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How to Construct the Ultimate Customer Experience Based on How Human Memory Works

This article was published on May 13, 2020

by Micah Solomon

• Memory is a collection of moments, undemocratically assembled, with enormous gaps in it. In fact, a customer’s memory of the customer experience is, in a sense, one big gap, punctuated by a couple of “snapshots”–or, if you prefer, a couple of extremely brief “movies”–that define the entire customer experience for that customer.

[A caution: "snapshot" and "movie" are both visual terms, which makes them not fully accurate. The impressions retained by a customer can depend as much on olfactory, auditory, and physical (touch) elements as they do on visuals.]

Since only a very few moments linger in memory, serving as proxy for the entire experience, you’ll of course want to know which moments persist in memory. The answer, I’m a bit afraid to tell you, is that it’s not entirely predictable. But there are definitely factors that make the odds better that something will be retained in memory.

• The beginning of the customer experience is disproportionately memorable; this is the well-established “primacy effect.” (Sometimes, depending on the nature of your business, the beginning of an interaction within the customer experience can also have disproportionate memorability due to its location in time.) Furthermore, connecting with customers in those first moments has practical importance because if you fail at this juncture, a customer is likely to tune out, turn off, or jump ship before you have a chance to proceed further.

• The end of the entire customer experience has similar potential to be memorable; this is known as the “recency effect.”

• Peak moments” (positive peaks and negative peaks), no matter where they occur, are also highly memorable. That might sound like a silly statement (why wouldn’t peaks be memorable?) but the point is how disproportionate this effect tends to be. It’s quite possible for a single peak moment to matter more than all of the non-peak moments in a customer experience combined. (The disproportionate memorability of these figurative peaks is more or less akin to literal, physical peaks. Think of how memorable it is to reach a mountain peak compared to the longer stretches of time spent nearly at the peak, halfway up the mountain, and so forth.) This makes it spectacularly important to pay attention to whatever could form a powerful emotional moment in a customer journey; it’s why “wow moments” can be so valuable in forming a bond with a customer and why great customer service-oriented organizations strive to distinguish themselves not only by consistently providing satisfactory customer service, but also by intermittently providing extraordinary customer service moments—wow customer experiences, in other words.

• A corollary of the peak moment principle is that overall duration of an experience doesn’t necessarily matter particularly much. It’s possible for a customer to take home vivid, warm memories from a mere 25 seconds of spectacular sparkling kindness, yet retain no memories at all from a week of perfectly satisfactory service interactions with the same company. (This “time-deafness” is why it’s a mistake for resort or hotel employees to ask, during the course of a guest’s stay, “how long will you be with us?” This takes the guest out of the moment and projects them mentally past the end of their vacation.)

By the way, don’t mis-apply this time-deafness principle and think it means that speed of service doesn’t matter. Speed of service matters greatly. No company benefits from a customer taking home memories of waiting in line or on hold or while a phone rings five, six, seven times and then rolls over to a hold-music serenade.

Before I leave you, I want to add a final caveat. Though I’ve given you some insight into what’s likely to be retained in customer memory, applying this in a mechanical or reductive manner isn’t going to work. Businesses have only limited ability, on their own, to “game” how a moment is perceived by a customer. A business creates its own end of the customer experience, but a customer then brings their humanity to the experience; it’s this combination of the customer’s personality and what the business delivers that creates the experience as ultimately perceived by the customer.

This reality should inspire you to stay as close to the customer as possible, ideally to individual customers, and it should also–and this is very important–keep you humble about the entire enterprise.

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