Habituation and the risk to customer experience


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I watched a really interesting TED talk by Tony Fadell, originator of the iPod, the other day. In it he was talking about a process called habituation and how it helps us learn i.e. when we learn new things we quickly hard-wire them into habits as it allows us to free up space in our minds to focus on/learn new things.

However, in his talk he also talked about the downside to habituation and how it helps us get “used to everyday things really fast”. As a result, habituation can stop us from noticing and then fixing the ‘invisible’ problems that are around us.

I think this is particularly interesting and relevant when it comes to improving customer service and customer experience and how customers perceptions, behaviours and preferences change over time.

So, given the phenomenon of habituation, how can organisations be sure that they are continually noticing the problems that customers face?

Some might say that Voice of the Customer (VoC) programmes, customer journey mapping, design thinking techniques as well as things like feedback surveys help with this. Yet, we must still recognise that habituation occurs in people and, thus, in organisations. So, it is a risk that we need to aware of and manage.

Therefore, how can we make sure that we still see or continue to find and “solve a problem that almost no one sees” as Tony Fadell puts it? How can we develop the skill, habit, behaviour or practice that helps us see the problems that we don’t normally see? How can we see continue to see the 1%’s that will keep us on the continuous innovation and improvement track and that will allow us to continue to serve, delight and wow our customers?

To do so, I believe, we must rail against our natural instincts and foster, as Tony talks about, our ‘beginners mind’. We need to continue to strive to look anew at what we do and how customers engage with us and our products and services so we can see where the problems of the present and the future lie?

But, to achieve that where should we start?

Personally, I think it starts with awareness and continues with attention.

For example, consider the closest relationships that we have in our personal lives. The relationship with your wife, husband, partner etc. Aren’t all the best relationships typified by the level of awareness we have of each other, the attention we pay to each other, what we notice and, then, how we respond?

If we let our awareness and attention slip does that not lead to complacency, a sense of growing apart, a lack of care and, potentially, a break up?

There are lessons here for organisations and how they manage and develop the relationships they have with their customers. And, perhaps, the competitive edge and success that they are all looking for lies in how they combat the effects of habituation, how they notice things and how much attention they pay to their customers.

This post was originally published on my Forbes.com column here.
Photo Credit: jaycross Flickr via Compfight cc

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Adrian Swinscoe
Adrian Swinscoe brings over 25 years experience to focusing on helping companies large and small develop and implement customer focused, sustainable growth strategies.


  1. A very intriguing post, Adrian. How to combat habituation “blindness” plagues every service provider. Sooner or later we all stop seeing the wallpaper of service. My wife and I share the same hair stylist. Periodically he gets a permanent just to understand what his female customers endure. It has been a path to improvement. A major hotel chain asked frequent guests to allow them to “follow them to their room” to watch them unpack and settle into their room (the guest received a discount). The hotel learned about subtle “negative workarounds” that never appeared on a guest comment card–like having one luggage cradle when traveling with a companion, or having to unplug the provided hair dryer in order to plug in the one the guest packed. Mazda had a cross-discipline team of employees “live” for six months with customers in the target market for a new high-performance car just to get in their heads. (See Product Development Performance by Kim Clark and Takahiro Fujimoto). We need to find novel ways to start seeing what our customers see in order to anticipate and innovative! And, it all starts with the actual customer up close and personal, not our “research about” the customer.

  2. Having, in an earlier part of my life, been an active martial artist (third degree black belt in tang soo do), I’m very aware of the concept of “moo shim”, translated as ‘no mind’ or ‘beginner’s mind’. This is very much an element of Zen thinking, where the individual trains to go beyond habituation, and allow the influx of new perspectives and learning to surface. In marketing, this applies, for example, to brand positioning through techniques like ideation; but, per your post, it can also help organizations break out of experience habituation – – if they will let it happen. Unfortunately, cloistered and antecedent thinking often prevents this, leading to commoditization (perhaps worse than habituation).

  3. I really enjoyed your thoughts here. I wonder if it is somewhat of a parallel to why the TV show “Undercover Boss” was so successful. It was, fundamentally, a show about looking at things from a different perspective opens peoples’ eyes.

    As you pointed out, for organizations to truly achieve great things in customer experience, VOC programs and the like are not enough. They examine how people feel about the existing paradigm, but they don’t do much to explore innovation potential.

    To be truly successful, I believe that companies need to identify and address the “why” questions their customers are asking. “Why do they do it this way?”, “Why don’t they just…” – those sorts of questions. Customers ask these questions all the time in conversations with friends and families. The problem is that most companies aren’t listening.


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