Two months ago, I stayed in a hotel in DC for a girls’ weekend. After a long day of travel and a frustrating experience at the front desk, I finally nestled into bed for a well-earned sleep.
Then, in the middle of the night, I was awakened by the chilling sound of my worst hotel nightmare: the keypad beeping and someone opening my door.
The clerk had assigned my room to someone else.
I wish I could say my nightmare had ended there, but it only got worse. The hotel billed my room incorrectly, and I had to go through multiple people to get someone to help me. When I escalated the problem to corporate, they didn’t have access to hotel-level information. Two months later, when I got a check with my reimbursement, I felt like I’d talked to everyone in the company but no one who could take responsibility for the mistake.
The Truth About Memory, Emotion, and Recall
As a researcher, it’s been interesting to hear myself tell this story over the last 2 months. What parts of the experience do I focus on in my retelling? The story I told in the days after the event and the version I tell now, months later, are different. But there are two points that I always include in the story: someone unlocked my hotel door, and someone in customer service hung up on me.
As much as we like to think of our memories, especially in critical moments, as a camera, the reality is that they are flawed. Our memory of experiences is not a summary of all the moments, but is instead dictated by what happens at the emotional peak of the event and at the end, i.e. the peak-end rule. In my case, the terrifying moment of the intrusion and the moment I heard the dial tone as the customer service person let me go.
How You Can Impact Customer Perception
So what can you do to improve a customer’s perception of a negative experience? Here are some steps you can take:
- End your interactions with customers on a good note. The last moments of the interaction will linger and color customers’ memory of the experience. Make sure that moment is one that leaves them feeling good about the experience. Offering a heartfelt apology, a tangible solution, and an unexpected gift can help you leave a positive impression on the customer.
- Focus on the highs and lows of the customer’s experience. While delivering a great customer experience from beginning to end will endear you to your customers, that can be difficult to achieve. However, maximizing the highs and minimizing the lows can have a similar impact. Prioritize and drive the peak experiences. Build on an aspect of the experience that is already positive, and make it fun, exciting, and inspiring.
- Understand which customers you need to prioritize. Not all emotions are created equal, and not all unhappy customers are going to walk out on your brand. A customer who’s experiencing a high arousal emotion, like the anger or fear of a stranger walking into their hotel room is more likely to go to a competitor (or write a blog post recounting the experience) than one who’s disappointed that the pool is out of order. Dedicate your time and effort to deescalating your high arousal customers before they’re inspired to act.
- Tailor your messaging to the customer’s emotional state. When a customer is in a high arousal emotional state, they are less able to process complex information. As much as you might want to defend your company’s laborious processes and procedures with a detailed or legalistic explanation, your messaging will not resonate if the consumer is angry. You should make them feel better first and provide the in-depth explanation later. If the hotel had tried to give me a thorough explanation of their internal processes and the reason for their delays, I wouldn’t have been as receptive in the moment as I would have been after the issue was resolved.
- Once a certain number of things go wrong, commit to the quick fix. I was horrified when another hotel guest entered my room, but if that had been the only incident, I might have attributed the issue to one hotel employee. Instead, I was met with resistance at every step of the process, and the sum of these experiences left me with an overall negative brand impression. Once a consumer has lost confidence in the company, it’s difficult to win them back. Companies should empower their customer service representatives to provide quick and permanent solutions to customers who have had multiple negative experiences.
Unfortunately, as hard as companies try to deliver consistent and positive customer experience, mistakes happen. There will always be instances of bad customer service for one reason or another. The customer service representative might be inexperienced. The computer system might have a glitch. The customer themselves might have unreasonable expectations. But companies can nonetheless be remembered positively and keep their customers in the fold by applying some insights about memory and emotions.