Why Customer Experience Research Has Morphed: Focus on Change from Cognitive and Rational to Emotional and Relationship-Driven


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Over the past thirty years, most customer-related research has focused almost entirely on the cognitive, rational, and functional elements of decision-making.  Why?  Well, researchers are logical, and the cognitive and rational certainly looks logical – – and emotions, or emotional context, is challenging to measure.

For years, especially in qualitative research, professionals endeavored to get at “feelings” involved when making a brand choice and/or a purchase decision; but that didn’t help very much.  When asking things like choice of brands, i.e. consideration set, the approach had always been to identify importance, or level of expectation, based on product or service features.

A lot of experience research still does this – getting importance and attribute ratings, identifying choices, and using modeling techniques to estimate decision weights – but, at the end of the day, it, i.e. purely cognitive and rational qual and quant,  doesn’t work very well.  Even when looking at product and service features that appear strictly rational, there is an emotional underpinning.  In other words, emotions are driving these importance and performance ratings; and their impact on customer experience perception needs to be understood.

The sea change that occurred in marketing over the past decade, that is the movement from push to pull, has been profound.   The consumer now has access to both formal and informal (online and offline word of mouth and other socially-based) information; and consumers are actively generating their own content;  and this shift in decision-making control has forced concomitant change among corporations and researchers.

And, to parallel this, academics were actively studying the impact of emotions on various types of perception and decision-making.  There has been a great deal of this, on subjects ranging from metaphor elicitation to emotional and personalized weight processing.  Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow, has been especially important for researchers as they endeavor to understand how human behavior impacts customer decision-making.

Perhaps the most seminal impact of the new focus on emotions is that they play a role not only in trust and relationship elements of the customer experience, but on the more basic components of value delivery as well.  Things that, as researchers, we always considered to be the functional and rational elements of experience – price, accuracy, completeness, consistency, reliability, ease of use, etc. – have an emotional base that must be considered.  Newer emotional measurement techniques actively incorporate valence, i.e. sentiment, which clusters emotions into the positive, negative and neutral.  We see a lot of this in current applications of text analytics.

Specifically, researchers are keying in on the eight basic emotions – fear, trust, joy, anticipation, anger, disgust, sadness, and surprise –and organizing them to identify impact, individually and collectively, on decision-making.  And, for each basic emotion, there are shadings of greater or lesser intensity – serenity (lesser) and ecstacy (greater) for joy, grief (greater) and pensiveness (lesser) for sadness, etc. – and quasi-emotional and relationship states that fall in between the basics, such as awe and disapproval, which fall on either side of surprise.   Love falls in between joy and trust.  It’s emotional, of course, but it makes sense in application.

For example, psychologically we know that human fear is unpleasant, can range from terror (greater) to apprehension (lesser), creates very direct (and negative) impression, and causes people to retreat or withdraw.  All of the remaining seven core emotions have similar relationships.. This can be applied to a lot of what we need to understand about customer experiences and the overall customer journey

Trust, however, may be the most important emotion, flanked by acceptance (lesser) and admiration (greater).  It has much to do with brand image and reputation, which, along with core functional elements of the experience, is a key driver of customer decision-making.  Trust is also the most fragile, and can easily compromise a relationship..

What is clear in all of this is that consumers behave with a broad range of emotions, usually complex, in their brand and product journeys.  At each stage of a customer’s life, the researcher needs tools that will help interpret the meaning of emotions like anticipation, at the prospect and initial purchase phase of the customer life cycle, and joy or anger, once the purchase or service experience has been completed.

For everyone involved with customers, understanding and endeavoring to manage their behavior will never be the same.  It’s a brave, somewhat scary, new, emotionally-driven world for experience researchers.  Everyone, especially those involved in interpreting decision behavior drivers, should strap in and get used to it.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC
Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC, specializes in customer and employee experience research/strategy consulting, and brand, customer, and employee commitment and advocacy behavior research, consulting, and training. He has authored seven stakeholder-centric strategy books and 400+ articles, white papers and blogs. In 2018, he was named to CustomerThink's Hall of Fame.


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