In recent years, emotion has been the subject of much discussion in the field of customer experience. Every company wants to create “emotionally engaging” experiences.
Of all interactions between a company and customers throughout the Customer Experience Lifecycle, those that have the most emotional impact, whether positive or negative, will stand out from the others. And those will be more easily remembered and ultimately shape the overall perception of the company.
While companies wish this most memorable experience would be a positive one, the fact is that the majority of relationships with companies are rather uneventful. Rare are the interactions that truly create a “wow factor”. Many companies focus if not to create a consistently acceptable customer experience across all channels, at least to eliminate as many negative interactions as possible.
Even with companies who have a fairly good grasp on their customer experience across channels, there are bound to be unforeseeable service or product failures, or “breaking points”, which cause customers to seek resolution from the company.
Because so many customer experiences are neutral or merely satisfactory, service failure often represents the start of the most prominent interaction in the entire customer experience. The process from breaking point to resolution or lack thereof is a buildup of emotions, the outcome of which is a “moment of truth” that can make or break the customer relationship.
Successful resolution of a problem can not only prevent a customer from defecting but it is an opportunity to create a stronger relationship with the customer through the “service recovery paradox”, a theory which states that customer satisfaction is greater after a highly effective service recovery than if the service failure had never occurred in the first place.
While this may seem obvious, studies suggest that the service recovery paradox is a rare event. But this could be partly attributed to the fact that few companies have any service recovery strategy beyond the most basic resolution. And while perceived quality of the service recovery depends on a number of factors, including the number of previous service failures, the severity and whether it is perceived as being unintentional or out of the company’s control, anecdotal evidence suggests that when it does happen, a highly satisfying service recovery will enhance the overall perception of the company. On the other hand, there is no question that negative service recovery will intensify customer dissatisfaction and more likely lead to customer attrition.
Either way the service recovery experience will be for most companies the experience by which customers remember a company until a more emotionally-charged experience occurs.
Think of the most notable customer experience you had with a few companies and your attitude toward those companies. You may have had uneventful experiences at multiple channels, but chances are most of the experiences you remember are the result of a service failure. If it resulted in a successful service recovery, you may have completely forgotten, or at least come to accept, the negative experience that made you contact the company in the first place. If the resolution was unsatisfactory, it is probably the last memory you have of the company because you likely never gave them your business again. You will probably even have a more vivid memory of the event if the interaction made you angry.
Now try to remember a very positive interaction unrelated to service recovery that truly impressed you. For most people this doesn’t come easily, if at all.
To understand why the service failure has such an important role in shaping the overall perception of a company, we can look at emotions involved and how they affect our memory of events.
The Emotional Breaking Point: Setting the Stage
The breaking point in psychology refers to a “moment of stress in which a person breaks down or a situation becomes critical”. Likewise in Customer Experience Management, the breaking point is the moment of service breakdown, when the company fails to meet a customer’s expectations. And this is not limited to a malfunctioning product or service. Any negatively perceived interaction with a company constitutes a breaking point; from viewing a piece of offending communications or an upsetting policy customers suddenly discover to an interaction with a business partner.
Whether it leads to a service recovery opportunity depends on whether the customer takes it up with the company or whether the company notices the breaking point and tries to proactively correct the issue.
The breaking point is a critical moment in the customer relationship and leads to a series of further emotional engagements that can have a snowball effect on dissatisfaction.
Customers will have already invested in the company. If they haven’t paid already for the product or service, they have at least spent time giving consideration to the brand. Because time is money, and people have an emotional relationship with money, the breaking point invariably involves a negative emotion. How much time or money they have invested in the brand will affect the intensity of the emotion. Whether it is through the phone, by email, in a support forum, in social media or in person, the extra effort required by the customer to contact the company increases dissatisfaction and biases the customer into perceiving the service more negatively.
But the service failure can also encompass an evolving mix of other deeper emotions unrelated to the cost, making the matter infinitely more complex. For example, it may threaten the security or well-being of loved ones; the new glucose meter you purchased for your diabetic mother is defective, you prepare months in advance to bring your pet on a flight only to be refused boarding once at the check-in counter, or you discover a limiting clause on your car brakes warranty. These can evoke different emotions such as surprise, fear, disappointment, distress and anger. Understanding these deeper relationships customers have with a product or service is an essential part of managing the customer experience.
Listening for Service Recovery Opportunities
Consumers are increasingly taking their questions or complaints online in support forums or in social media. They are also posting critical reviews about their experiences on industry-specific sites such as TripAdvisor for restaurants and hotels or community sites such as Yelp. While customer feedback at any channel provides valuable information to companies, online channels also present the added opportunity for companies to display good will by resolving issues publicly. But left unattended, they become a platform for customers to vent their anger. As more participants with the same issue add to the discussion, group think starts to form and participants only inflame each other further. And ignoring complaints in social media can have devastating effect on purchase intent by other consumers as well, as one study suggests.
What is most surprising from a customer experience management perspective is that this happens often directly on the companies’ own support forums. The company remains silent as customers trash it. Apple Support Communities, Google Help Centers and EA Games Forums are a few examples.
Regardless of the channel, by the time the customer receives a response, the level of emotional engagement will have increased beyond that of the breaking point. The more effort it took to contact the company and longer the time to respond, the more dissatisfied the customer. And with increased dissatisfaction comes increased expectations and needs on positive resolution.
Emotion and Memory in the Service Recovery Experience
The service recovery experience can be calculated by the intensity of the positive emotions from the resolution compared to the sum of negative emotions accumulated thus far.
Simply resolving the issue will not necessarily leave the customer with a positive impression of the entire service recovery experience. For it to be positive, the service recovery must create a level of positive emotions greater than the proportionate level of negative ones created by the service failure. And when it does so significantly, the service recovery paradox can happen.
And while the recovery experience affects the immediate satisfaction level, it also has long-term effects on the overall perception of the company.
First, as humans, we tend to organize information in chronological order, making stories or narratives. What happened last will be more easily remembered. In the entire relationship with a company, if the last interaction a customer had was a failed service recovery, than it will likely be the one the customer will remember the company by as he or she terminates the relationship.
But even if the service recovery was successful and the customer relationship continued, the service failure may still be the most memorable event.
The emotion involved in an experience and its intensity will also affect our ability to remember it. We tend to have a better memory of emotional events; experiences that are more emotionally-charged will create a deeper imprint than those that are neutral (neither highly negative nor highly positive). Since most interactions with companies fall in the latter category, the inherent emotional nature of service failure often makes it the interaction customers will remember most.
Even if the overall customer experience was dotted with positive experiences, there is the fact that negative emotions are remembered more easily than positive ones and in greater detail, which further makes the point for doubling the efforts in making highly positive service recovery experiences.
Implementing a Service Recovery Strategy
The breaking point and service recovery represent both challenges and opportunities. While the value of each recovery depends on numerous factors including the cost of customer acquisition and servicing, customer profitability and so on, it is clear that investing in creating excellent service recovery experiences has long-term customer loyalty benefits.
With a better understanding of the emotions involved and their weight in defining the service recovery experience, companies can achieve the service recovery paradox more frequently and turn negative service failures into positive, memorable experiences. While we don’t suggest strategically inducing mild service failures only to create highly positive service recovery experiences, we do advise making it an integrant part of the customer experience management framework.
Facilitating positive service recovery experiences first requires organizational-wide policies and procedures specifically addressing when and how to respond to service failures. Service recovery is not only a customer service concern; the breaking point and recovery interaction can happen at any channel or touch-point from the sales person to the service technician, billing or shipping personnel.
And while policies at the service recovery level are important, the same service failures will continue to occur if the issues are not fed back into the organization. Ensuring that breaking points are avoided in the first place requires a systematic cross-departmental process to gather feedback and communicate it to relevant departments for actions that will eliminate or reduce the chance for repeated errors.
Creating positive emotions is important at any touch-point with a company. But until companies are able to create highly emotional positive experiences throughout the Customer Experience Lifecycle, the service recovery experience may very well be the only interaction that customers remember them by.
David Jacques is Founder and Principal Consultant of Customer input Ltd and a pioneer in the field of Customer Experience Management. He has created the first Framework that brings together cohesively every aspect of Customer Experience Management. He is also passionate about having an in-depth understanding customer values to create emotionally-engaging customer experiences not only at individual interactions but also seamlessly between them.