behavioural science

11 zero-cost ways to improve customer experiences using behavioural science


How your customer experience can capitalise on behavioural science without requiring a down-to-the-studs redesign or an expensive consultant.

24th Sep 2021

I recently received a letter from a listener on our podcast asking us to cover how a small business with limited resources can improve their customer experience using the behavioural sciences in their business. We took on this topic in a recent podcast by offering tips and tricks that are either free or not an additional expense for a fictional restaurant we created. Here is what we offered our fake restaurant client.

Before you employ behavioural science principles, which is a science that encompasses the study of customer behaviour in decision-making, you must do some groundwork. These foundational activities are essential because when people learn about one of the behavioural science concepts, they look for ways to apply that specific concept. However, that concept might not influence the effect that you need to prioritise in your experience.

To combat this problem, we recommend the following two basic steps before you get into applying the behavioural sciences:

  • Consider what you want people to do in your experience: Choosing the right behavioural science concept requires knowing the effect you need to achieve. Various methods solve different problems; ensure you are applying the correct one to get what you want.
  • Understand what your customers want from your experience: Customers have goals, too. You need to know what they are so you can appeal to those motivations to hit your goals, too.

Once you have these specifics nailed down, you can move into the behavioural science concepts. In other words, start general so you can funnel down to specifics. Using our fictional restaurant as an example, here are 11 practical, zero-cost tips.

  1. Take advantage of opportunities for improvement associated with regular business expenses. When you cannot engage expensive consultants or re-imagined experiences for your business, it is essential to determine if the decisions you want to influence can be affected by regular business expenses that you have. For example, in our fictional Mom-and-Pop restaurant, they always have to reprint menus, whether they change the menu or not. Menus are an excellent opportunity to apply behavioural science concepts, and you have to reprint them anyway, so using new ideas to redesign here is not an additional expense. In another scenario, maybe you always do a mailer to specific neighborhoods. This mailer could be another opportunity to try something new. So, if you need frugality on your side, look for these opportunities to try things a new way for an expense you are paying anyway.
  2. Remember the paradox of choice. To simplify the concept, the paradox of choice describes how having more options seems like a good thing, but having too many choices overwhelms the customer decision-making process. For example, we once helped a Russian electronics store much like Best Buy in the States. They had about a zillion webcam options available, making it impossible to compare the different models. We advised them to offer fewer options. Another example is Netflix. How many times have you sat down to pick a movie or show and ended up scrolling through your options for a half and an hour or longer? So, if you have a large assortment to offer customers, find a way to make the choices more manageable by grouping like items or offering easy-to-navigate decision-trees that end up at a decision. At the restaurant we imagined, this concept manifests in ensuring that we pare down our options to hit the sweet spot between not enough variety to way too much.
  3. Recognise the indeliberate ways you trigger subconscious cues in your experience. Moments in your experience right now create subconscious reactions in your customers’ minds, whether you meant for that to happen or not. For example, if the menu at the fake restaurant has dollar signs by the prices, it triggers the customer’s response to spending money, making customers more price-conscious than if you don’t put the dollar signs there.
  4. Recognize and reward return customers with acknowledgment. People want to be wanted. When you recognise a returning customer, let them know. Reward them with something like, “nice to have you back,” or something like that. These little moments don’t cost a thing and improve the experience. Feeling familiar and appreciated are pleasant emotions that will enhance the experience. Small businesses that don’t want to invest in expensive customer relationship management systems that would keep track of returning customers try something analog. For example, the host or hostess recognises the customers and then wink at the waiter or owner to signal they need to turn on the “Welcome Back, customer!” dialog.
  5. Remember things about returning customers. I wrote a blog a while ago about things in restaurant experiences that bug me. A couple of them include things like when a waiter interrupts your conversation or lingers too long chatting. This tip ties back to knowing your customer. It is a good idea to get to know your customers’ likes and dislikes, if not at an individual level, then at least at a segmented level. Remembering these details is essential.
  6. Give customers an easy decision-making cue. If your business has a specialty or popular option, identify that for customers for an easy choice. For example, if our fake restaurant is famous for its fish tacos, then we could highlight that option in a box with a more prominent type in the taco section. If the customer feels overwhelmed by which tacos to pick, they can default to our most popular item.
  7. Define the desired memory you want customers to have for your experience. Some of you might remember that I am passionate about the idea of facilitating good memories of your customer experience. This passion comes from the Peak-End Rule, originally put forth by Nobel-prize-winning economist professor Daniel Kahneman, which states people remember two things about an experience. The first is their strongest emotion during the experience, and the second is how the experience ended. Therefore, if you want to influence the memory of the incident, these two moments are the place to start. It is essential to define what you want the peak emotion of that experience to be for customers and how you want it to feel at the conclusion - and what specific actions you will take to evoke these emotions.
  8. Remember the Attentional Effects. Where your attention goes drives many concepts in behavioural science. Therefore, you should pay attention to the details to which your customers pay attention. What I consider the most important details as the fake restaurant proprietor might not be for the customers. For example, I once heard a story about cleaning staff at a hotel trained to stand in the shower when cleaning a room. They did that to see from where a customer stands what was clean and what wasn’t. You must walk the experience as if you were a customer to get an outside-in perspective, rather than one from inside the process looking out at customers.
  9. Pay attention to all the senses of your experience. When you design an experience, you need to consider all five senses. How your experience smells and sounds are two critical areas that are not always as deliberate as your customers might like. We did a podcast about the effects of smell on customer behaviour and emotions recently. There are scent combinations that can evoke emotions in customers subconsciously that put them in a better mental environment for your experience. Also, acoustics are critical, especially in a restaurant. If you can’t hear the person across the table because of ambient noise or loud music, then people might not come back. (Or, depending on the segment, might be back every night. #knowyourcustomers.) Be sure you consider these two areas in your experience design.
  10. Manage customer wait times. We did a podcast on this topic, too, which gets into the effect of customer wait times on their perception of experience. Wait times are an objective part of the experience that you can affect with good design. For example, if customers have to wait a while for food at the fake restaurant, how can you engage them in an activity that will help them forget? Can you mitigate the crankiness factor by bringing out bread or an aperitif (on the house, of course)? Have you informed customers of their order status, so they aren’t left to wonder what’s taking so long? Managing wait times is essential - especially when people are hungry and want those fish tacos they heard so much about!
  11. Provide a less extreme option. Extremeness Aversion is a behavioural science principle that describes how people like to avoid extremes. Instead, customers migrate to the middle. For example, the wine chosen on a restaurant’s wine list is often the second least expensive bottle. Why? People don’t want the cheapest wine on the list, but they don’t want to pay triple digits for it either. So design into your experience an option that allows customers to avoid extremes. In our fake restaurant, it could be that we highlight a more expensive Surf-and-Turf or Manly-Feast option on the menu at a higher price point, so all the other entrees seem like a relative bargain.

There you have it; eleven zero-cost tips to improve your customer experience using behavioural science. Each of these does not require a down-to-the-studs redesign or an expensive consultant to achieve. Best of all, they all can help you move customer behaviour to the kind that provides customer-driven growth, which we can all use a little more of in our small businesses.

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