wearing. Your first thought was probably, “Which shoes do I have on?” Then you may have considered whether your feet were hot or whether your shoes were comfortable or uncomfortable and a number of other things.

Here’s the interesting bit. All of these messages about whether your feet were hot or your shoes uncomfortable were being sent to and received by the subconscious part of your brain. All I did was to raise this to your conscious mind and, in so doing, allowed you to consider the messages. Before I posed this question, your subconscious brain handled all this but did not deem it important enough to highlight this information to your conscious mind. Your conscious mind cannot deal with the thousands of signals it receives every moment of the day, so the subconscious mind prioritizes what is important.

“Seeing” subconsciously

So what does this mean for measurement and the customer experience? Assume I am looking for a conference site. As I inspect a potential hotel, my subconscious sees scuff marks in the hall, a threadbare carpet and a porter half throwing customers’ bags on the floor. My subconscious puts meaning to these but assesses these are within my acceptable parameters (just!) and does not raise this to my conscious mind.

This is what we would call the subconscious experience. It has not yet reached the conscious mind, but we have “seen” it.

Now assume that on the way out, I decide to use the restroom. My subconscious eye notes it is not as clean as I would like. On the way out, I overhear a guest complaining to the manager. All these little details, these messages, are logged. In my car, I am feeling disappointed. These subconscious signals have come together and evoked an emotion. The hotel is not good enough. But why? What has made me feel disappointed? The reality is I may not be able to articulate it myself, but I just know it is wrong. It is the culmination of all the subconscious signals that has made me feel this way. If asked, I may say, “It just didn’t feel right,” or, “There is something I didn’t like about it.”

The following day, the hotel conference manager calls for a decision. “Sorry,” I say, it’s a bit too expensive.” Or, “It’s not in the right location.” I say this either because I am unable to articulate my feelings or I don’t want to enter into conflict. A few days later, I get a questionnaire from the hotel. I put down “too expensive. ” This is what is measured, but it is totally the wrong thing!

To be able to measure things properly you need to understand the subconscious experience and the process of how emotions are evoked. In a very brief summary:

  • We receive stimuli.
  • Our bodies change.
  • A feeling is generated.
  • We become aware of the feeling.
  • We work out why we are feeling this way.
  • We make associations.
  • We memorize and learn.

As you can imagine, it’s a bit more involved than this that, but for further info look at my blog www.experienceclinic.com.

Now perhaps you see why businesses may have a customer satisfaction of 95 percent and still see customers leave.

When you attempt to manage your customer’s experience, you need first to understand the subconscious experience. That means understanding the minute details and what is most important to a customer even better than your customers understand it themselves.

When you don’t understand the subconscious experience, you are in danger of focusing on the wrong things. These can be very expensive and still not create the ideal experience you’re aiming for.

Only after you have understood how emotions are evoked and measured your customers’ subconscious expectations can you deliver an experience that will increase their loyalty.

Colin Shaw
Colin is an original pioneer of Customer Experience. LinkedIn has recognized Colin as one of the ‘World's Top 150 Business Influencers’ Colin is an official LinkedIn "Top Voice", with over 280,000 followers & 80,000 subscribed to his newsletter 'Why Customers Buy'. Colin's consulting company Beyond Philosophy, was recognized by the Financial Times as ‘one of the leading consultancies’. Colin is the co-host of the highly successful Intuitive Customer podcast, which is rated in the top 2% of podcasts.


  1. Very few clients in my world really take the time to know their customers. The ones that do fall into the trap you outlined. This was a very enlightening article. I’ve got some more reading to do!

    Mike Boysen
    Effective CRM Consulting

  2. Glad you enjoyed the article. I guess there are three types of organizations:

    1. Those that don’t know their Customers at all
    2. Those that think they know their Customers, but in reality they only understand their conscious experience
    3. Those that understand the person behind the Customer; and their subconscious experience. ie: what makes them tick etc.

    Our experience shows that you need to understand the later.

    Colin Shaw
    Founder, Beyond Philosophy

    Blog: ExperienceClinic.com

  3. Since 2-4 million bits of information are coming into the brain per second and the conscious mind can only recognize 134 of them, the subconscious mind really does form an opinion about places, people, and experiences that we aren’t even aware of. This illustrates the one truth that I teach all of my clients,…. At the end of the day, your customers don’t really care about your product or service. What they truly care about and place high value on is the FEELING they get when they are dealing with you and your organization.

    So, this article brings all of these things to light and brings it to our conscious mind (our attention) how much we really need to pay attention to all of the aspects of our customers see when they are interacting with us. So not only the appearance of our offices, the language we use, the way we dress, the professionalism of our stationery and signage all form the impressions within our customers perception of the world.

  4. Kristina,

    Some great comments. Total agree and always nice to meet a kindred spirit!

    Colin Shaw
    International Author. Lastest book “The DNA of Customer Experience”

    Blog: ExperienceClinic.com

  5. Very interesting article Colin and completely agree with you on the need to understand the subconscious experience of customers. My experience tells me that the most challenging step to take for companies is from 2-3 in the list of three types of organizations you mention – or to even get to 2 in the first place, i.e. companies BELIEVE they understand their customers’ conscious experiences.

    Your start your article by referring to satisfaction surveys. As many others have pointed out in various CRM literature satisfaction might say something about someone’s opinion but not much about future behaviour. This is the reason why so many satisfaction surveys at the end include questions such as “Would you stay at this hotel again”, “Would you purchase product X again” etc. This way companies seek to show that they understand the correlation between satisfaction and loyalty. I stopped counting how many times I have heard that this last question measures “loyalty”, but the problem is that the responses to these types of questions simply doesn’t reveal much (real) information about future behaviour – even though it is intended to do so.

    Filling out a customer satisfaction survey and being a bit critical about cleanliness of room and restaurant menu, I might (very likely) still at the end put “yes” in the box about whether I would stay at the hotel again as the two matters raised did not “destroy” my experience. BUT, what does this answer say about my actual intend to stay at the same hotel? Am I 10% or 90% likely to do so, do I expect someone to reply to me that hotel is now cleaner in order for me to return, did I just put “yes” because I didn’t want to make too much of a deal about the cleaniness, where is my “yes” on the loyalty ladder, what other factors (e.g. competing offer) would change my “yes” to a “no” etc?

    Even before seeking to go from step 2 to 3, companies ought to ask themselves if they are indeed at step 2….or if they are playing around the 1.7 level….devoting 95% of a customer survey/analyses to satisfaction and 5% to “loyalty” related questions is simply not sufficient to even understand the conscious experiences of customers.


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