I’ve been thinking about pizza all day, so I decide to order one for dinner. I pick a well-regarded new restaurant to try, pull out my phone, search for the app, walk through the menu to order exactly what I had in mind and pay for my order. I wait for the delivery, tracking the driver on the way to my house so that I can open the box and enjoy.

This is a typical customer journey in today’s world, made up of many small moments — some digital and some analog— that blend to create a customer experience. Some of these moments carry more weight in the overall experience than others because they trigger an emotion that has some impact on the outcome. These are the moments that matter.

In design thinking, we use research and data to understand how the customer experiences the journey — and we empathize with the customer’s feelings at every step, paying close attention to these moments that matter. We can purposefully engineer those moments to minimize the pain and maximize chances of delight in order to drive a specific outcome — for example, reducing customer churn, securing a renewal or repurchase or improving employee retention.

There’s a lot of focus today around the concept of “delight.” Google the topic, and you’ll find any number of articles about “X ways to delight the customer.” That’s never bad insight to have. But it got me thinking: Most of us aren’t working with unlimited resources, and we usually have to decide where to prioritize our time and effort. Faced with that choice, is it better to go for that lasting impression that really delights or to fix something that is broken?

The 'Peak-End Rule'

I believe the “Peak-End Rule” offers good context for thinking about this question. Based on research by Daniel Kahneman and Barbara Frederickson, the Peak-End Rule acknowledges that the brain doesn’t digest every moment or data point across the entire journey. Instead, it gives greater weight to the most intense positive or negative moments (“peaks”) during the experience and to the final moments (“end”).

In my pizza journey, I had a great experience ordering via the app, and the pizza arrived sooner than I expected. I’m delighted. But when I open the box, the pizza has the wrong toppings (and I really hate mushrooms). That “end” experience nullified a lot of great effort invested in the earlier moments.

Related Article: Do You Need Customer Journey Orchestration?

Why and How to Elevate the Positive Peaks

During the pandemic, everyone learned to interact in a more digital way. As most companies shifted their business to being more digital, aiming for customer delight became a necessity to differentiate itself from the competition in order to maintain some level of loyalty with customers.

It’s important to understand that “delight” does not equal satisfaction, with many understanding that customer delight means exceeding expectations to make a lasting impression.

But if you’re “engineering” positive moments, will they actually feel real? In their book, The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact, Chip and Dan Heath discuss the intentional engineering of moments that delight. They explain how engineered moments must be both memorable and meaningful — that is, delivering a positive feeling such as connection, pride or insight. This is not dissimilar to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and in fact, you could argue that negative experiences result from failing to meet foundational physiological or safety needs.

Customer Surveys Won't Always Do the Trick

How do you do it? It goes without saying that insight into the customer is essential for designing experiences that delight. But do customers always know and articulate what will delight them? They may not say they care about something, but if they really do, then a differentiated experience can change the outcome. It’s unlikely you’ll get this kind of insight from a survey. You need to be out in the field, having the right conversations.

Find and elevate the moments that are most helpful or valuable. For example, starting a new job can be an overwhelming experience — with a lot of information thrown at you in a short time. Even in the best of circumstances, it’s not unusual to have second thoughts. Find ways to help new employees through certain moments that might increase trepidation. Hand them a schedule of already-arranged get-to-know-you meetings rather than asking them to set up those meetings themselves. And celebrate the beginning of a new relationship.

Related Article: 3 Ways Data Science Is Key to Customer Experience

Why and How to Fix the Negatives

Some will argue that meeting expectations should come before trying to delight, as people tend to remember negative experiences better and more vividly than positive ones, according to research by Randy Larsen, PhD. This is known as positive-negative asymmetry, or the negativity bias.

Plenty of studies point to the impact of a negative experience on buying behavior. For example, in new research from Qualtrics and ServiceNow, 80% of customers said they have switched brands because of poor customer experience, and 43% said they were at least somewhat likely to switch brands after only a single negative customer service interaction. A 2021 study by the XM Institute and Bruce Temkin suggests that poor customer experiences put $4.7 trillion of sales at risk.

There’s also evidence that fixing problems delivers a greater return than improving what’s already good. Research published in Harvard Business Review by a division of the Corporate Executive Board measured a greater jump in loyalty by moving from “not meeting expectations to meeting expectations” than from “meeting expectations to exceeding them.”

Determining Why Customer Expectations Aren't Met

How do you do it? First, identify the negative peaks and conduct root-cause analysis to understand why the experience is poor.

Learning Opportunities

Determine the drivers of negative outcomes and ideate around those drivers. Here, again, it is useful to really dig into customer perspectives and needs to understand what expectations aren’t being met and why.

Sometimes, customers have difficulty articulating what they need in the first place. A good example of this is captured in the book Outside In: The Power of Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business by Harley Manning and Kerry Bodine; it's about in part how FedEx re-designed its package drop-off experience. Through observation, it learned that placing a package in a giant pile created a negative feeling about the safety of the shipment. As a result, it removed a negative peak moment by having five pre-sort windows behind the customer agent to properly “sort” the package.

One of West Monroe’s clients also ran into a similar issue. As a software company, they found a gap in revenue sold and revenue recognized, identifying the root of the issue being a poor experience when transitioning from purchasing the software to installing and using the software — what they termed “failure to launch.” By addressing this experience, it removed a negative peak moment by setting the correct expectations with the customer and ensuring they can use the software, as intended.

Related Article: Are You Asking the Right Customer Experience Questions?

Why and How to Engineer a Positive Ending

Remember the pizza? It’s doubtful my next order will be from that restaurant — despite the very slick digital experience earlier in the journey. Similarly, a bad flight experience on the way home from a vacation can cloud the trip, even if the vacation was great. I might be inclined to choose a different airline next time.

Due to the nature of short-term memory, customers tend to remember the most recently presented information best — and that influences their behavior going forward.

Engineer a positive ending to the journey. Congratulate the customer on turning to you for help to solve an issue or for completing a process. Or, recap what you have accomplished together. For example, Mint Mobile provides an onscreen celebration at the end of a new service sign-up and phone number transfer, congratulating the customer on their decision “to save money.”

Be Intentional on Experiences You Deliver

COVID-19 was an unexpected event. We all threw rocks into the pond in trial, looking for something that had impact. Now things are more settled, and companies need to be more intentional the experiences they deliver.

The right focus depends on your organization and your customer — whether that is consumers, employees or another type of stakeholder. Chances are, this won’t be a straightforward exercise with an easy answer. Here are several key questions to ask:

  • What is the outcome you want to achieve? If you want to reduce churn, then you may want to fix the negatives. If your goal is to increase growth through acquisition or expansion, then focus on the positives — but do make sure negatives aren’t impeding growth.
  • What does the data tell you? To understand what drives the outcome you want, there is no substitute for learning from customers — in the field. Tap all the quantitative and qualitative data you can.
  • What kind of experience are you trying to deliver? Consider your target customers, what they want or respond to and what you do that differentiates your organization from others.
  • What budget and resources do you have available? Since we don’t live in a world of infinite resources, determine where you can realize the greatest potential return on investment.

Related Article: What Do Customer Experience Teams Actually Look Like?

Conclusion: Use a Design Mindset

Whether you’re aiming to turn a positive into a delight, fix a negative, or nail the ending, the next steps are similar. Assume a design mindset and use a human-centered approach.

Develop a hypothesis, not a permanent solution. Get out there quickly — conceptualize, test and experiment, learn, measure and make adjustments based on what you learn. And, most importantly, when something works, be ready to scale and capitalize on it.