Using psychological principles in the customer journey

How minimising bad experiences, giving customers choice and a sense of control, and sticking to habits can help improve customer experience

Corporations have a long history of applying psychological principles to make their marketing more effective. Fast food brands are famously associated with the colours red and yellow, which are commonly believed to make consumers feel hungrier and to stimulate positive emotions. There are solid psychological reasons, too, behind the popularity of adverts featuring smiling, attractive people: the emotional contagion effect makes consumers feel more at ease when they see these images, and therefore more comfortable in making big purchases. Much criticism has been levelled at organisations that exploit psychological tricks to manipulate people into making potentially poor purchasing decisions, such as payday lenders who rely on people’s tendency to overvalue an immediate financial gain. Still, an understanding of what makes people tick can also enable brands to provide their consumers with much more rewarding customer experiences. 

There is evidence of applied behavioural psychology being used to make our lives easier all around us, often in such subtle ways that we never notice the deliberate design at work. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman famously showed that most of our actions are driven by quick and instinctive “System 1” thought processes, rather than deliberate, conscious decision-making. Because people often act without really “thinking”, therefore, they rely on repeated automatic behaviours, and often will not consciously pay attention during a routine task like using an ATM. Because of this, most ATMs now dispense the consumer’s card back to them first, before dispensing any cash. This small tweak significantly reduces the rates at which consumers lose their cards because, for most, the bit where they get the money is the only part of that process to which they pay any conscious attention. 

As brands have developed a more nuanced understanding of consumer’s psychological responses to different aspects of their customer journeys, a range of innovative ways of addressing pain points and maximising enjoyment have emerged. Researchers have identified three primary psychological factors that can influence consumers’ appraisal of a customer journey: sequence, segmentation and control. Firstly, consumers have been shown to usually only remember the high and low points of a customer journey, and the sequence of those touchpoints has an impact on their appraisal of their experience. They are likely to be much more negative if their last interaction with a brand was a bad one. Secondly, the way in which positive and negative experiences are grouped together can have an impact: consumers are likely to be more forgiving if the negative parts of their experience are interspersed with pleasurable experiences (for example, by adding fun waiting areas to long queues at an amusement park). Finally, customers are more satisfied when they feel in control. A home repair company who investigated their customer satisfaction levels found, unsurprisingly, that customers do not like long wait times. More surprisingly, they also found that these same customers were much happier to wait a long time if they had the power to schedule the exact time when their visit would take place. 

The most popular online retailers are often the ones who have most effectively maximised these aspects of their customer experience: Amazon, for example, consolidate the pain of entering payment details with their one-click ordering process, while the pleasurable experience of actually ordering a product remains spread out across individual transactions. Deliveroo and Uber provide customers with a strong sense of control by providing detailed real-time updates on the whereabouts of their drivers, including a real-time map of their location.  

The principles apply in the offline world, too. Apple are the prime example of this, having arguably revolutionised the way that people shop with the invention of the Apple Store. In the Apple Store, the stressful elements of the customer journey are effectively minimised by the introduction of the “Specialist”, a souped-up sales representative who is specifically trained to build emotional rapport and a trusting relationship with the customer, guiding them through the stressful aspects of the purchasing process. Consumers at Apple Stores are also frequently encouraged to play with the technology on display, effectively interspersing the more painful aspects of the shopping experience with the dopamine hit of a fun experience. Every aspect of the Apple Store experience is carefully designed with the customer at the centre, and this contributes to the fierce brand loyalty Apple has earned over the years, earning Apple one of the strongest Halo Effects of any brand.8 

To curate a psychologically pleasing customer journey, it is worth considering the following principles:  

  • Carefully consider the customer journey and key touchpoints to minimise potentially bad experiences and finish on a strong, upbeat note 
  • Give customers choice and a sense of control 
  • Stick to habits and prevent any surprises