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Hard Facts: Understanding the Impact of Emotion on Customer Experience

Published July 27, 2015

The role of emotions will become clearer as brands recognize the importance of how customers “feel” about customer experience.

We humans are not nearly as rational as we’d like to believe. In fact, behavioral economists – folks like Dan Ariely of “Predictably Irrational” fame and Daniel Kahneman, author of “Thinking, Fast and Slow” -- believe that the majority of our decisions are made from the heart rather than from the head. Unsurprisingly, this “lack of rationality” isn’t miraculously suspended when we become customers. Which is why the old copywriter saying “Aim for your customers’ hearts, not just their heads” seems to be designed as a mantra for customer experience practioners.


While more traditional economic theory puts reason at the center of customer behavior, new-age economists like Ariely and Kahneman believe that rational considerations actually account for less than one-third of customer behaviors and decisions. And while this intuitive understanding is decades old, scientific and data-driven support for this perspective is just starting to enjoy broader acceptance.

Part of this acceptance is driven by business value: Research from Gallup and The Disney Institute suggests that organizations that optimize emotional connections outperform their competitors by 26 percent in gross margin and 85 percent in sales growth, creating emotionally engaged customers that are three times more likely to recommend and repurchase, less price sensitive and less likely to buy from a competitor.

This data and more like it backs up the intuitive value of creating an emotional connection with your customers with hard facts. The truth is, emotionally connecting with your customers is key (if not the key) in a world where customer experience is the only sustainable competitive advantage.

“Customer experience” lives between your customer’s ears.

At heart, customer perceptions of a positive or negative experience boil down to how they feel about it. Driven in large part by customer expectations of the experience, these feelings occur when expectations are or are not met. That’s because customer experience is what your customers think and feel it is. And for your customers, these feelings are facts.

While there are several aspects to understanding the impact of emotion on customer experience, we’ve been able to drive radical improvements in customer engagement and loyalty by helping organizations better understand and focus on their performance in two key areas:

  1. Understand your attributes, or the “building blocks” of emotional connection: Though emotional in nature (based as they are, after all, on feelings) we classify attributes into two major buckets. The first are Functional attributes such as speed or selection. Though not always consistent – one person’s definition of speed can be very different than another’s – they can be quantified. Emotional attributes include feelings like “trust” and “looking out for me” – and they trigger strong reactions. Quantifying these attributes and the feelings associated with your brand gives you an “emotional inventory” that can help you transform the relationship you have with your customers.
  2. Understand customer expectations of these attributes, and your performance on them: By measuring customer expectations of these attributes across the experience, we’re able to highlight exactly where to focus to improve. Expectations change and have different weight at different times, and for different interactions. Trust, for example, is often more important at one touchpoint, journey stage or specific customer journey than at or for another. No matter where expectations aren’t met, knowing what they are and for whom gives you the tools to prioritize improvements to drive stronger connections by creating and delivering better experiences.

As a result, we’d suggest customer experience professionals ask questions like these: “How can we improve our customer experience by acknowledging and addressing the emotional side of their expectations, and connections with our brand?” As with the growing recognition that customer experience management is a business discipline that can (and does) drive increased enterprise value, embracing the hard facts about the soft side of customer experience will drive increased customer engagement, loyalty and competitive advantage

Those companies that understand the impact and important of emotion in the customer experience will have a distinct advantage when it comes to getting close to their customers; because the rewards of building long-term customer relationships through increased emotional engagement are well worth it.

Which is why understanding, measuring and taking actions based on the emotional impact of experience is one of the key disciplines any customer experience effort needs to embrace. I’d suggest that all this talk of emotionally engaging with customers should make you feel something too: happy.

Because now you know – that understanding what your customers feel and why they do gives you a advantage that will be very difficult for competitors to copy.

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