Tech Line

Customer Experience: Something Worth Getting Emotional About

In 2011, three-year-old Lily Robinson wrote a letter to supermarket chain Sainsbury’s asking a simple question: “Why is tiger bread called tiger bread? It should be called giraffe bread.”

Chris King, a member of the company’s customer service team, quickly wrote back to the young girl: “I think renaming tiger bread giraffe bread is a brilliant idea—it looks much more like the blotches on a giraffe than the stripes on a tiger, doesn’t it?” King included a gift card to the store in his note.

Sainsbury’s went on to change the name of its bread—and, after Lily’s mom blogged about the exchange of letters, the feel-good story blew up on social media. The interaction is an example of a company employee not only listening intently to a customer and taking swift action in response but going out of his way to connect with the customer on an emotional level.

After all, people’s emotions drive their behaviors, so it’s important for brands to pay close attention to those emotions if they want to take customer experience to the next level. How customers feel after interacting with a company can affect their perceptions of the brand—and it could make the difference between whether a customer makes a one-time purchase or makes the brand a long-lasting habit.

Forrester’s Customer Experience Index, based on surveying nearly 90,000 adults in the United States, consistently finds that people’s emotions have an enormous influence on customer experience. In the 2021 survey, Forrester found that the three emotions tied most strongly to customer loyalty are feeling appreciated, feeling valued, and feeling respected.

Some of the brands with the highest CX scores—including, Lincoln, and Trader Joe’s–stood out in 2021 for understanding the key emotional needs of their customers and providing emotionally pleasing experiences. In fact, the index shows that when a company makes customers feel appreciated, 76 percent say they will keep their business with the brand; 80 percent say they will spend more time with the brand; and 87 percent will recommend the brand to friends and family members.

“People may not remember every detail of an interaction. The brain is not set up to remember all the details,” said Marsha Lindsay, CEO and chief analyst of the strategic consultancy Lindsay, Foresight & Stratagem, who has long studied emotion and habit formation. “But they do remember how that interaction made them feel. The shortcut is ‘emotional memory,’ and that leads to quick decision-making. People act on their emotions.”

Tips for Making Positive Emotional Connections

So, how can brands make the personalized  connections that elicit a strong and positive emotional response with consumers? Here is some advice:

Empower employees to go the extra mile: Companies should give their employees wide latitude to meet customer needs, even if it means breaking with typical protocols. In 2013, United Airlines made the news when a passenger burst into tears on board a flight. The passenger was worried that a flight delay would cause him to miss a connecting flight and he wouldn’t make it to Texas to see his mother before she died. The captain radioed the crew of the connecting flight to explain the situation, they held the plane for him—and the man ended up getting to his mother’s bedside before she passed.

Listen closely to customers—and respond: Many companies make the mistake of surveying customers online, but they don’t listen closely to the feedback they receive or make changes as a result, says Ted Sun, president of Transcontinental University, who has studied emotional intelligence. “People want to be heard,” Sun said. “Just the act of responding can make a huge difference in creating positive emotions for the customer.”

Anticipate problems and solve them: Forrester’s 2021 CX Index found that the top three emotions that drive U.S. customers away from brands are frustration, annoyance, and disappointment. Customer service problems will always arise, but companies that try to anticipate common problems and develop solutions will keep customers happy—and keep them coming back for more.

Treat customers as people, not purchases, and respect their time: Remember, your customers are human beings, not walking wallets. Show that you respect their time by making every transaction fulfilling. Lindsay recalled reaching out to a company and having to interact with a bot, an experience that left her feeling unsatisfied. “People need human connection,” Lindsay said. “One never gets that from a bot.”

For a brand to become a habit, it must deliver consistently pleasing experiences: If consumers repeatedly use a product or service and feel positive emotions each time, that product or service can become a habit. “It’s about evoking a positive emotional attachment that comes from repeatedly using something and feeling good about it,” Sun said. Lindsay concurred: “You want to make sure people respond with a positive emotion every time, so they don’t break the habit and start checking around for different prices and products.”

Saving your customer a buck isn’t enough: Companies know that saving customers money makes them happy, so many will reel customers in with savings offers. But, too often, brands drop the ball after slipping an offer across the table. After offering a discount, the business must ensure that every interaction with the customer makes the person feel valued.

Avoid creating false expectations: Be careful to consider a customer’s expectations. When a company exceeds a customer’s expectations, the person is surprised and delighted. When a company fails to meet basic expectations, they’re going to see some negative emotions. Make sure you’re meeting or exceeding your customer’s expectations by delivering on any promises your brand is making.

Supplement digital marketing with direct mail: Communicating with consumers by direct mail can often elicit a stronger emotional response. American Girl sends out thick, full-color catalogs, knowing that young girls look forward to receiving them in the mail so they can study them and ask their parents for birthday and holiday gifts, Lindsay noted. “Young girls will even sleep with these catalogs and dream about the dolls and accessories they hope to have,” she said. “Direct mail is tied to dreaming and aspirations. Just receiving that big, expensive catalog is an emotional reward.”

Combining Physical with Digital is Key

Connecting with consumers on a deep emotional level isn’t always easy, though. Many brands struggle to get their messages seen and heard by consumers whose attention is divided by a range of devices and channels. So merely pushing out a daily deluge of digital ads hoping for some get noticed won’t cut it—and it certainly isn’t likely to pull at anyone’s heartstrings. A recent Deloitte Digital study found that more than half of the 16,000 people surveyed desired a more “human” experience from their virtual environments. It’s clearly not enough for marketers to rely only on arm’s-length communications via digital channels.  

To connect with customers on an emotional level, brands need to go out of their way to foster personal and physical connections. Complementing digital marketing with direct mail can be powerful. Neuroscience studies have shown that when direct mail follows digital interactions, brand recall and arousal rates increase by more than 25 percent. And a 2019 study by the U.S. Postal Service and Temple University that analyzed the influence of direct mail versus digital advertising found that print elicited a stronger emotional response, was more memorable, and made the products feel more desirable and valuable to consumers than did digital ads.

In the end, according to a “Perspective” by Deloitte: “In this frenetic, impersonal digital age, we believe that people want to be treated like humans and less a part of a homogenous customer experience. Organizations that go beyond delivering on customer experience to elevating the human experience will be better positioned to create more meaningful connections, foster loyalty, and ultimately drive growth. When we focus on the human experience, we go beyond just showing up. We build relationships that matter. We seize attention, build love, inspire dreams, create connections, respect and recognize individuals, and build confidence.”

Dina Gerdeman is a writer and editor based in the Boston area.