In anticipation…how to keep customers hooked

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EMPOWERING: A challenge to a great service experience (cont’d)
J. N. Halm

We would take off as fast as our tiny legs could carry us. And when we heard the shrieks and shouts of our colleagues who had gotten there ahead of us, the emotions would ramp up and we would increase our speed. This was the late 1980s and the early 90s—way back in secondary school. The object of our desire and anticipation was the school’s swimming pool. I still look back occasionally and wonder why it was such a big deal for us. After all, it was just a swimming pool.

It took me a while to realise that what made those hot afternoon swimming sessions so exciting was not the jumping into the water by itself. What made those afternoons super exciting was the anticipation. Yes, the anticipation of jumping into the swimming pool was much more exciting than jumping into the pool itself.

Interestingly, I might be right. At least, that is what a number of research studies are suggesting. Research has shown that it is not really the reward that excites people. It is the anticipation of the reward that does the trick. The yet-to-be-experienced can be fascinating, especially when it is expected to arrive with good things.

The important role of anticipation in life cannot be overstated. On a regular basis, we employ anticipation to achieve whatever goals we set in life. From the students who uses the power of anticipation to pass an examination all through to the Chief Executive who uses same to take her business to the top of the market, individuals have been relying on this power to get things done. Simply put, there is real value in anticipation.

However, there is more to anticipation than just getting customers motivated enough to achieve a goal or an objective in life. A January 2018 research article published online by the Frontiers in Psychology journal found that anticipation of future positive events had a beneficial effect on the health and well-being of individuals. Titled, “Well-being and Anticipation for Future Positive Events: Evidences from an fMRI Study,” the study involved 40 individuals who had their brains scanned using a functional magnetic resonance imaging, while they performed specific tasks.

During these tasks, the participants were to anticipate either positive or neutral events. The results showed that when individuals anticipated positive events, there was enhanced brain activation in an area of the brain that is associated with well-being. This did not happen when individuals anticipated neutral events. In short, positive anticipation is good for one’s health.

Another of the health benefits of positive anticipation was revealed in an article published in the December 2014 edition of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. According to that particular study titled, “The Impact of Anticipating Positive Events on Responses to Stress,” anticipation of pleasure had a way of reducing stress. In the study, individuals who anticipated watching a funny cartoon were better able to handle stress than those who had no such anticipation.

Something else made that study even more interesting. The study found that when individuals experienced the positive event before the stress event, their moods were not better than when they were anticipating the positive event before the stress event. In other words, the anticipation of something positive helped individuals go through and handle stress event better.

The enduring effect of anticipation was confirmed in an August 2016 publication of the Center of Business and Economics (WWZ), University of Basel. Titled, The Anticipation and Adaptation Effects of Intra- and Interpersonal Wage Changes on Job Satisfaction,” the working paper claimed that when individuals were anticipating an increase in wages, their satisfaction with the job increased—even one full year before the wage increase was to take place. What was even more significant was the fact that the effects of that anticipation—the good feeling generated by that anticipation of wage increment—was able to last for as long four years, although with decreasing  intensity.

The effect of anticipating a positive event is truly remarkable. Researchers explain that the reason for this is because people usually expect the emotions of the coming event to be more intense than it actually turns out to be. In other words, the mind adds much more emotion to the anticipated event and this is what makes anticipation so powerful.

A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2007 found that anticipation was more evocative than retrospection. That is to say, looking forward was more powerful looking. The study was titled, “Looking Forward, Looking Back: Anticipation is More Evocative than Retrospection.”

According to the abstract of the report, “people report more intense emotions during anticipation of, than during retrospection about, emotional events that were positive (Thanksgiving Day), negative (annoying noises, menstruation), routine (menstruation), and hypothetical (all-expenses-paid ski vacation).”

One may ask what anticipation has to do with customers, service and experience. A lot, if you ask me. In the first place, when the service encounter constantly and consistently gives the customer a pleasurable experience, it is easy to see how an anticipation of that experience can generate positive feelings. When customers always know that they are in for a treat, they will always look forward to that experience. Like an addict looking forward to a fix, customers should be so hooked on an experience that they will be willing to do anything to have that experience. This is why the service must be good, at all times. It gets customers hooked.

The service should be so good that the mere thought of coming over once again should leave the customer salivating. This is what really gets customers hooked. The anticipation alone is enough to get the customer coming back for more, and more often. The service should be so good that it establishes a top-of-mind-awareness in the customer’s mind. The mere mention of the brand name should put a smile on the face of the customer. As a matter of fact, the service should be so good that the customer should only think of you when he or she becomes stressed. The anticipation of coming over should help the customer deal with the stress better.  The anticipation of having that service experience would benefit the customer in more ways than one.

Unfortunately, the exact opposite is what happens in many places. The mere thought of having to deal with a particular business is enough to fill some customers with dread. I was in a meeting recently when an individual was about to be paid via cheque. When the one asked what bank’s cheque it was and he was told, he flatly refused to take the cheque. His reason? The negative anticipation of the stress of going to that bank was just too much for the amount of money he was going to cash. That is a serious indictment on that bank.

I was therefore not too surprised when I saw that particular bank among those that were languishing at the bottom of the recently-published CIMG Customer Satisfaction Banking League Table. If customers are not excited about going to do business with that bank, how are they going to rank them high in a customer satisfaction rating? Poor customer service causes customers to have an anticipation of a negative event whenever they have to deal with that particular business, and that is not good enough.

A corollary of the service experience is that of sales. A smart front line employee is one that is able to sell the offering to the point where the customer takes over the selling. Using the power of anticipation, the smart marketer, sales pro or customer-handling employee is able to entice the customer so that the customer herself completes the sales process.  The power of the coming attraction should be enough to whet the customer’s appetite for the offering at stake.

It is important to note that there is one notable downside to this whole anticipation thing. There are times when people will keep savouring the upcoming benefits that the individual will even delay in taking the decision that will bring those same benefits. In the market place, that would mean a customer delaying a purchase as the one keeps anticipating the ownership of that product or enjoyment of that service without taking action, i.e. paying for it. These are those customers who will stand in front of the product, just imagining how it would feel like to own it.

When a customer is so caught up in anticipation, that he or she delays in making a purchase decision, it is incumbent on the customer contact employee to gently urge the customer towards the purchase. This prodding must be done with tact. You want the customer to stay in dreamland but to do so while parting with the money.

Pavlov might have been working on dogs but from the above, it is clear that his research had lessons for humans as well. In a sense, we are all not too different from those dogs. We might not pull our tongues out and visibly salivate at the sound of a bell, signalling that food was on its way. But we all possess that tendency to get excited with anticipation at the thought of something good coming our way. Smart customer contact employees should be able to employ the power of great service to replicate the same results Pavlov had with his dogs.

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