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July 2007

Want to Improve Customer Experience? Try a Dose of Behavioral Science!

In a June 2001 article entitled "Want to Perfect Your Company's Service? Use Behavioral Science" published in the Harvard Business Review, Richard B. Chase and Sriram Dasu discuss how an understanding of the psychology of service encounters can lead to better customer experiences and service management.

How a customer feels during a service encounter as well as their perception of what occurred determine whether or not their experience was a good one. With this in mind, it is possible to engineer an experience to ensure the best possible outcome.

When I think of customer service situations where I have been treated poorly, what matters is how I feel or perceive versus what I say. If I walk into a store and am treated in a negative way, I may mention my disappointment to the person(s) involved if I feel there is some benefit to be derived from speaking up. The way in which the issue is resolved then determines whether or not I will continue to do business there. It's my perception of what happened that forms my final decision.

How can this help practitioners in the service industry? Here are a few principles from the Behavioural Sciences that show how people react to experiences, and how they rationalize about them afterwards:

1) People don't remember every single moment of an experience. They remember the high and low points, the sequence of pain or pleasure and the ending. Application - People pay more attention to the rate of improvement in a situation and to the ending (ie. a terrible ending usually dominates the person's view of the whole experience), than they do to every point along the way. Focus on the last encounter and make sure your experience ends on a high note.

2) People who are mentally engaged in a task don't notice how long it takes. Application - Unless an activity is much longer or shorter than expected, people won't pay much attention to its duration. If the experience is pleasurable, this perception will dominate over any perception as to the time involved. Make the experience pleasurable for your customers and engage them if the process or interaction involves numerous steps over a period of time.

3) People want to put a human face on a problem and tend to blame individuals versus the system (ie. they will blame the hotel clerk for a billing error versus the faulty computer system). Application - Give people a sense of control over the process, and they are far less likely to pinpoint blame. If they feel empowered and engaged, they are less likely to be angry if something goes wrong.

The principles listed above apply not only to physical encounters, but to virtual ones as well. If a website is not designed to provide an optimal customer experience, then people become frustrated and will remember the final experience as a negative one (for more information on how to design better online customer experiences, see my article published in 2002 in Marketing Magazine).

The ability of marketers and customer service practitioners to control and manage the customer experience can have significant impact on a customer's buying decision. Put yourself in your customer's shoes. Which experiences can be shortened? Lengthened? What is the last image of your service that your customers remember, and how can you make it even better?

Remember - what we perceive, we believe...and if we believe, we will buy.


'Telling the Story' of UN Refugees

It's not often that a print ad captures my attention and imagination, but a recent campaign designed by BBDO Toronto in conjunction with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) did just that. The ad was in a recent edition of Canadian Living Magazine, and featured a photo of three refugees standing in a sandstorm, with nothing but a few parcels and the clothes on their backs. The tagline literally stopped me in my tracks, and I wondered what story the advertiser was trying to tell. The copy was at total odds with the desperate mood of the photo, and I found myself drawn into the story and compelled to learn more.

The copy reads:

"refugees are so lucky..They have no idea how much it costs to renovate a house these days. Brazilian hardwood. Stainless steel appliances. Kitchen backsplash at $12.55 per square foot. Their home furnishings tend to be a little more basic. Tarps. Rope. Cardboard. Anything that can help protect from the harshness of the elements. And give them a fighting chance at survival.

What we take for granted 21 million people wish they could have back. Please give to the UN Refugee Agency. Visit unhcr.ca."

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Talk about a powerful message. The campaign is going global and includes a series of TV and print ads designed to raise awareness about the plight of more than 20 million refugees.

What was interesting about the ad is that it drew me into the refugee experience by contrasting their lifestyle against our own. In contrast to the chaotic world of a refugee, our problems seem so insignificant. The tagline was brilliant. I wondered how refugees could even possibly be referred to as "lucky", and I was compelled to learn more.

Patrick Scissons, VP, Associate Creative Director, BBDO Toronto said: “We’ve all seen the news reports and images of refugees around the world, but the challenge in telling their stories is that their experiences are so far removed from our daily lives. Now imagine coming home after a long day at work to find that all your personal possessions and the home you know have been taken from you. This is an experience we can all relate to and we used this as our starting point for the campaign so people could begin to understand what refugees around the world go through on a daily basis."

The campaign truly highlights the power of advertising to tell a story. With the creation of this campaign, BBDO Toronto and the UNHCR have taken a huge step in the battle towards global tolerance, compassion and understanding. By drawing us into the refugee experience, they have succeeded in making us co-creators in a plot to eliminate the global refugee crisis.   

 


Let's Incorporate Science and Technology Into the Bottom-Line

It's always amazed me how few companies take the time to incorporate key findings from the worlds of science and technology into their business strategies. On the other hand, it's also surprising how few computer scientists are familiar with the needs and culture of the business world. Yet if these sectors took more time to understand each other, we may not have the problems we have today at the customer experience level. Problems which, no doubt, have had serious consequences on the bottom-line.

MIT's Media Lab was created, in part, to help merge the worlds of science and industry. Founded in 1980 by Professor Nicholas Negroponte and former MIT President Jerome Wiesner, one of the lab's key functions is to encourage "collaborative dialogue between industry and academia" and enable a "cross-pollination of ideas." It is a science and technology incubator used for R&D purposes by some of the top entertainment companies in the world including Sony, Warner Bros. and News Corp.

According to an article in The Hollywood Reporter's Future of Entertainment issue, the lab's mission statement is where the "bits of the digital realm interact seamlessly with the atoms of our physical world and where our machines not only respond to our commands but also understand our emotions...Digital innovation becomes the domain of all."

This understanding of experiences in the digital realm can help industry on several levels. The advent of digital technology brings with it the need to truly understand the nature of interactivity - how humans react to technology and how they make decisions in electronic environments. This understanding can lead to the creation of new business models based on findings from the worlds of science and technology. The process should be a synergistic one based on the creation of mutually beneficial relationships.

The worlds of science and technology are also taking note of the need to educate their 'up and comers' with principles traditionally taught in business school. Dr. Ronald M. Baecker, Professor of Computer Science and Bell University Laboratories Chair in Human-Computer Interaction at the University of Toronto, teaches an innovative course to fourth year computer-science students called The Business of Software. Dr. Baecker discusses issues such as the high technology business environment, basic processes to growing a healthy business within the software industry, and the ability to write and pitch business plans designed to enhance computer forecasting models.

As founder and Chief Scientist of KMDI (Knowledge Media Design Institute), Professor Baecker understands the need for an inter-disciplinary and human-centered approach to the study of media, technology and communications.

When I first started my company K-Vision Communications in 2000, I proposed the idea of creating a Digital Storytelling Institute consisting of two components: 1) The Centre for Interactive Excellence (resource centre for corporations to learn about principles of interactivity through scientific research) and 2) The Prophet Margin: a place where CEO's could gather to learn how to use the principles of interactivity to improve their bottom-line.

The idea was inter-disciplinary in nature, and would provide a creative environment where HCI experts, new media designers, software professionals, business executives and ad agencies could brainstorm on issues affecting their industries.

Perhaps it's time for a true collaboration amongst disciplines. After all, bit by bit, we're writing the future together.


Innovation and Business - An Unnatural Partnership?

I have been on several job interviews lately, and it amazes me that many companies (and interviewers) are still unable to think outside of the box. I continue to get asked the same standard questions over and over again, many of which are not even directly related to the position. When given a chance to ask my pre-prepared questions, several interviewers aren't even able to give solid answers to basic inquiries. In many cases, they end up hiring the same type of person who performed the same duties with a company in the exact same industry (note the repetition of the word "same" here?)

Six months later, I see the same positions advertised because the person they just hired already quit and changed companies. What's wrong with this picture? What's so frustrating is that many companies are unable to see beyond the words on a resume. Qualifications and experience are definitely important, but what about other signs that the candidate would be a good match?

If someone took a new communications job with a not-for-profit organization, had zero budget to work with and no paid staff (only volunteer help), and then was able to pull off a national awards show complete with major sponsorship deals and national media coverage...what does that tell you about that person - and their ability to build relationships, take initiative and complete a task?

Albert Einstein once said that "Our thinking creates problems which the same level of thinking can't solve." If businesses keep making decisions based on the same old criteria and belief in what are frequently outdated assumptions, then there will be no innovation - and no resulting growth. Yet many organizations keep complaining that they don't like the way things are, yet take no action to enable change. To recognize market opportunities or threats would mean challenging old assumptions and rules that made the company what it was in the first place.

Perhaps one answer to the dilemma is to incorporate more "ideas" people into organizations. People who are still able to work with the status quo, but are unafraid to shake things up a little bit.

James Champy, author of "Re-Engineering Management," describes the perception of business this way.."People like to think that businesses are built of numbers (as in the 'bottom-line'), or forces (as in 'market forces'), or things ('the product'), or even flesh and blood ('our people'). But this is wrong...Businesses are made of ideas - expressed as words."

If this is true, then the success of a business will be based on the quality of its ideas. As Howard Sherman and Ron Schultz say in their book "Open Boundaries: Creating Business Innovation Through Complexity"..."If our ideas are out of date, the behaviours they drive will be out of date."

It's time for businesses to think differently. History has shown that it is possible to be wildly successful and innovative. In fact, many of the world's major brands started as a result of great innovative ideas - HP, Coca-Cola, Ford, General Electric. What determines future success is their ability to let innovation guide them through a world of increasingly complex change.


Customer Experience - By Design

In a recent post David Polinchock, Founder and Chairman of New York based Brand Experience Lab and author of the blog the Experience
Economist
, discussed a course being offered in August at the Harvard School of Design.

Brand Experience Lab is both an experience agency and think tank that delves into the future of interaction marketing, and blends "emerging technology into retail and marketing experiences" to create engaging brand experiences for 21st Century audiences. How cool is that?

The Harvard course, taught by New York City architect Gregory Beck is called "Experience Architecture" and "unites narrative content and media technology to offer a dynamic approach to the built environment." In other words, it's possible to design buildings in a way that maximizes guest experience and engagement. What's even more intriguing is that this design orientation opens the door for "projects that use stories as a source of design inspiration."

Through the use of Experience Architecture, architects are able to integrate media and content into their buildings to create environments that are more effective channels for expressing ideas and emotions. The approach takes 150 years of knowledge gained in the attractions, expositions and theatrical arts and applies it to mainstream and commercial design assignments.

When designing projects, architects adopt a series of design values to "translate the narrative essence of companies, brands, and places into meaningful experiences." Rather than being purely focused on the engineering and architectural sides, architects collaborate with other disciplines such as communications and technology to create "compelling places for culture and commerce."

Buildings that communicate the essence and narrative of a brand. Talk about living and experiencing a brand! Now THAT'S Telling Your Story...


The Human Face of Web Design

When I walk into a store, I'm usually there for one of several reasons: 1) I know exactly what I'm looking for 2) I have an idea what I'm looking for, but need more information to make my decision and 3) I have no idea what I'm looking for and just want to browse. Other factors that may influence my final decision to buy are: the availability of stock, quality of merchandising, likeability and knowledge level of customer service reps, whether or not there are any deals or promotions that day, and overall trust in the brand (potential product purchase and/or store brand).

The things I look for when shopping and the thought processes I use to make my final purchase decision are no different than when I'm looking to make a purchase online. In the digital realm, I need to know that a website can answer all my questions before I make a purchase decision. My final decision will be based on two factors: 1) Is the website useful (ie. did it answer all my questions and was it trustworthy) and 2) Is the website useable (ie. did I feel comfortable using the site...did the links work...was it easy to read and navigate?)

When designing a website, it helps to keep business objectives in mind. To do this effectively, companies need more than just an understanding of technology, they need a strong understanding of people. Companies who cater to customers' needs by treating them as emotional human beings will establish loyalty far beyond that ever imagined in traditional marketing environments.

When I interviewed Bill Dupley (then Director of Strategy and Business Development for Hewlett-Packard Consulting Canada) for my 2002 Marketing Magazine article on online customer experiences, he explained that customers enter buying situations in different behavioural modes. He said that it was the job of marketers to define which state the buyer was in, and then to design an experience based on the customer's needs and expectations. According to Dupley, most sites "don't facilitate around what a customer wants to do," but "facilitate around what a company wants to tell."

Those from a scientific and academic background would agree. In his book "Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity", Web guru and user-advocate Jakob Nielsen says that "Usability rules the Web. Simply stated, if the customer can't find a product, then he or she will not buy it. The Web is the ultimate customer-empowering environment. He or she who clicks the mouse gets to decide everything. It is so easy to go elsewhere; all the competitors in the world are but a mouseclick away."

To be effective, web marketers must incorporate social science into website design. Dupley's suggestion was to think in terms of "building Web stores, not Web sites."

In the internet economy, Return on Investment will be a result of Return on Interaction. When designing a website, take me to that store. Make my experience as close as possible to the real thing, and make me feel good about your company by making your site trustworthy and easy to use. If you can do that, you will outperform your competition by transforming cybersurfers into loyal and paying customers.


I Wish More Businesses Were "Green"...!!!

Sitting at my computer on a Friday afternoon, I thought it was time for a more lighthearted post. By wishing that more businesses were "Green", I'm not preaching about yet another environmental concern. Call me an idealist, but I wish that more people in business were like Kermit the Frog. That's right, Kermit.

One of my all time creative heroes is Jim Henson. Through sheer determination and imagination, Henson built the Muppet empire and inspired people of all generations to follow their dreams. He was a great man, and drew respect from big name celebrities all over the world. At one point, to be on The Muppet Show was a sign that you'd really made it in the entertainment world.

But what does this have to do with business? Throughout my career, I have worked with some really, really, great people. I've also worked with some real jerks (for more information about dealing with jerks in the workplace, take a look at Stanford University Professor Robert I. Sutton's newest book, "The No Asshole Rule").

In his own way, Kermit represents what's really right about this world. He's a decent, fun loving and creative (amphibian), who wants the best for everyone. He's always trying to improve the relationships around him, and strives to make the world a better place. Some say that Kermit was a mirror image of Henson's character and personality.

Like many in the corporate world, Kermit still found it tough to "fit in." As the song said, "It's Not Easy Bein' Green." He eventually finds a way to stand out from the crowd, and realizes that his "green-ness" is part of what makes him unique.

Before he died, Jim Henson was gathering thoughts for a book called Courage of Conviction. The book was never published. Here are a few excerpts taken from notes in Random House's "Jim Henson: The Works": "I love my work, and because I enjoy it, it doesn't really feel like work...I have a terrific group of people who work with me, and I think of the work that we do as "our work"...I believe that we can use television and film to be an influence for good; that we can help to shape the thoughts of children and adults in a positive way...My hope still is to leave the world a little bit better for my having been here."

Yes, Jim, you did leave the world a better place. I just wish more companies shared your views on life!


The Psychology of Selling - The Cheskin Way

While wandering around an old bookstore one day, I picked up a copy of Louis Cheskin's book "Secrets of Marketing Success - An Expert's View on the Science and Art of Persuasive Selling." Originally published in 1967, the book is a gem offering keen insights into the psychology of selling, and tells us how and why people buy.

Cheskin was a motivational researcher who sought to understand how consumer's perceptions motivated their purchase behaviour. He coined the term "sensation transference", and spent most of his life researching how people's perceptions of products or services were directly related to aesthetic details of their design. He consulted with companies such as Standard Oil, Betty Crocker, Phillip Morris and Ford on issues including logo and package design, new product launches and advertising and brand campaigns.

The interesting premise in Cheskin's book is his return to the basics of selling and communications, and how he incorporates them into marketing and advertising challenges. He lists the four pillars of marketing as: 1) Product quality 2) Packaging or styling that has psychological appeal 3)Advertising that communicates and motivates and 4) Price that is right for the specific type of consumer.

His most interesting commentary can be found in points #2 and #3. To Cheskin, not only must packaging be designed to be an effective marketing tool, it must also "communicate graphically and semantically" to the consumer. The aesthetic design will determine how the consumer reacts to the product.

On an advertising and communications level, Cheskin claims that "advertising, like the package, has to communicate on an unconscious, as well as on a conscious level - semantically and graphically." The appeal must not only be rational in its foundation, but have an emotional undertone as well.

How often is this done today? I see ads over and over again on television, but I couldn't tell you from one day to the next which brands they represent! (not an efficient way to spend advertising dollars!) What's missing in a lot of advertising is not only a great degree of thought and creativity, but an appeal to my emotions that would encourage me to ACT. To me, most television advertising is so annoying, that I actually purposely don't buy products if they represent an annoying commercial. As early as 1967, Cheskin claimed that "much advertising suffers from an abundance of creativity and a lack of motivating communication."

For advertising and marketing to be effective, they must also be persuasive. Think of the old sales term AIDA (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action). If an ad or marketing campaign isn't persuasive, it won't motivate consumers to take action and a decline in sales will be the result. Simple in theory, but not practiced too highly today. To be successful, practitioners must take into account the psychological effect of a product or service as well, in order to motivate consumers to take action. 

What's interesting about Cheskin's approach is that he took the science of selling and marketing to a more subconscious level. We don't always buy what we see, we may also buy what we FEEL. When Cheskin worked with Ford on the name of a new car, he encouraged them to change the name "Impala" to "Mustang", based on the fact that "Mustang" had emotional meaning to most Americans (ie. "rugged and fast"). The Impala might run away, but the American consumer could control a Mustang.

Cheskin was a true visionary in his time, and many of his findings are still applicable today. He predicted that advertising would eventually take on the "character of entertainment, with emphasis on humour"...a fact that holds true today.

Perhaps Cheskin's ideas hold the key as to why some products or services succeed today, and why others fail.


The Future of Entertainment

As I celebrate my birthday today (I won't make it easy on you by telling you my age...let's just say that I still have my original Sony Walkman stashed in my drawer, and that when I took a few computer courses in University we were still using punch cards...), I find my mind drifting towards the future.

Technology has made so many advancements, and I wonder where all this is going. In 2005, The Hollywood Reporter published a special Collector's Edition piece called "The Future of Entertainment." The purpose was to have key industry players look at the next 75 years to predict what it would hold for Hollywood and the entertainment industry.

Then Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, Robert J. Dowling, introduced the edition with a few interesting insights in his "Letter from the Publisher." Dowling predicted that physical media in the traditional sense would disappear, leaving us with digital streams of media delivered by broadband. He said that audiences would no longer be categorized by traditional demographics such as age and gender, but by common interests such as cooking, golf or gaming. Programming would be configured on every device, and would be available "on demand." The concept of theme parks would be translated to shopping malls and other public places, and eventually to our homes. This would add to the sensory experience of an activity as we would interact more and more with our surroundings.

Dowling's views correspond with other predictions from media executives, directors, producers and marketers on the subject. It seems that the key to entertainment in the future will be an increased element of interactivity and immersion with media. Rather than being passive observers, the audience will become active participants in the experience.

Movies studios, distribution systems and the way we experience movies in theatres are also due to change. In the same 2005 Collector's Edition in a section called "Postcards from the Edge", director Steven Spielberg predicted that "50 years from now, we're going to be inside the movies; we're not going to be looking at them from the outside...But in the future, you will physically be inside the experience, which will surround you top, bottom, on all sides." When Spielberg was asked if he could invent a device that would enable us to do this, he said he had already invented it, but couldn't discuss it due to a patent pending!

The idea of immersion and interaction within an experience is not new to the world of media. What will change, is the degree to which we interact WITH it. If we have the ability to affect our experience with media through an increasing amount of interactivity, we will soon be able to write our own story whether through a book, a movie, or online game. Some of this is happening right now, as the human need for self expression blends into the virtual world. The future is already becoming a reality, as we all seem eager to leave our mark as participants on the global entertainment stage.


Storytelling and the Art of Persuasion

In business as in life, success often depends on our ability to persuade others to adopt our ideas. If we can't persuade consumers to buy our product or service, or convince shareholders to adopt a new plan of attack, then we won't move forward with our goals.

Simply put, stories are how we make sense of the world. We arrange information according to our experiences and interactions in the world, and stories help us locate our place in the grander scheme.

Storytelling offers a new and innovative way to engage people's emotions, and win their hearts and minds. For years, the word "storytelling" conjured up images of people sitting around campfires or dinner tables, passing along tales that lasted generations. Although this scene still has implications today, today's modern storyteller can often be found in the executive suite.

In 2003, Harvard Business School published an article called "Happy Tales: The CEO as Storyteller." In it, screenwriting coach and legend Robert McKee explains how he coached executives in the art of storytelling. He advises executives to toss away their PowerPoint slides, and engage their stakeholders through the fine art of story. Rather than focus on rhetoric, McKee suggests uniting an idea with an emotion through use of a compelling story. He says that a little imagination can go a long way in getting people to applaud you and your ideas.

According to McKee, a story "expresses how and why life changes", and may help people deal with the fundamental conflict between subjective expectation and often cruel reality. A good storyteller might inspire employees to "dig deeper" by presenting them with scenarios based on characters and principles often found in screenplays: protagonists, opposing forces, allies, calls to action, etc. This approach might help people with their decision-making when they're faced with challenges at work.

Cognitive scientists such as Donald Norman help explain the relationship between stories, consumer goods, photographs and other objects (or artifacts). From a human perspective, the fundamental element that makes an event or object memorable is the presence of emotion. Stories can help capture the context, as well as the emotion.

Remember Scott Bedbury's quote in Tom Peters book "the brand you 50"...."A great brand taps into emotions...Emotions drive most, if not all, of our decisions...It's an emotional connecting point that transcends the product...A brand is a metaphorical story that's evolving all the time...Stories create the emotional context people need to locate themselves in a larger experience."

The next time you're called upon to do a corporate presentation, ask yourself the question "What's my/our story?", and you'll go a long way in winning over people's hearts and minds.