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Psychology and Science Behind Modern Customer Experience

9 minute read
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Creating experiences that meet customers' cognitive and emotional needs can inspire a sense of belonging and understanding and strengthen brand connection.

A 2015 Harvard Business Review report showed a direct correlation between specific emotional motivators, a brand’s use of them and consumer behaviors. Then, in 2017 a Capgemini report revealed that 81% of emotionally connected customers will promote a brand to their family and friends, and 70% of respondents said that they spend twice as much with those brands they are emotionally connected with.

This article will discuss the roles that psychology and science play in crafting such an experience.

The Emotional Drivers of Customer Decision-Making

Although digital strategists and researchers have done a lot of work to map out the cognitive experience of the decision-making process, according to Claudia Gorelick, vice president of experience strategy at VSA Partners, a Chicago-based global creative agency, they often fail to include the emotional drivers of decision-making

According to a 2018 Cone/Porter Novelli Purpose Study, 79% of Americans indicated that they are more loyal to purpose-driven brands, and that purpose-driven brands can create stronger emotional connections with customers. Additionally, 67% of respondents said that they were more willing to forgive a misstep from such a brand. Being able to create such an emotional connection between customers and brands requires a combination of psychology and science. 

Gorelick said most of the brands that have created these emotional connections did so based on conventional ads and social marketing. “Nike’s Instagram account has virtually no product — instead, it features iconic figures who represent the best of both sports and people. It is selling the dream of Nike, and not the actual products. Jaguar is selling a mood. It’s defining the feeling that owning a Jaguar evokes,” said Gorelick.

Gorelick explained that very few companies provide a seamless emotion-driven experience, and many brands that focus on emotion as the main driver of their campaigns create a utility-based approach to websites. “The emotional drivers are set aside for a sales-funnel approach, often devoid of the visual and verbal elements that created an emotional connection,” Gorelick said.

Mohannad Ali, CEO of Hotjar, a customer experience analytics platform provider, told CMSWire that psychologically, when there is an element of personalization during the customer journey and customers feel understood, they experience what is called a halo effect. "These positive feelings eventually evolve into a good impression of the company and it reinforces a sense of trust and brand reliability," said Ali. "To tap into the emotions of customers, brands should use customer and product insights to customize browsing activity and show the most relevant content to users.” Ali explained that when there is an established rapport between a brand and a customer, customers are more likely to stay loyal to a specific brand’s services based on their emotional connection during the customer journey. 

“Having an emotional connection with customers is about defining problem statements based on an analysis of user insights and then coming up with a solution,” said Ali, who added that psychology is a driving factor in creating empathy for customers and ultimately results in higher customer satisfaction.

Related Article: Can Low-Code, No-Code Tech Help Marketers With Emotion-Led CX

The Science of Emotions and Feelings of Customers

A 2019 survey by Motista titled Leveraging the Value of Emotional Connection for Retailers showed that customers who have an emotional relationship with a brand have three times higher lifetime value. Additionally, the report said that they are 71% more likely to recommend a brand that they have an emotional connection with. But what exactly are we talking about when we refer to emotions?

Although we can all name a handful of emotions, psychologists and theorists tend to disagree with how many there are. Among those listed in the 1970s by anthropologist Paul Eckman are anger, fear, surprise, disgust, joy and sadness. Others expanded the list to include aversion, courage, dejection, desire, despair, fear, hate, hope, love and sadness, while yet others narrowed it down to just four emotions: anger, fear, happiness and sadness.

Emotions typically describe physiological states that are generated by one’s subconscious mind. They are autonomous responses to specific external or internal events that happen to us. Conversely, feelings are the subjective experiences of emotions. They are largely driven by our conscious thoughts and reflections. Although we are able to have emotions without having feelings, we are not able to have feelings without having emotions.

Iliya Rybchin, partner at Elixirr Consulting, a London-based business management consultancy, told CMSWire that psychology in CX has played a role long before the Harvard Business Review report. “It was most notably introduced by Joe Pine back in 1999 in his best-selling book “Experience Economy.” Rybchin said that in the book, Pine outlined how the value of a human experience can take a commodity product and create an emotional connection that commands loyalty and premium pricing. “The classic example is how Starbucks is able to sell expensive coffee and consumers tolerate long lines not because the coffee is amazing, but because of the experience and emotional connection they have created over time,” said Rybchin.

Learning Opportunities

Rybchin explained that even before Pine's book, many brands recognized the value of connecting with consumers on a deeper emotional level. “Richard Branson built an empire around how the Virgin brand stimulated emotional responses that were not commensurate with the product being sold. A music record is the exact same product whether you get it at a local retailer or a Virgin Megastore, but yet he drove millions of people to have a virtually unhealthy affinity for his stores.”

In terms of an emotional connection, the little things are as important as the big ones. Rybchin said that at his firm, they test emotional reactions to many experiences — even for experiences as boring as opening a checking account. “We use biometric technologies to test consumer reactions to websites, marketing offers, social media posts, etc. Even something as simple as not finding where a button is located on a website creates moments of frustration that have massive downstream implications … when multiplied by millions of users,” said Rybchin, who added that similarly, the moments of joy from completing a task quickly build bonds that last a long time.

Many brands use scientific methods to gain a deeper understanding of the impact of an emotional connection with customers. “As part of our testing, we also use Galvanic skin response to test the intensity of emotional reactions,” said Rybchin. “I am sharing this not as an ad for my firm (many leading consulting firms use these technologies) but to show that science, in the hands of experts, is frequently deployed to develop emotional connections.”

“Humans are generally predictable creatures and when a company is dealing with millions of them, understanding the subtle drivers of human connection and emotional response is critical to success,” said Rybchin, as he believes the winners are brands that use science to understand the emotional connections they can build with consumers.

Related Article: The Importance of Positive Emotional Connections With Customers

Generational Differences Affect Psychological Impact

Brands have come to understand that their customers’ age impacts the way they think, the decisions they make and the ways they react to emotional experiences. Chuck Underwood, founder of The Generational Imperative and generational behavior expert, told CMSWire that during the formative years from birth to 18, we form most of the strong core values that we keep for life. Underwood explained that as we evolve and change, our core values remain largely intact. “The age cohort that shares the same formative years’ times and teachings ultimately shares the same core values and thus becomes a ‘generation.’ Generational Core Values exert enormous influence on our minute-by-minute, lifelong decision-making: consumer choices, career decisions, relationships with others and personal behavior.” 

Underwood said that these generational core values are hot buttons that brands must push in order to fully and effectively connect with each generation they target. The psychological state of each generation also changes depending on the stage in life they are going through. “Marketers must take into account the current major life stages of each generation, remembering that each generation’s younger members will be at different stages than older members — and include this knowledge in their planning and final decision-making.” 

Best Practices for Building Positive Emotional Connections

Ignacio Segovia, head of product engineering at Altimetrik, a data and digital engineering services company, told CMSWire that excellent customer experiences connect the current and future needs of the customer and create a deeper level relationship through what he refers to as behavioral activations. “There are three types of activations that we have found to be most effective,” Segovia said:

  1. Activation of exploration: “This speaks to the mere act of browsing an online catalog through specific invitations to wander through the product catalogs via featured, similar products or ‘others like you’ streams.” Segovia suggested that these widgets often become the best call to action, and test very well in A/B and user field testing.
  2. Activation of purpose: “Experiences that give the user a purpose tend to greatly impact the stickiness and time investments (and in turn cumulative attention time and conversion rates).” Segovia provided the example of showing customers what ‘others like me’ purchases look like, which is a great activation of purpose based on a peer-based community that inherently reinforces the idea that the product they are looking at is adequate for their needs.
  3. Activation of desire: “Triggering desirable emotion that matches the brand’s ethos, identity and overall perception is key to elevating the customer experience design. Customers seldom return to an app or browsing user journey that does not trigger an aspirational self-image or upgraded lifestyle.” Much like Underwood, Segovia emphasized that matching the customers where they are in their lives, both from a situational and aspirational perspective, is key to building high-quality, rewarding and relevant customer experiences.

Final Thoughts on Psychology and CX

The science and psychology of consumer behavior are becoming more important to brands as they seek to better understand their customers. Brands have discovered that emotions are a powerful driver of purchasing decisions and are creating positive emotional connections with customers to increase engagement, enhance loyalty and improve the customer journey.

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