Emotions, Memories, and the Customer Experience


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If you don’t remember an experience, did it really happen? Sure, lots of things happen to us that we don’t remember.

If you don’t remember an experience, does whatever happened really matter? That is a much thornier question. To some extent we all are the product of the cumulative experiences we have had in our lifetime. So even the countless experiences that you have had and long forgotten are “part of you.”

Philosophy aside, from a customer experience perspective, do experiences customers have but don’t remember matter? That is, do the experiences of yesterday that never formed a memory affect the customer’s behavior tomorrow?

The practical answer here is no: if the customer has no memory of an experience, that experience is meaningless and irrelevant. It’s as if the experience didn’t happen, as it has no impact on the customer’s attitudes and behaviors. A memory need not be top of mind to matter, however – we all have memories that we have “forgotten,” but which really are only temporarily buried until something triggers their recall.

Meaningful and Meaningless Experiences

If you are in the customer experience management business, this is the ultimate question and not some academic debate: what differentiates the meaningful, important experiences from the meaningless, trivial ones?

On the face of it, there is a simple, glib answer: experiences that are important are meaningful; those that are unimportant are meaningless. That, of course, begs the question. What is it that makes an experience sufficiently important that it’s filed in your memory, while another experience goes into the dustbin of your personal history?

Emotions trigger memories. Customer experiences that spark an emotion of some sort, a feeling, leave an imprint, a memory. Experiences that do not stimulate any emotional response are eminently forgettable. Most experiences, quite frankly, are fleeting; once these meaningless experiences are complete, they dissipate, vaporizing into the ether and are gone.

In other words, experiences are meaningful when they ignite some type of emotional response that, in turn, makes the experience memorable. They are meaningless when we pass through an experience without being “touched” in some manner, as if we are a mere observer, not a participant. If you don’t feel it, you will not remember it.

How Important are Emotions?

Rather than simply say “very,” let me offer a more quantitative answer: in general, adding emotional measures into the mix improves or adds about 50% more punch to modeling outcomes and attitudes. That means when we look at:

  • Repurchase Behavior: we see that the addition of a positive emotional attachment to the brand increases the likelihood a customer repurchases or renews by about half
  • Loyalty: when we incorporate favorable emotional measures on top of “rational” assessments of performance, loyalty scores climb by some 50%
  • Customer Spend: layer in positive emotional bonds and customer spend rises, again by approximately 50%

The brand people are yawning about now: they have long recognized the primacy of the emotional dimension in decision making. Most CX managers, however, pay lip service to the importance of emotions.

Why? Because companies sell “stuff” (AKA products and services). They instinctively focus on making their stuff “better” (AKA cleaner, more efficient, faster, more durable, less expensive . . .). And it’s much easier to go to leadership with “hard” ideas about fixing the “stuff” than with “soft” suggestions that you should make customers feel better about your “stuff.” The problem is that the “hard” fixes often have less impact than the “soft” touches.

Where does the “hard” rational assessment of product and service characteristics come into play? As much as many of us pride ourselves on our rational, analytical thinking, all the research indicates that our rational side weighs in after our emotional side already has made a decision: in effect, our rational side “confirms” (AKA rationalizes) the emotionally driven decision.

Emotional ≠ Irrational

Emotions are 100% personal and 100% subjective. There is no right and wrong when it comes to how someone feels. But that doesn’t make emotions irrational. In fact, a strong case can be made that shopping for, buying, and using products and services that you like and make you feel good is eminently rational, even if your preferences are totally subjective and seemingly don’t “optimize” what others consider rational criteria.

The fact that people have different tastes and preferences is human – some feel better in a suit, others in a t-shirt; one enjoys a diet driven by taste and immediate gratification, another for their health; this person feels better when they save extra money, while another prefers to spend it all on vacations or other indulgences. Perhaps the least effective way of acquiring and retaining customers is telling them what they should like.

Experiences also are 100% personal and 100% subjective. Regardless of the experience a company specifies, what matters is the customer’s perception of that experience. How does the experience make them feel?

The Opportunity and the Risk

On the upside, companies can use their marketing savvy to craft and reinforce experiences that increase the likelihood of positive emotional responses and try to blunt or decrease the impact of experiences that are likely to stimulate negative feelings. (Think of Disney’s efforts to distract and entertain you while you wait in long lines.) Creating a strong emotional bond with customers is the best way to establish a strong, enduring relationship and one that can withstand occasional disappointments or performance failures.

On the downside, by contrast, it is exceptionally difficult to overcome and reverse negative feelings. This problem is compounded by the fact that a negative emotional halo typically trumps a positive halo. Negative information is perceived, processed, acted on, and shared with others more quickly than positive information. The “math” here is pretty clear: 1 positive + 1 negative = a negative emotional impact.

That’s why it is so critical to try to defend against performance failures and negative experiences. When such events occur – and it is inevitable that they will happen – it is essential to attempt to redress the problem quickly to try to salve the wound and reverse or at least neutralize the customer’s negative feelings. If not, expect reduced customer spend, complaints, negative reviews, and defection.

The Challenge

Metaphorically, emotions are akin to the 90% of an iceberg that is submerged. That makes measurement a challenge, especially measurement at scale. Text or Emotions Analytics remains the best approach to measuring emotions, although not everyone expresses their emotions.
As with other data and insights, the key, of course, is in the application, using the knowledge to curate experiences that positively resonate with customers. (Needless to say, all of this applies to employees as well.) It may not sound very CX-y, but the two most important questions you should ask yourself are:

  • How did we make our customers feel today?
  • What can we do to make our customers feel more favorably about us tomorrow?


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