Battling for the Hearts and Minds of Customers (article by Howard Lax, Ph.D.)

Howard Lax, Ph.D., TNS

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How do your customers feel about your brand . . . and why should you care?

Most companies think about customer experience and loyalty in rational terms: How do customers rate our performance on these touchpoints? How do customers assess our work on various functional criteria? How do they evaluate the quality of the experience/product/service we provide?

All of these are important questions, as they go to the core of the functional dimension of any business: delivering products and services that meet the assured quality standards at the promised price to meet the use-needs of customers. This check-list approach is eminently rational, but is simply insufficient to delivering positive customer experiences and building customer loyalty. Sure, use-needs must be met, but the market is littered with competitors providing comparably excellent products. The reality, moreover, is that most ex-customers – churners, defectors, call them what you will – actually give their ex-companies solid performance scores. But they left anyway.

One Part Brain, Multiple Parts Heart
Strong scores on performance are a must. But what’s more important is whether the company is able to translate its performance into preference for their brand relative to competitors. This is the heart part of the equation (a very rational sounding term!) in delivering great customer experiences that translate into enduring relationships. Performance without preference is like being the nerd in the class: you get great grades and recognized for being super smart, but you eat lunch alone, don’t get chosen in the pick-up games or aren’t invited to parties.

Preference grows from an emotional connection with customers. Customers prefer your brand not just because of your performance. Rather, they prefer your brand because they feel a sense of a stronger bond with your brand than they feel for the competitors. This is very much an emotional issue, a matter of the heart.

Most companies, however, do a better job at delivering against the rational expectations of customers than capturing their hearts. As a consequence, great performance doesn’t necessarily translate into preference and comparably solid loyalty levels.

A Rational Approach: Experiment in Retail Banking
Being the rational researchers that we are, we did the natural thing: test for empirical validation that the heart has a direct effect on customer loyalty. Kantar TNS partnered with Heartbeat Ai Technologies to gauge the impact of emotions on customer loyalty to their primary retail banks in the US. We surveyed 750 customers across five of the largest commercial banks in the US: JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, US Bank and PNC.

Our approach entailed measuring the customer’s level of loyalty to their bank using the TNS TRI*M metric based on performance and preference, as well as their NPS rating. We also asked customers to tell us in a few words how they feel about their bank. This open-ended response was run through the Heartbeat Ai algorithm to determine the feelings of the respondent. Feelings were than classified as love, joy, trust, sadness, anger, fear or “void,” essentially the absence of an emotional expression. Depending on how varied a respondent’s comments are, a single respondent might express multiple emotions, so the number of emotions classified exceeds the number of respondents.

The Love Connection
The results are quite clear: how customers feel about their banks is strongly correlated with their level of loyalty (as captured in the TRI*M score). On the positive side of the emotional scale, those who expressed emotions we characterized as love for their bank registered the strongest customer relationships by far, followed by respondents whose feelings were classified as joy and then trust. All three of the positive emotion groups register above average on their relationship strength, including both the performance and preference scores.

On the negative side of the emotion scale, feelings that express fear are associated with the lowest relationship scores, with anger and sadness performing only slightly better. All three of the negative emotion groups display sharply weaker than average relationship scores and below average readings on both the performance and preference dimensions.

The absence of any emotional expression is correlated with scores that fall between the positive and negative sides of the scale, providing near-perfect symmetry. Interestingly, however, the relationship scores of the emotionally neutral group are below average, especially with regards to preference. Emotionally neutral, in other words, isn’t truly neutral in terms of its impact on the customer relationship: emotional neutrality skews towards weaker than average customer relationships.

On the positive side of the scale, both performance and preference drop sharply from love to joy to trust to neutral. In each instance, however, preference drops more precipitously than performance, confirming that emotions are more closely associated with preference than with performance – at least in terms of positive feelings. On the negative side of the emotional ledger, the performance and preference scores are more compressed and don’t fall dramatically from sadness to anger to fear. In each instance, the TRI*M, performance and preference scores of those whose descriptions of their bank are associated with negative emotions are very, very weak.

Bank-level Findings
The individual bank results closely conform to the overall results for the group. PNC, for example, which registered the strongest relationship scores, also outperformed the field in terms of the positive emotional attachment expressed by customers. Chase ran second in terms of its loyalty scores and recorded the next best results in the degree of positive feelings. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Wells trailed the group in terms of both relationship strength and emotional expression. (Note: Surveys were completed in May 2016, months before the sales goals scandal and illegal account openings at Wells Fargo.)

The NPS Connection
As would be expected, NPS scores also show a correlation with emotions. The emotional connection to NPS, however, appears more muted than the link between emotions and TRI*M scores. Promoters and Passives, for example, display quite similar emotional profiles. Almost half of all Promoters express feelings that are characterized as joy. Among all respondents who projected a sense of joy with their bank, however, one-third are Passives and almost 30% are Detractors. Similarly, almost half of the Detractors express an emotional void towards their bank, but Detractors also are just as likely to project joy (15%) as anger (16%) and trust (8%) as fear (5%). In banking, at least, NPS appears to be less of an emotional expression than others have previously hypothesized.

So Should You Care How Customers Feel about Your Company?
Absolutely. While the dynamics between rational assessments and emotions, between performance and preference, are complex, the evidence is clear that emotions are strongly correlated with the strength of the customer relationship. Positive feelings about a brand translate into stronger levels of loyalty, while negative feelings undermine customer relationships. Although neutral feelings on the face of it are just that – neutral – the absence of feelings is associated with below average relationship scores.

Customer feelings towards a company emanate from the various experiences customers have with that company over time. While many interactions are fleeting and irrelevant, leaving no emotional residue on customers, other interactions are more meaningful and memorable. Experiences are memorable because they stimulate some type of emotional reactions on the part of the customer. Just as each experience can affect the overall customer relationship, the feelings customer have about those experiences can affect their overall emotions towards a company.

The mandate for banks and other firms is clear. Great performance, of course, will bolster loyalty more than weaker performance. Customer relationships that rest exclusively on excellent performance, however, are inherently less stable than relationships supported by positive emotional attachment. That sense of emotional attachment stems in large part from those experiences that leave an emotional imprint on the customer. And in the final analysis, loyalty requires some sense of positive emotional attachment.

(This article is originally published by CustomerThink in December 2016)