You don’t need to optimise everything, just these two things

Where should you spend your money to impress your customers? It’s a common question in businesses that have too much to do and not enough resources to do it with.

In the last blog I tackled this issue from a strategic prioritisation point of view. Now let’s look at it from the perspective of your customer journey. And there’s good news: you don’t have to optimise every point of your customer’s journey, you only need focus on the peak and the end.

Peak-end rule

I am recently returned from undertaking a course at Yale University in which we covered a number of behavioural studies. I was reminded of the “peak-end rule” in a session by Professor Nathan Novemsky, about how we don’t remember an experience on the basis of how unpleasant or pleasant it was overall. Instead, when recalling an event, we make a judgment based on two moments of greatest significance: the peak and the end.

The peak is the moment of heightened intensity. This is when your customer is shopping and finds what they want at the right price, or when you are consulting and you present your findings, for example. In some cases (particularly online), the peak may even be the start of their experience with you, where your first impressions are made.

The end is how the experience concludes. But when is that? It could be when your customer is paying for the item — and indeed that seems to be when most businesses think it is. But it instead could also be when they take the item home or when they go to use it for the first time.

Tweak the peaks

When it comes to peak experience, your aim is to heighten the highs for your customer and nullify the lows. Think about where can or do your customers feel great and moments where they feel awful.

Create positive peaks

If yours is a pretty flat, utilitarian, generic experience, consider moments of surprise and delight to create a peak experience. In a hotel, for example, that might mean a chocolate on the pillow or surprise room upgrade on check-in.

Position the positive peaks

When the positive peak is experienced may affect your customer’s impression of your business. If the peak moment is too far from the end of the experience it may lose its potency. For example:

  • For a consultant, sharing the killer insight when you are 30% through the assignment may mean it loses its potency, and you may be better off holding back until the final debrief;  
  • An accountant who is seeking to retain a client would be smart to coordinate their invoicing with the peak of services delivered (e.g. around tax time); and
  • An online retailer is better to get customers to add to the cart and proceed to the check out (peak engagement) before making additional recommendations that may distract the customer and reduce their urgency to order.

In sum, when it comes to positive peaks, ensure you have one, amplify it as much as possible and ensure it is timed in a way to best create a favourable impression.

Nullify negative peaks

In those moments where your customers feel awful, the point of pain can often be traced back to dissatisfaction about the time something has taken (for example, hold times, website pages being slow to load, queues that don’t move, slow deliveries or protracted project turn arounds).

The key is that perception of duration is more important than the reality. We respond to how time ‘feels’ rather than how many minutes have ticked by. Waiting 10 minutes for a bus you are not sure is coming feels much longer than waiting 10 minutes for your pizza that you can track on your phone.

Smart businesses therefore invest in reducing the perception of time by distracting their customers. From a mirror near the elevator button, a whirring progress icon as a web page is processing, to baggage claims that are 20 minutes walk away, if you give your customers something else to think about, and/or a sense they are making progress, then they will be less negatively affected by waiting.

The other key is customers will feel less negative if they believe they have some control over the situation. For example, a study by Glass, Singer and Friedman (1969) subjected participants to an irritating noise, and gave some participants a button to press to stop the noise, where others were not so lucky. Those with the button, thinking they had control over the situation, reported being significantly less irritated by the noise. Similarly, people giving blood reported significantly less discomfort when they were first asked from which arm they preferred the blood drawn (Mills and Krantz 1979)

The lesson is to invest in reducing the intensity of negative peaks. While you won’t be able to fix every point of friction in your customer journey, you can focus in on the most intense moments of frustration or dissatisfaction.

Happy ending

Do you remember a time when you bought the latest camera or tech gadget, took it home to use and then … had … to … wait … for the battery to charge? Not a great ending to the customer purchase experience. Apple recognised this and began pre-charging their products so they worked straight out of the box. A delightful, frustration-free end that meant that when people thought about Apple, they thought about how easy their products were to use.

To create a happy ending, you first need to define your end. Does your relationship end at the cash register? At the presentation? Consider how far you can and should extend the relationship in order for your customer to believe that their experience with you was a good one.

Birdsnest, an Australian online retailer, goes to pains to extend the relationship beyond the sale. Not only does it delight customers by surprising them on occasion with a small gift with delivery, the retailer includes a handwritten thank you note containing thoughtful comments about the items purchased, and ensures the items are packed with care. I personally find it hard not to think of the Birdsnest team without a smile — not something you can say about most online retailers.  

Of course, extending the relationship beyond the moment of transaction isn’t always a good thing. Customers often value a lack of interference or badgering after they have done business with you. I am sick and tired of organisations asking me to complete a survey about how I thought they’d gone or whether I would promote them to friends and family. The problem is these requests are about the business rather than me, and they haven’t built up enough goodwill for me to bother.

Once you’ve defined your end, then it’s about identifying ways to leave your customer on a high. Some ideas on how to get started on your end include:

  • Restaurants — give your customers a chocolate with the bill, It’s easy, inexpensive and will leave your customers on a high note;
  • Hotels — while the chocolate on the pillow might be a good first impression, what are you doing on check-out? You slide a bill under the door, but what about a farewell pack like a bottle of water or free coffee?
  • Professional services — thank your customers after the engagement. You could send them a book or make a donation through services like B1G1;
  • Airlines — the flight might have gone smoothly, but then you have your customers wait a seemingly endless amount of time to disembark before standing around an ugly, impersonal baggage carousel to complete their journey. Bring back the days of a hot towel at the end of the flight!
  • Online retailers — be sure to send an immediate confirmation of the transaction so your customers aren’t left wondering whether it has been submitted. This can include taking them to a screen with their order number as well as an email.

Peak-end means focussing on the moments that matter

The lesson from the peak-end rule is you don’t necessarily have to optimise every point in your customer’s journey, because that won’t meaningfully impact their impression of you.

Instead, focus on making the peak and the end the best they can be. Rather than overhauling your whole website, for example, concentrate on the home page as a point of peak engagement and the page at which they leave your site, like the shopping cart or sign-up page. 

NOW READ: Make de-prioritising a priority


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