Words Matter in CX


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Mile 1
12.1 miles to go!

This was the first mile marker sign for the half marathon I ran recently. Then I came upon this one roughly 9 minutes and 22 seconds later…

Mile 2
11.1 miles to go!

Whoever constructed that sign clearly didn’t understand how devastatingly demotivating constantly being reminded how much farther you have to run.

Mile 5
8.1 miles to go!

By this point, I started to avert my eyes from the signs. This repeated at every mile marker in the entire race. The only reminder I wanted of how far left I had to go was at mile 13 where I had 0.1 of a mile to go.

Whoever constructed that messaging had a fundamental lack of understanding of the runner (customer) mindset. Rationally, it shouldn’t matter. It’s just another way of expressing the same data. It’s simple math. But for some reason it really makes an impact on how I (and I think others) felt.

clowning around

The human mind can work in seemingly irrational ways; which the field of behavioral economics seeks to understand. While the term is new, the contributing fields are well established; the intersection of economics and psychology. Let’s take a look of some the psychological dynamics at work here and how they can be applied to the customer experience.

How a statement is framed can have a large impact on how you feel and what you might do. Suppose we did some research and discovered that a new type of sugarless chewing gum was recommended by 80% of dentists who were surveyed. As luck would have it, your company happens to produce a sugarless gum. You come up with the following slogan.

Four out five dentists surveyed recommend sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum

As you are certainly aware, this was an incredibly successful advertising campaign for Trident gum. It sold a ton of Trident. But what if we turned that statement around.

Twenty percent (20%) of dentists surveyed do not recommend sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum

Wow. Makes a difference. You ask yourself; why do 20% of dentists not recommend it? Out of 100 dentists, 20 say it’s not a good idea? These are my teeth after all, I’m not sure if I like that at all. It is the same data just framed different. In fact, Trident even poked fun at themselves about it. It turns out, framing statements in terms of gains or losses can have a big impact.

We know from a preponderance of research that people universally view losses twice as psychologically powerful as gains. We covet what we have much more strongly than what we might get. For example, we are feel much more strongly about paying $1,000 in taxes (loss) than getting a refund for $1,000 (gain). Even though they are economically equivalent, the psychological impact is asymmetric.


This make evolutionary sense. Do we sit tight and be happy with the grubs and sour berries we have collected or do we risk getting eaten by a lion and shimmy up that coconut tree? Mmmmm….yummy grubs!

The Power of Free
This is exactly why “free trials” and the “free economy” are so effective in on-boarding people to recurring revenue schemes. It’s low risk. While giving products and services away for “free” is powerful, that tactic also capitalizes on what is known as the ownership effect. Once a product or service becomes part of your day to day behavior you dislike (or even mourn) the loss of the service. By crippling the service just slightly (advertisements, limited functionality) you can nudge people into a full subscription service. This is the business of model of everything from Time Magazine to Spotify to Dollar Shave Club. The model is powerful. Get them on the juice and then cajole them to do more…even a little bit. In communication you are highlighting what you are losing by not using the upgraded service.


Framing Applied
How we frame the situation for customers is extremely important and can have powerful consequences. For example, giving accurate and realistic estimates on waiting time (e.g., doctor’s office, deli’s, delivery, etc) is known to be a key driver to satisfaction. The first priority is to set and then meet or exceed expectations on delivery time. Second, how you communicate that delivery time can make a difference in perception. Consider these two options:

Your package will be delivered in 10 days.

You will receive your package on April 25th.

Assuming April 15th is 10 days from when you are reading this article, which one did you prefer? I bet most would choose the second one as it doesn’t highlight the loss (in time) and focuses on the positive (when it will arrive).

While loss statements can important catalysts to action (e.g. “your subscription is about to be cancelled, act now!”) they can also have a unnecessary deleterious effect on your customers’ experience. I would encourage you to focus on the miles conquered not the miles that lay ahead in communicating to your customers, unless of course they like miles. And if someone could change those mile marker signs in the next race that would be great too.

Cruel marathon jester image from http://www.50by25.com
Chart from http://english-alert.blogspot.com
Spotify image from Dave Fish

Dave Fish, Ph.D.

Dave is the founder of CuriosityCX, an insights and advisory consultancy for Customer Experience. Formerly he was CMO for MaritzCX, now an InMoment company. He has 25+ years of applied experience in understanding consumer behavior consulting with Global 50 companies. Dave has held several executive positions at the Mars Agency, Engine Group, J.D. Power and Associates, Toyota Motor North America, and American Savings Bank. He teaches at the Sam Walton School of Business at the University of Arkansas. He is the author of "The Customer Experience Field Guide" available on Amazon and BookLogix.com.


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