How to be unforgettable — the psychology of spectacular customer experience

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

— Maya Angelou

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Note: This article is adapted from concepts in my book “Choice Hacking: How to use psychology and behavioral science to create an experience that sings”. Learn more and download the first chapter free by clicking here.

According to Accenture, 87% of organizations say traditional experiences no longer satisfy customers. A “good” experience is fine, but for your brand to break through with customers, it needs to stand out. An unforgettable experience means customers talk about it. They recommend it. They prefer it. In short, being unforgettable drives your bottom line.

So how do we create a distinctive experience? First, it helps to understand how our brains create memories.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman explored this subject in a study about how people remember pain. He asked people to rate their discomfort of colonoscopy procedure after the fact. Kahneman’s team then compared the patients’ “remembered” pain experiences with data recorded during the procedure.

To their surprise, the team found people didn’t score based on the average amount of pain. Instead, patients rated the pain of the entire experience based on only two points. First, the intensity of pain at its worst point, and the pain at the end of the procedure. It didn’t matter how long the experience lasted. The only things that mattered were how intense the peak of the discomfort, and whether the end of the experience was painful or relatively pain-free.

Kahneman found that our brains can’t remember everything so they use mental shortcuts (called heuristics) to pick out what’s important. One of the most important heuristics is emotion. The more intense and more recent the feelings, the more memorable the experience.

These findings are the foundation of the behavioral psychology phenomenon known as the Peak-end Rule.

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The Peak-end Rule says that people judge an experience based on how they felt at its peak and at its end, not the average of every moment of the experience. And that’s true whether the experience was pleasant or unpleasant.

For brands, this means customers will remember their whole experience based on only two moments — the best (or worst) part of their experience, and the end.

That’s great news for brands because, according to science, there’s room for error in your experience. To transform people’s memories of your brand, you only have to perfect two moments — the peak and end.

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The drive-thru can be a stressful place . You’re not quite sure what you want, there’s pressure from the cars behind you, and you’re afraid your order will be wrong when you finally get your food.

Chick-fil-A has eliminated the most stressful points of the drive-thru by introducing humans. The crew members:

  • Come to you (eliminating time pressure from other cars)
  • You can ask them questions (no more worry about the accuracy of your order)
  • They end every interaction with the delightful Chick-fil-A trademark phrase, “It’s my pleasure”.
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At the discount grocery chain Aldi, you won’t find fancy displays or ornate decorations. The shelves are plain metal racks stacked with mostly store-brand products. But the most memorable part of Aldi? It’s lightning fast check-out process.

Aldi has long been home to the world’s fastest checkouts — a huge pain point (and emotional low) in most grocery stores. But because Aldi sells owned-brand products, they are able to create packaging with multiple UPC codes on different panels. Cashiers never have to search for where to scan, rarely look up an item code, and are scored based on how quickly their average checkout process takes.

Aldi has turned an industry pain point, into an opportunity to create an unforgettable customer experience.

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The secret to Zappos’ success lies in how they handle the number one challenge of buying shoes online — what do you do if they don’t fit? Because of their liberal return policy, Zappos quickly built a thriving business.

In this case, the peak and end of an experience are tied to the same moment — returning an item. Knowing that Zappos happily takes returns created brand advocates, drove trial, and increased repeat customers.

CX projects take a lot of time, money, and sweat equity to complete. They’re rarely small and always cross departments. That means lots of stakeholders, which translates to lots of resistance. Often there’s assumed knowledge around the journey’s peaks and ends that’s never questioned because it’s become company gospel.

Interrogate these assumptions — and plan to have the research prove you wrong.

The Peak-End Rule is like the 80/20 shortcut of customer experience. 20% of your experience drives 80% of what people’s memories of the experience. And the more unforgettable the experience, the better the customer:

Note: This article is adapted from concepts in my book “Choice Hacking: How to use psychology and behavioral science to create an experience that sings”. Learn more and download the first chapter free by clicking here.

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