Broken heart

What is the dreaded ‘crack of doubt’ in customer relationships - and how do you counter it?

6th Aug 2019

What can we learn from the psychological process customers go through when they start to question their relationship with a brand? 

The crack of doubt in any relationship is always that moment when someone does something and it changes your opinion of them.     

Most people will no doubt be familiar with this from their dating experiences. I remember once talking a girlfriend round from quitting our relationship because she had seen a questionable album on my record shelf.

The said album made her reconsidered what she thought she knew about my tastes, and crucially, whether they still aligned with her own. It made her change her opinion of me and started the dreaded crack of doubt.  

A Nun's doubt

The ‘crack of doubt’ is based on the psychological work of Helen Rose Ebaugh. Helen used to be a Nun - not a normal career path for a psychologist – and at one point, she had her own crack of doubt about a life in the convent.      

She eventually left the nunnery and retrained to study human behaviour. One of her first interests was the process of ‘role exits’, or rather a person having doubts about a job role they’re in and their subsequent decision-making to find another job.

The stages of role exit can be examined and in turn applied to our understanding about why customers change their mind about the brands they have relationships with.       

First stage of role exit

Role exit has two stages. In the first stage, a person will experience an event that will make them question their role and give them doubt. They will then question subsequent events with an increasing sense of doubt. They will also start to seek confirmation of these doubts from colleagues, friends and family. This will either confirm or subdue these doubts.

If subdued, the person will re-evaluate their doubts and potentially revert to the same loyal role. If not they will increase seeking confirmation of the doubt, seeking people who agree with the doubt and establishing a negative interpretation of all subsequent events. This eventually leads to their seeking an alternative to their role.

Role exit

Second stage of Role Exit

Once the individual is seeking a role alternative, they move to the second stage of role exit. This is an empowering time for the individual. They have moved to a mindset of considering potential future roles. Comparing options. Realising their freedom to choose new opportunities.

A subsequent stage they go through is using a comparison level. Where the person will assess each option above or below a comparison level; a behaviour observed and named by Thibaut and Kelly in 1959, as part of wider work on social exchange theory and established from interpersonal relationships the individual has experienced in their lifetime.

The individual will start to shift reference group orientation and engage in role rehearsal, eventually moving roles.

Role exit

Customer experience

The stages of role exit are a familiar and common process in consumer experiences. We witness consumers changing their minds after a bad experience as part of a service or product offering. They then follow on the path of role exit.

Many businesses overlook it as a place to make an impact with the consumer on a wider level, instead choosing to apply blatant or paranoid retention techniques in fear of a customer leaving whilst overlooking the wider psychology of what is going on.

Price comparison sites

One recent industry has been established on role exit behaviour to incredible effect: price comparison sites. The most dominating sales innovations of the last two decades have been born out of a need for consumers to compare a market of product offerings.

Initially done by assembling basic prices offered from comparable suppliers, more recently though with changes in laws and advancement in technology, the process is customer-specific.

Many people would assume price comparison sites start at the beginning of the consumer relationship. They start at the end. They are efficient customer killers. They will end old relationships by creating a crack of doubt.

The consumer starts this process by offering up the details of their current relationship. Price comparison sites will present market offers from their providers. This might take the form of a cheaper price, but could also be better features or offers within the deal. This starts the crack.

Price comparison sites do well by clearly presenting competing data. But their real skill is moving the consumer through purchase stages with great interface design; digging deeper into offers and finally capturing the consumer in a new deal. It’s where they make the entirety of their commission. The process is impressively smooth, offering a coherent experience from the end of one relationship to the beginning of a new one.

Price comparison sites are one of the biggest sales channels going. They operate across a wide array of sectors, helping customers find a new utility company, a phone contract, holiday, pet insurer or bank. In a recent article from Warwick Economics Research said the sector achieved £800m ($1.1bn) in 2016 and had grown in the UK by 15% 2015-16. According to the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority, 85% of UK consumers have used a price comparison site to end their old relationships.

Knowing more about endings as a business can be very useful. It can open businesses eyes to a wide variety of behaviours in the consumer and reveal a degrading relationship or even help understand opportunities in sales. Whole industries now rely on price comparison sites. These are the same industries that overlooked endings previously, failing to ascertain the true damage of the creak of doubt and the psychology of their customers therein.


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