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.