Whatever You Do… Don’t Confuse Experience with Reality

Sep 15, 2008 2:03pm
Posted by: Frank Capek

"We don't see things as they are. We see things as we are." Anais Nin

"There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Shakespeare (Hamlet)

Many organizations have placed an increasing amount of attention on the quality of the experience their customers have. However, the first mistake most organizations make is focusing on what the company does to deliver a customer experience rather than taking a step back and thinking first about how customers actually have experiences. The second biggest mistake is the way most organizations listen to and react to customers' suggestions about what to do to improve the experience.

So, let's consider how people (customers or otherwise) "have" experiences. Every waking minute of our day, we are swimming in an infinite sea of sensory information about the events unfolding around us. In order to ensure our own survival, we've evolved very effective ways to subconsciously filter and react to virtually all of this information automatically... without even thinking about it. This allows us to pay attention to the relatively small number of events that seem most important. In dealing with the vast majority of the events in our lives, we just get the gist of the situation and respond with relatively automatic behavior.

Our lives are not influenced as much by events, as by the ways we perceive and interpret those events.

Without understanding the idiosyncrasies in the way people perceive and interpret what happens around them, it's very easy to invest a lot of time, energy, and money improving the reality of the events without having much of a positive impact on customers' experience of those events.

When you get right down to it, there are always two strategies: 1) improve the reality of the events and 2) influence the way customers experience those realities. My first understanding of this came about 25 years ago, while working with Dick Larson at MIT. Dr. Larson, an expert in the psychology of waiting, told me the story of commercial real estate managers that were struggling with improving the service levels of elevators in high-rise buildings during peak hours. People were frustrated by waiting too long for the elevators. As in most situations, the complexity and cost of actually improving service levels is quite high. It involves installing faster elevators, improving the optimization of elevator queuing, etc... The simpler solution and more effective solution was to install mirrors in the elevator lobbies. This allowed people to entertain themselves by fixing their hair, straightening their tie, and checking each other out in a much more socially acceptable way. The perceived experience improvement was greater with the relatively low cost mirrors than with the relatively high cost technology required to improve actual service levels. (Waiting time is an important aspect of many experiences, for more information about the waiting experience see: Helping Customers Lose Wait)

So, if you ask customers what they want, what do they tell you? In most cases, they ask for the relatively obvious service level improvements that relate to the first strategy. While it's important to listen to customers' feedback about their experiences and their ideas for improvements, it's a big mistake to just respond to those requests. Let's take a look at why this is true.

One particularly useful way to understand how customers' "have" experiences is to consider three levels of processing that get applied as people perceive, interpret, evaluate, and act on the events that occur in their lives. At the reactive level, more than 99% of the sensory information that we are surrounded by is automatically dealt with in a way that is purely subconscious. Our brain acts like a pattern matching and prediction machine... we are continuously sensing our environment and, as long as it behaves in a way that roughly approximates what we expect, we don't have to spend our preciously short supply of conscious attention focused on it. Beyond this purely reactive level of processing, we have a deliberative layer which allows us to get the "gist" of the situation and respond with learned or patterned behavior that allows us to operate on automatic pilot. This is the capability that allows us to drive into work while talking on the cell phone or thinking about our upcoming meeting... or the capability that allows us to make dinner while talking to the kids about what happened at school. At the highest level we can consciously reflect on our experiences. However, what we are reflecting on is often just the gist of the situation from the lower levels. Although we may believe we actually experience events the way they happened, the reconstructive nature of memory means that we tend to fill in facts that are consistent with our story about what happened rather than clearly and accurately recalling actual events. (For further discussion see: Designing for Customers’ Reactive, Deliberative, and Reflective Experiences.)

Three Levels of Experiential Processing


While it's important to listen to what customers tell you about their experiences, it's also important to realize that the "voice of the customer" is generally limited to the language customers can find... to express what they can remember... about how they think they felt... regarding an experience that was largely subconscious. Customers are usually able to tell you about the obvious dissatisfiers in their experiences. In most cases, however, it is more productive to look past what customers are telling you to find ways to influence customers' experiences of the events that happen to them. In general, the best strategy that we've found is to:

  1. Design for Gist Processing. At the base level, you need to understand the basic constructs that customers apply to navigate most of the experience relying on gist processing and automatic behavioral scripts. When a customer enters a bank branch, checks into a hotel, enrolls with a health insurance provider, etc... they have a set of constructs that they've learned from and apply based on their previous experiences. Experiences that are designed based on these constructs, become inherently easy to do business with. As Alfred North Whitehead said, "Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them." We've been evolving a structured process of Experiential Construct Elicitation that I will cover in an upcoming post.
  2. Deliver Signature Experience Elements. This is all about getting the customers' attention using a small number of highly differentiated "signature experience elements" that customers perceive as a difference in kind compared to what they expected or feel they could get from another provider. If you listen to customers talk about the Starbucks experience, the Whole Foods experience, etc..., you'll see that customers consistently refer to a small set of experience elements that stand out for them as being the defining components of the experience. While you can spend a lot of time getting lots of details correct in the experience, having a small set of signature elements are the kinds of things that really stand out for and influence customers.


One thought on “Whatever You Do… Don’t Confuse Experience with Reality”

  1. Pingback: GeigerBevolo » Blog Archive » A voice on customer experience

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