Why do we need a blueprint for the future of customer experience?

Guest Author by Guest Author | Aug 14, 2019

Written by Vimal Rai, Founder & Managing Director TRACE Consulting

As customers ourselves, we usually assume we know what good (or bad) customer experience is. As travel, aviation and airport practitioners, we are usually neck-deep in the operations and delivery of customer service.

And from a theoretical standpoint, there’s been an explosion in recent years about the potential value of focusing on excellent customer experience. In this digital age of the constantly connected customer, we are acutely aware of how perceptions can quickly become reality and how actual service and transactional interactions often become the defining moment of truth, where the rubber of your brand promise meets the road.

Perception after all, is the process by which we translate sensory impressions – based on what we see around us, read in the news or online on social media, or otherwise experience – into a cognitive understanding of the world around us. For example, travellers accustomed to airports in Europe in winter, when walking through Singapore’s Changi Airport with its numerous sights, sounds, services and carpeted floors, would almost naturally perceive it to be warmer, more friendly and “exciting”, than what they are used to back in Brussels, Frankfurt or Madrid. 

Interaction is simply when two or more people communicate with or react to one another. Google terms these “micro moments” which are incremental, micro opportunities for brands to deliver upon their promise to their customers along their journey. Particularly but not only when things go wrong, as they often do in our industry, quality of interaction becomes paramount. Sometimes, things can become almost comical – like when airport security is actually directed to cut down on smiling “broadly” to passengers!

But what if I told you there’s a much deeper layer to the future of customer experience than merely perceptions and interactions?

How we typically understand customer experience today

Typically we do a mix of three things to understand customers’ expectations: we observe demonstrated behaviour and data, we analyse complaints, or we simply ask through surveys, focus groups and interviews. In short, we are generally good at using lagging indicators to discover WHAT customers say they feel and what they do, and based on this, we make assumptions about their motivations. We do all this because we assume humans are rational decision-makers, who can precisely report on their motivations, feelings, thoughts and behaviours.

Yet after all these exercises, we don’t seem to move the needle significantly on typical (again, lagging) indicators of customer experience quality like NPS or satisfaction ratings. We have become data rich but insight poor because what we frequently fail to achieve, is a clear understanding of why customers feel what they feel, or do what they do. Why are they driven or motivated in certain ways but not others? Understanding the why of customers can seriously aid us in our marketing messaging, display aesthetic or in staff service training for example.

Introducing neuroscience and your limbic brain

Neuroscience offers – through a deeper, scientific analysis of our brains – a better understanding of why customers do what they do. Organizations serious about becoming truly consumer-centric businesses – be they in tech, marketing, retail, loyalty or services for example – are leveraging neuroscience to understand the drivers behind customer behaviours and expectations.

Increasingly, we are discovering why customers are craving “experiences” from brands and service providers. Relationships with brands are based on a collection of exposures and experiences and associated feelings for people. Those feelings get stored in your Limbic Brain to give the Reptilian Brain the inputs it needs to make the final call. The rational components of those experiences live in the Neocortex, so they’re ready to rationalize your decisions when the Reptilian Brain tells it that it’s time.

Key takeaways from neuroscience about customer experience

Here are three key “neuroscience” takeaways for us in the travel and aviation industry:

1. Customers don’t always think or behave logically

Customers are frequently driven by unconscious motivation, driven largely by biases (up to 200 of them!) and laziness. Typically, there are 2 systems of decision making that we all use. System 1 – where the brain acts fast, intuitive and without conscious effort, while relying on our associative memory of often-seen words, images, actions and emotions to form quick conclusions and decisions. System 2 is slower, more lazy but analytical, rational and more deliberate way of thinking.

To save precious energy, our brain tends to spend as little energy as possible when solving problems and making decisions. However, without analytic and systematic System 2 thinking, we make predictably irrational mistakes all the time. In fact, most of us consciously identify ourselves with System 2, but a vast amount of research shows that System 1 is in charge up to 97% of the time. In other words, our Reptilian and Limbic brains are in charge of most of our decision-making.

This is the reason why you have some items – like chocolates mints, razors, etc – made available at the end of the checkout line, close to the cashier. They are high-impulse, low ticket items that you might decide to pick up on a whim and fancy. IKEA embodies System 1 thinking, which explains why it is universally popular. In airports particularly in Europe, this is one reason why a lot of the signages have standardized colours, fonts, and symbols. And finally, System 1 thinking is why we find it so difficult to switch out from being either a Mac or a PC user – we are slaves to familiarity and habits.

2. Good or bad customer experience is determined first by emotions

With up to 35,000 decisions to make daily, and being subject to more than 4,000 advertising impressions daily, we suffer from information and advertising overload, which in turn explains the predominance of System 1, habit-driven, “shortcut” thinking. This is why for example, we almost automatically smile back at someone who is smiling to us first; we can’t help it!

We’ve all had customer experiences where emotional engagement (or disengagement) has radically coloured our feelings about the interaction. Take the example of a customer service interaction; a complaint about having to wait too long for the call to be answered; a description of an agent who was so nice it was like talking to an old friend; a problem with the center where you’ve been shunted from agent to agent, having to repeat your whole story over and over; a situation where, when the agent answered the phone, you could practically hear them smiling down the line at you.

We recognize ourselves in each of these situations and understand that emotions play a huge role in customer experience. When we feel annoyed or frustrated, it seems as though the organization we are contacting doesn’t care about us, whereas when an agent is friendly, we are more likely to reciprocate and have positive feelings about our interaction. Most importantly, we are likely to spend more, become repeat customers and tell our friends about it too.

3. “Peak-End” moments disproportionately influence customer experience

The Peak-End Rule is a psychological tool that explains how people remember their experiences. Instead of considering the average or sum of a total experience, the Peak-End Rule says that we remember the highest (best or most positive) or lowest (worst or most negative) points of an experience and how it concluded. Our memories therefore consist of a series of highlights rather than a thorough record of facts and events.

The bad news about emotions being primary determinants of customer experience is that negative ones tend to dominate over the positive ones.

That means in customer service, we might remember a particularly pleasant interaction we had at a grocery store when they refunded a purchase without a receipt. This colours our entire impression of the grocery store chain. Similarly a bad flight experience on the way home from a vacation can take away from the overall trip, even if the vacation was fantastic.

The brain likes beginnings and endings and tends to overlook what’s in between. This is the reason why every “micro-moment” within a customer journey at an airport for example, is an opportunity to leave an indelible, positive imprint on their emotions.

The customer experience formula

Do we all need to become neuroscientists? No. And neuroscience shouldn’t be seen as the magic bullet to improving customer experience. However, it brings an additional element to the customer experience mix – the role played by travellers’ emotional “limbic- and reptilian-brain” predispositions. Understanding this helps us to start designing experiential journeys, instead of merely “customer” journeys. Understanding this will enable us to equip our frontline service warriors with stronger, empathic skills, relevant tools and more intuitive information with which to interact with customers.


Vimal Rai, Founder & Managing Director of TRACE Consulting, is a veteran travel “practitioner”. Vimal is driven by the pursuit of Customer Excellence within the travel, retail and aviation ecosystem.

Vimal is the featured day 1 opening keynote speaker, of the upcoming ACI Customer Experience Global Summit. To hear more from Vimal on customer experience, and other Executive level speakers from across the globe, be sure to join us for the only international airport customer experience conference!

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ACI Insights includes content provided by third parties including airports, members of ACI, World Business Partners, and others. The views expressed and/or presented by these third parties are their own and may not represent or reflect with the views of ACI, its management, Board, or members.

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