What can neuroscience teach us about customer service?

What can neuroscience teach us about customer service?

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When it comes to delivering great customer service – perception is everything.

We all experience the sensory world as if the sights our brain creates from the light striking the retina are a faithful representation of what is going on out there in the real world. In actual fact this is mostly an illusion. A very convincing illusion admittedly, but an illusion all the same. A whole range of short cuts and ingenious neural strategies are used to fill in the gaps wherever the brain does not have enough information to do a decent job of capturing reality as it really is.

Over 50 years of neuroscience research has taught us about how ‘bottom-up’ pathways take information from the eyes, ears, mouth, skin, tongue and nose to sensory brain areas that actively create our perceptions. They first convert physical disturbances caused by light, sound, pressure/heat, liquid or gaseous chemicals into electrical impulses that your brain can analyse to create your impressions of the world. For instance, the visual pathways deliver these electrical pulses to the back of your brain where the information is fed into different patches of cortex, each of which crunch the data in different ways to produce different aspects of your visual experience e.g. shapes, colours, motion, depth, faces, etc.

There are also ‘top-down’ mechanisms involved in sensing the world around us. These bring certain assumptions about what types of sights and sounds are likely to occur in different environments into the mix. As we gain experience of different places we can start to anticipate the types of sensory experiences that are typical of any given space and this dramatically speeds up the process of crunching the data.

Your sensory experiences today are shaped by what you’ve experienced in the past, which speeds up perception by filling in the gaps. Consider the mind-boggling complexity of the challenges facing your Occipital Lobe when having to conjure up a convincing 3D visual world from the 2D array of light-detectors at the back of your eyeballs. Slight inaccuracies will inevitably slip in through the cracks – we’ve all misjudged where the last step is on a staircase and stumbled, or reached out to place our drink on a table, accidentally placing it too close to the edge, only for it to go tumbling to the floor. Similarly, you can only begin to imagine the technical difficulties involved in capturing the sound of an 80-piece orchestra from a bunch of pressure variations in the air, or the finely tuned sensory integration required to create the flavour of a meal. There is great room for manoeuvre when interpreting these sensory signals and, perhaps more importantly, establishing how highly you value them.

Customer service

So what has this all got to do with customer service? Well, given the inherent inaccuracies in sensory experience the value we attach to certain products when we experience them can, at times, be fairly arbitrary. As we outline below, our brains’ facility for predicting, in advance, which of a set of options is likely to deliver the greatest benefit is also an imperfect system. Understanding how this works is key to delivering dazzling customer service.

Our brain’s expectations of how much reward will be delivered by choosing one product or service over the others fundamentally impacts upon what we experience. We’ve all been to a film that got rave reviews only to be disappointed when we finally got around to watching it ourselves. Conversely, we can find ourselves reluctantly going along to see a film that popular opinion tells us is rubbish, yet derive a surprisingly large amount of satisfaction from the experience ourselves. Neuroscience has shed light on why this happens.

Brain scanning experiments have revealed a part of the reward pathway (the brain network involved in generating feelings of pleasure) – called the OrbitoFrontal Cortex (OFC) - that can account for this. Not only does activity in the OFC increases when the gain a person anticipates is exceeded (associated with greater happiness) but it also decreases when an expected gain doesn’t happen (resulting in feelings of disappointment). This is why never over promising and always delivering is so important. Worse still, if a person suffers an unexpected loss OFC activity level decreases even more. The most important thing to take into account about the OFC is that unexpected losses result in much larger reductions in activity than the increases in activity that result from gains of exactly the same size. In other words, our reward pathways over-react disproportionately to losses in comparison to gains. This is why we humans are so loss averse and why understanding how your customers have been let down in the past is so important – there is little that motivates us more than the promise of help to avoid the crushing disappointment associated with unexpected losses.

Explicit memories of many individual decisions will have long ago faded from customers’ conscious minds but they are still very much there, safely logged away deep down in the memory banks of their brains. They consist of a summary of the emotional feelings that those individual experiences gave them overall – both positive and negative – with the most poignant and the most recent examples being at the very top of the pile.

When it comes to difficult buying choices things are often finely balanced. We are drawn by a very subtle emotional pull towards similar options that in the past have resulted in positive outcomes and a gentle emotional push away from those that resulted in negative ones. The pull towards certain options appears to be generated in the Nucleus Accumbens or “Buy Button” as we prefer to call it. This is the part of the reward pathways that is involved in quantifying how much benefit or pleasure is likely to be gained from each option under consideration. The option that produces the most activity in the Buy Button is the one that is usually ultimately chosen. The push away from certain choices can arise from numerous brain areas involved in detecting and making us aware of downsides associated with certain choices, such as the discomfort associated with a hefty price tag. This push is created in an island of brain tissue known as the Insula – residing in the valley between your Temporal and Frontal Lobes. Another form of push instinct that sets warning bells ringing is generated by your Amygdala – when you worry that a choice is simply too risky or you are reminded of a similar situation that turned out badly in the past.

Customer expectations

The smallest of things can hugely influence a customer’s mood and in turn heavily impact their buying decisions. Pleasant smells, tastes, architecture, sounds induce an increase in activity level within the reward pathways of the brain; including the Buy Button. This means that a variety of influences on reward pathway activity, which should have nothing to do with the purchasing decision, nonetheless have a powerful impact on our choices. In fact anything that makes customers feel excited drastically increases activity along the reward pathways, bringing them ever closer to “going for it” - whatever it happens to be. The activity is particularly ramped up by exciting sensations, such as those generated in a lively club or bar. Loud music, flashing lights and attractive bar staff, all help to drive up sales by throwing our reward pathways into a frenzy and making us spend far more than we ever intended. However it’s not just excitement that stimulates the reward pathways: playing classical music in wine shops increases sales of more expensive bottles of wine. It’s all about creating an atmosphere that “fits” with whatever is being sold. When it comes to wine, an air of sophistication is the appropriate way to give the reward pathways a nudge in the right direction.

It’s worth bearing in mind that customer’s expectations are always adjusted and updated according to experience. The more an experience deviates from expectation, the greater the response in their reward pathways and the greater the impact on similar future decisions. If however you really do want to deliver exceptional, dazzling customer service and consistently go way beyond your customer’s expectations, the absolutely key thing is - never ever underestimate the impact that the tiniest of things have when it comes to influencing your customer’s experiences, both positively or negatively.

Creating an unbroken stream of sensory experiences that stimulate your customers’ reward pathways produces a brain state where the pull towards any given product, brand or service is stronger. But allow any unpleasant sensory experience to get their Insula firing (e.g. a hair in their food, interaction with disinterested sales or customer service staff) or accidentally set off their Amygdala by reminding them of a past bad experience (e.g. a pushy salesperson or receiving inconsistent information) and before you know it a customer’s brain will be pushing them away and out the door forever.

Dr Jack Lewis & Adrian Webster are authors of Sort Your Brain Out, published by Capstone, 28th March 2014.

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