The Peak-End Rule’s Missing Piece

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Thinking, Fast and Slow is a great CX resource, even though it’s not about customer experience per se. The most valuable takeaway for CX pros is probably “The Peak-End Rule.” As Kahneman explains the concept, you can approximate how someone feels about an experience overall by averaging the peak point of emotions and how the experience ends.

His signature example is a colonoscopy. With that cancer screening, subjects who received a positive test result after the procedure rated the experience lower than those who received a negative result. That unwelcome news at the end of the experience led patients to recall the entire experience as worse, even though, rationally, the procedure was the same regardless of the outcome.

(All CX leaders should familiarize themselves with the Peak-End Rule. But I’m not gonna lie: Kahneman’s book is a tough read. However, it will make you a better CX leader if you invest the time and focus to tackle it.)

The Peak-End Rule is a terrific guidepost for CX, and Kahneman cites great research that applies to many of our clients. It works well for customer experience. Much of the time.

But…

Kahneman’s an academic, not a CX leader. As such, he limited his research to short-term experiences. (Though, arguably, a colonoscopy probably doesn’t feel like a short experience.)

So the findings are incomplete, which limits their broad application.

Take a wider view

Most of the experiences we’re managing in CX are longer-term in nature. That includes things like applying for a mortgage, co-creating innovative products with a client, or filing an automobile claim.

Longer processes entail many more touchpoints and opportunities to react. That introduces a third critical point in the equation, beyond the peak point of emotions and the ending.

I discovered this third critical interaction while we mapped the life insurance purchasing journey for a client. We studied their customers over a period of weeks, to get a fuller understanding of the journey.

It’s critical to watch customers as they go through an experience. This relates to another of Kahneman’s findings: that we live under the “tyranny of the remembering mind.” In other words, when you ask people about an experience that occurred in the past, their recollection is highly filtered, and biased by the two key points mentioned earlier.

So to truly understand an experience, you need to talk with people who have finished the journey (capturing the remembering mind), as well as those currently going through it (to tap the experiencing mind).

In this case, the experiencing mind led us to a significant discovery.

Half the participants came into the life insurance purchasing journey feeling anxious, while the rest were neutral or positive. And we found that these incoming mindsets were difficult to change. Those who entered the experience feeling positive tended to remain that way for the duration of the journey. Similarly, those who were anxious or uncertain at the outset also ended the process feeling negative. The same touchpoints that negative customers reported as being incredibly frustrating were non-issues for those who began the journey feeling positive.

You may have seen this in your own work. Some customers breeze through a certain form. Others rant for six paragraphs in your survey about how terrible that same form is. Because the crux of the problem isn’t really the form itself – it’s the customer’s mindset. (But still, fix that form!)

Starting on the right foot

In the end, we found there were a few customers who flipped from negative to positive. What made the difference?

Those customers’ financial advisors met with them to explain the process. This set their expectations, and demonstrated someone was there to support them and help them succeed.

That reassurance was a game-changer.

And that’s why the beginning is the third journey touchpoint (in addition to the peak and end) that you need to manage in longer-term experiences. Customers may not even remember their first interactions with you, but they can impact their perceptions and behavior long into the future.

For this reason, the onboarding experience is often the most important journey to get a handle on. If onboarding goes poorly, it can set the tone – and duration! – of your entire customer relationship. If it goes well, it can pay dividends for years to come.

Take a distributor’s journey that we mapped. When onboarding was quick and effective, customers had more confidence in the distributor, which led them to order more from the company. When onboarding dragged on, customers either stopped working with the company entirely or limited their orders to a narrow slice of products.

Focusing on the beginning of the experience also impacts the Peak-End Rule. A great onboarding experience is likely to make the peak point of emotions more positive. From there, the impact continues as it fuels a more positive ending. All told, that means more customers who are more loyal and more eager to work with you.

As you design journeys, it’s clear you need to take the time to measure and manage the peak point of emotions and the ending of the journey. But devoting extra time to understanding and optimizing the beginning of the journey is a compelling way to maximize your impact over time.

Because the beginning matters…whether customers remember it or not!

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