Positive, Negative, or Nothing At All — What Do Your Customers Remember About Their Experience?


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Over the last few months, I have noticed increasing recognition of the importance of EMOTION in Customer Experience. For years, dismissed as being ‘soft and fluffy’, more and more organisations are recognising that the way they make customers FEEL, can and will have significant effect on their customer advocacy, loyalty and as a result, financial growth.

There has never been any doubt in my mind that the EMOTIONAL component of all experiences is perhaps the most important aspect of a customer’s relationship with a business. When we, the consumer, decide to interact with a company, we largely do so because they have a product or service that we want/need. Increasingly, more and more industries are finding it difficult to differentiate themselves on the product or service alone.

As a frequent air traveller, I always use the example of airlines – when you think about it, they all use the same aircraft…… they all fly to and from the same airports. We very much take their ability to get us from one place to another as a given. That is why it is difficult to recall who we flew with. Unless the experience was particularly bad, or particularly good, the experience tends to slip into a black hole of unconsciousness somewhere in the hidden archive in our brains!!

Can you remember which one you flew with?
Can you remember which one you flew with?

How EASY it is for us to interact with an organisation is another component that is definitely growing in importance and significance to the Customer Experience. The rise of the ‘Customer Effort Score’ or ‘Net Effort Score’ is a reflection of the fact that companies are aspiring to know whether or not their customers are finding it easier to do what they need to do.

The best example of this is without question Amazon. So much of the retail giant’s success is as a result of their desire to offer the simplest, most accessible Customer Experience in the world. Their ‘one click purchase’ is legendary and hugely differentiating for them in one of the most competitive consumer industries on the planet.

The better your products and services and the easier you make it for customers to access them, the more likely it is that those customers will come back for more. But, that word DIFFERENTIATION must never be forgotten in the constant struggle for customer loyalty. However good your products and services are, someone else will always be on your shoulder able to offer customers something that is almost identical. With Amazons ‘1-click’ being a notable exception, however easy you make it for customers to interact with you, you can bet your bottom dollar that your competitors are trying to do exactly the same thing.

The pharmaceutical industry is the classic example of this. An industry that has been notorious in its ability to make money ‘fall out of the sky’ through the development of unique, patented products, is now finding that their major differentiator – unique products – is becoming more and more difficult to sustain. As soon as a product loses its exclusivity, ANY pharmaceutical company can make and sell the same thing. That is why the pharma industry is slowly waking up to the reality of the importance of Customer Experience. The way they make their customers FEEL, will have a huge effect on which pharmaceutical company they choose to do business with.

The key question is this – what are your customers going to remember about interacting with you? Often, they will not remember the product or service. They will also find it difficult to recall how ‘easy’ it was doing business with you. What they WILL remember is this – the way the EXPERIENCE made them FEEL!

Everything you do – that is the simplest definition of Customer Experience – will determine exactly how you make your customers feel. They will feel one of three emotions as a result of their experience(s). They will feel very good about their experience…..they will feel very bad about their experience….or they will feel NOTHING AT ALL. If a customer feels good about an experience, that is the optimal state – the state that is likely to see the customer returning to you as well as possibly recommending you to others. If a customer feels badly about their experience, whilst that is not an ideal state, it presents an opportunity for you to recover the situation. There is enough evidence to suggest that if you recover very well, it can lead to even greater loyalty than if you were to get things right first time.

That leaves the third emotion – ‘nothing at all’ – the worst of the three outcomes. If your customer does not remember anything about their experience with you, then no emotional connection has been forged between your company and the customer. The experience has disappeared into the hidden archive in their brain, leaving you in a difficult position if you want them to return to interact with you again.

I have flown over 100 times this year. I can only remember 4 flights – only 4!! Of the 4, three were particularly bad experiences and one was particularly good. The other 96…… I CANNOT REMEMBER ANYTHING. If you asked me who I flew to Denmark with a few months ago, I genuinely cannot remember. Who did I fly to Bangkok with earlier this year…..nope…..cannot remember that either. Can I remember who I flew from Paris to Vilnius with in September 2015 – oh yes – I will NEVER FORGET that one – an awful experience with Scandinavian Airlines – so awful, that I will NEVER fly with them again if I have the choice. In my last column, I shared my 1 memorable positive experience – with Etihad – I will never forget it. Only yesterday, I was discussing work with a client in Dubai. I specifically asked if I could fly with Etihad – even if it meant having to transfer to Dubai by bus. What I remember is a clear driver of my behaviour.

So what are your customers remembering about their experience with you? What do you want them to remember? How do your customers FEEL about the experience you provide today? These are all critical questions to answer if your organisation desires to be more customer centric. I regularly observe businesses struggling to describe what they THINK it feels like to be a customer – that is reflection of the fact that they do not actually know. If you think that you do not know either, address that situation as soon as possible. Find out what it FEELS like to be a customer and see what they are remembering about their experiences with you. If they remember nothing at all……your strategic focus needs to address that EMOTIONAL Customer Experience dilemma!

Ian Golding, CCXP
A highly influential freelance CX consultant, Ian advises leading companies on CX strategy, measurement, improvement and employee advocacy techniques and solutions. Ian has worked globally across multiple industries including retail, financial services, logistics, manufacturing, telecoms and pharmaceuticals deploying CX tools and methodologies. An internationally renowned speaker and blogger on the subject of CX, Ian was also the first to become a CCXP (Certified Customer Experience Professional) Authorised Resource & Training Provider.


  1. Also, recognize that, beyond just core positive and negative (or no) emotions associated with the customer experience, there is a whole range of emotions (anger, happiness, frustration, etc.) drive both memory and downstream behavior.

  2. While customers always appreciate strong professional service, they will remember the challenges the most. Stay consistent, and communicate well with your client throughout the transaction, and they will remember that you delivered.

  3. My almost all customers remember their experience with us and use to share the feedback also. Some post positive reviews & some negative. Negative reviews always helps us in improving our service. And as a customer I also use to share the feedback with e-commerce sites which I shop from.

  4. Great piece – brings to mind the work of Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow.
    One’s remembering self has a bias for remembering “short periods of intense joy”, or peak moments, especially at the end of an experience. Brands would be wise to evaluate how the customers interaction with their brands END, as this will formulate the strongest memory. For instance, if you think about a flight you have taken: you could have the best gate agents, flight attendants, smooth flight, arrive on time – but if when you land your luggage isn’t there, that is what you will remember most. In our organization we call this the “peak end rule”, and it is as powerful as any first impression that a brand can make.

  5. hello, Ian. well put.
    Too many people want to focus on the hygiene factors, as you said. The airlines focus on these, as you said, but are sadly lacking when it comes to pandering the emotional factors important to the customer.
    First, they do not understand what is truly important to a customer
    Second, when they do, they do not know how to change mind sets. They can think processes, and systems, and these do not impact mind-sets. And so, no one focuses on the emotional aspects to the extent they should.
    Ian, I hope such companies see your great post

  6. Hi, I agree that this is an interesting area. In fact, our lead for customer-centricity recently said that customer sentiment is the most important piece of customer data for making smarter marketing decisions.

    At TM Forum we recently ran a Catalyst project around customer sentiment and emotion for small and medium business customers of communications service providers. The main takeaway was that customer sentiment must be captured whenever possible throughout every interaction, even if that interaction is simply a personal phone call between the customer and a sales rep, or if it’s a technician installing equipment.

    You can find out more here: http://inform.tmforum.org/strategic-programs-2/customer-centricity/2015/07/the-most-important-piece-of-customer-data-is/

  7. Ian,
    You have described the elements of the customer experience. However, you have not provided any guidance to suppliers other than to eliminate the bad experiences (which everyone will remember, of course).

    How does a supplier create an emotional connection that customers will feel which is different from run-of-the-mill average service? If an airline has 150 passengers on one flight, how can they make that experience memorable to the 150 individuals who 1) have different views of what average looks like and 2) have widely different views of how the experience should have felt to them? Should they attempt to please the passengers with the highest expectations and assume that the other passengers will automatically be pleased?

    I would appreciate your insights.

    Bill Self

  8. Hi Nicola

    Your comment about customer sentiment is very interesting.

    You suggest that capturing customer sentiment ‘whenever possible throughout every interaction’ is important for companies. On an operational level it sounds like a good idea, particularly if customer-facing staff are empowered to immediately act on negative sentiment to recover the situation. Care must obviously be taken to ensure that collecting frequent sentiment does not intrude on the customer’s experience, particularly if the sentiment is not immediately acted on.

    On a more strategic level I am not so sure it is a good idea. Over 30 years of research in customer satisfaction suggests that customers form judgements about their experiences at the end of the experience, shortly afterwards, or even when reminded of the experience during a later, similar experience. Kahneman & Arielly’s neuroscience research that led to the Peak-Trend-End heuristic reinforces the customer’s focus on the end-of-experience rather than in-experience.

    My suggestion is that companies should look to capture customer sentiment at key points in the experience and particularly, at the end of or shortly after an experience, rather than continuously throughout it. Good service staff will of course surreptitiously collect and act on customer sentiment throughout the customer experience.

    Graham Hill

  9. Hi Bill

    What a great question.

    As you point out different customers have different expectations of service. Having said that, I think it is reasonable to assume that those expectations would be distributed around some sort of average set of expectations. Logically, if our hypothetical airline, Air Customer3D, were to identify the distribution of expectations and the average they could use the insights to provide the right level of service to satisfy the majority of customers.

    Knowing the competitive pressures facing the airline industry, this approach would likely be too expensive for Air Customer3D to implement for the majority of customers. In these circumstances, the airline should identify a lower level of service for the majority of customers and only seek to provide extra services for a minority of customers. As only a minority of customers create the majority of profits for most airlines, Air Customer3D should focus the extra services on just these customers. This, of course, is exactly what full service airlines already do through their frequent flyer programmes.

    Graham Hill

  10. Graham,

    Thank you. Your response seems to encourage airlines and other businesses to perform against an average set of expectations. However, the title of your post focuses on what customers will remember. My feeling is that customers do not remember average or ordinary—only extraordinary.

    As you point out, these airlines have done an excellent job in providing extra services for their more profitable customers. Meanwhile, they have attempted to lower expectations for the majority of their customers, including charging for checked bags that used to free and increasing the boarding times by allowing frequent travelers to board early, thereby creating an inefficient loading pattern for everyone.

    I believe that if the airlines and other industries focused on how they could get better for the majority of their customers, this new approach could re-define what ‘customer-centered’ means. And that is an outcome that customers would notice and, in turn, would remember.


  11. Hi Bill – I agree with Graham – this an excellent question. My thoughts on it are this:

    All experiences are made up of a series of touch points. These touch points are what defines the ‘customer journey(s)’. Some of the touch points are what can be described as ‘basics’ – things that customers take for granted. Sticking with the flying analogy, the airline getting you from ‘a to b’ we take as given. If an airline gets us to where we want to go, we do not contact them to say ‘well done’ – we just expect them to do that!! It is critical for all organisations to get these basics right – failure to do so will generate the negative memories refer to in my post. Too often customers are ‘let down’ by the basics just not being delivered.

    Creating positive memories will either be done so by correcting/resolving something that went wrong ‘well’, OR by ‘exceeding customer expectation’. Where there is NO emotional connection with a brand – and hence a likelihood that a customer will not even remember the interaction after a short period of time, it is usually (in my experience) because whilst they may be getting the majority of the BASICS right, they are doing nothing at any point in the journey to EXCEED customer expectation. This means that they are very unlikely to be differentiating their experience – it is just the same as everyone else and everything ‘merges into one’.

    That is why I believe (and it is my opinion) that all businesses need to prioritise which BASICS need to be fixed/improved, but at the same time determine where they should be ‘sprinkling the fairy dust’ at the same time.

    Just my perspective, but I hope it answers your question…

  12. Hi Ian

    I remember a few years ago, an excellent book by Barwise & Meehan called ‘Simply Better’. Subtitled ‘Winning and Keeping Customers by Delivering What Matters Most’ the book described how companies should fix the basics rather than focusing on the latest new management fads. I have long been a fan of fixing the basics that so often drive customers away. Sadly, management is more often seduced by doing new things rather than doing the right things.

    Many experiences with companies are quite badly broken. Just fixing the basics would be enough to create positive memories in many customers. Or failing that, recovering from critical service failures. Although companies have to work much harder to recover from service failures than they would have had to to fix the service in the first place. And they often fail to recover adequately. Keaveney found that failure to recover from service failure was the second biggest reason to switch to a new service provider (after the service failure in the first place).

    Exceeding customer expectations – delighting the customer – is just as fraught with difficulties. Delighting the customer requires both over-delivery against expectations and the element of surprise. Unfortunately, as Rust & Oliver show, delighting customers both raises the expectations bar for customers and increases the costs of service for the provider. It raises the costs for competitors even more, but that still doesn’t make it a cost-effective strategy for the vast majority of companies.

    Companies should fix the business basics, as you suggest, but they should be very frugal with the delightful fairy dust.

    Graham Hill

  13. Hi Bill

    Thanks for your considered response.

    As you suggest, since the early 80s and the introduction of the first frequent flyer programme, airlines have focused on providing ever more refined services to their most profitable customers. These customers can be extremely valuable for airlines; one United Airlines customer has racked up over 8.8 million miles alone flying on the airline!

    Should airlines focus on their most profitable customers and try and squeeze a few more dollars out of their least profitable? If that is what the airline industry is doing as a whole, and it by and large is, they would be foolish and probably bankrupt if they did not do so. Or should they focus on the majority of customers and try and provide a good service to all? That would take a very bold airline CEO. As the saying goes, their are old CEOs and their are bold CEOs but there are very few old and bold CEOs.

    The purpose of business may be to create a customer, but the ultimate purpose is to create a highly profitable customer. We should never forget that.

    Graham Hill


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