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Are your customers hitting neurological tripping points?

9th Dec 2016
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We have all experienced the discomfort of being ‘pounced on’ by sales staff as soon as we walk into a retail store. Typically, this discomfort manifests itself as irritation, but although we will not be aware of it, there is something much more serious going on.

Our brains are still programmed to react as instinctively to stressful situations as they were during early human development. When we enter any new environment our brains are programmed to assess if that environment is safe.

This is an unconscious process; consciously we know we are not in physical danger when we enter a retail environment, but our unconscious brain doesn’t distinguish between a hazardous savannah full of sabretooth tigers and a shoe shop or electrical retailer. If we are approached immediately we enter the building, our brain may not have had time to do its risk assessment.

While consciously we might just think it’s annoying, unconsciously our brain interprets this as a threat. This is a major stumbling block and can have the power to make a potential customer simply walk out. It’s also a very common occurrence as many sales people are trained to approach potential customers as soon as they walk in.   

Tripping points

Our perception of brands is based on the messages we have been exposed to which may have come from our own research, marketing campaigns, or what our friends and family say. Our brain is programmed to seek congruence, to make things match up to our predictions of what’s going to happen next. But whenever there’s a mismatch between these expectations and reality, we will inevitably experience a tripping point. Tripping points trigger an initially unconscious cascade of physiological and neurological reactions that represent our brain’s response to getting it wrong - and we experience this reaction as stress.  Our natural response to stress is ‘fight or flight’, so at best this means an uncomfortable experience for your customer, and at worst they’ll walk away if the stress reaches an unacceptable level.

Interestingly, the mismatch of expectations and reality is as jarring with better-than-expected experiences as it is for worse-than-expected ones. So as a retailer, you might consider whether it’s really worth over-delivering on your promise rather than just setting accurate customer expectations and then simply matching them.

Tripping points fall into three categories: the sales process; the environment (both real and virtual), and/or the people responsible for interacting with customers.  Some tripping points may be obvious; for example, complicated pricing (process), badly maintained or inaccessible premises (environment), or poor product knowledge (people). Others may appear trivial – whether a salesperson greets the customer or not. But all tripping points matter. They can make a big difference to the customer experience and could derail the sale simply by making your customer uncomfortable.

Some tripping points may be easy to remove; some are unavoidable (e.g. mandatory finance documents) but need to have their impact ‘softened’; others may need to be compensated for, through discount pricing or added value, but all should be addressed to increase the likelihood of a sale.   

However, because they are the result of unconscious mental processes, the cause and impact of tripping points may not be obvious; customers rarely remember what the actual tripping points were and may drop out of the buying process without consciously understanding why. Clearly, if customers don’t know why they didn’t buy, what chance does the retailer have of understanding why a sale failed? It’s also worth considering the value of surveys and customer questionnaires – if people don’t know or don’t accurately remember why they responded as they did, and can only provide a rationally-filtered response that may have little or no bearing to the actual reason, what is the point in doing them?  

At best this means an uncomfortable experience for your customer, and at worst they’ll walk away if the stress reaches an unacceptable level

Fortunately, due to the rapid advance of scientific knowledge about how humans make decisions, we now have the ability to identify tripping points in real time as they occur and measure the level of stress they cause.  By using psycho-physiological research we can reveal the moments when customer expectation is at odds with reality and match this up with video and audio monitoring to identify exactly what causes them. As a result we are able to create a Tripping Point Index - a scientific analysis of the customer’s experience providing objective measures of stress. The Tripping Point Index can also determine how much each tripping point matters to the overall customer experience – and therefore how likely it is to impair the journey to a sale.

Here are some of the most common tripping points we have identified:  

  • Lack of empathy. When encountering a customer for the first time your sales people will have no idea of what has been happening to them or how many tripping points they may already have experienced. They may have had to struggle with a clunky website, tried to call but had no reply or had an awful journey to get to you.  As a result they may already have a negative impression of you and it’s essential sales staff are conscious of this as they have it in their power to reverse bad impressions.
  • An overly complicated pricing structure. This can quickly turn a potential customer into a failed customer – as can a reluctance to talk money or a tendency to try and ‘fudge’ costs.  It’s essential that sales people are transparent about pricing. The customer will find out sooner or later if they have been misled, and even if they still proceed with their purchase they may not come back again - or recommend you to others.
  • Small gestures. Whether a sales person smiles or if they offer their customer a hot drink or not may seem trivial, but even small things like this can have a big influence on how the customer feels. By not offering a hot drink in a situation where a customer is likely to be spending a fair bit of time – and money – your salesperson is  basically saying ‘I’m the important one here, this is my territory and I’m comfortable in it, but you and your feelings don’t matter.’

Some major tripping points, such as mandatory completion of finance documents, simply can’t be eliminated, but in these cases the impact of the tripping point needs to  be softened to minimise the stress caused to the customer.

Our unconscious brain doesn’t distinguish between a hazardous savannah full of sabretooth tigers and a shoe shop

Tripping points can occur in any aspect of the customer experience and those that concern customer facing staff should be  addressed by employee development programmes. Indeed, such programmes offer the best starting point for optimising customer service as the Tripping Point Index highlights opportunities to enhance and improve sales staff performance.

But whatever their nature, our evidence is clear: identifying, understanding and then fixing tripping points increases sales, profit, customer retention, staff retention and productivity.

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