smith+co on
customer experience
Shaun Smith
  • By Shaun Smith
  • May 13 2009

The peak end rule of customer experience

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prize-winning behavioural scientist, identified the ‘peak-end rule’ which says our overall memory of an experience is primarily driven by three things - the intensity of the highs and lows; how much control we feel we have over it; and how the experience ends.

Reflect on almost any memorable service experience you’ve had (good or bad) - whether it’s shopping, dining out, staying in a hotel, or dealing with a call centre - and you’ll find at least one aspect of this rule will apply. As such, it’s an important guideline to keep in mind when you design your customer experience.

But what are those aspects that typically create strong highs and lows; and what gives people a sense of control? In our experience, there are five key things that have a strong impact. Let’s take my own recent experience of a 48-hour stay at hospital as an example:

Suffering from severe abdominal pain, I arrived in the early hours of the morning at a crowded A&E department. The administrator immediately showed concern, took the minimum of information from me and within minutes had me attended to by a nurse to alleviate the pain. No ‘computer says’ responses, no being told to sit and wait - just good judgement by a caring person who saw that I needed immediate help and was clearly empowered to do something about it.

Rule 1 - Empathise. Treat people like individuals and act accordingly. This creates one of the strongest, most memorable points of impact in any customer experience

After being admitted, I was seen the next morning by a specialist team. The diagnosis of what had happened, the possible causes and what they were going to do were well explained. I understood exactly what was going on, what was going to happen, I was able to ask questions and discuss concerns. My feelings of apprehension were gone and I felt I was in good hands.

Rule 2 - Communicate clearly and honestly and engage the customer in dialogue and feedback. When people know what’s going on, what to expect and are allowed to engage in the process - they feel a sense of control.

All was going well up to now, but then the doctor prescribed antibiotics that he said were to be administered urgently. However, it was three hours before I received medication, despite several requests. It left me worried, frustrated and distrustful of the quality of care I was receiving.

Rule 3 - Deliver on promises no matter how small. Meeting expectations doesn’t necessarily result in creating high-points, but failure to meet them will almost certainly send the experience into a nose-dive.

Having been told that I would be discharged, the staff tried to move me to another ward because ‘hospital policy’ designated the ward I was in a holding ward for A&E patients. I explained that I expected to be discharged within hours, but they insisted on abiding by their rules. They relented, only when the doctor confirmed that I was to be discharged shortly. I felt the victim of a system that took no account of my particular situation. I was not consulted and felt like I had no choice in what was going to happen.

Rule 4 - Don’t let bureaucracy stifle common sense and never ever let it become visible or use it as an excuse for action. When processes become more important than people the customer experience will suffer.

So much for some of the highs and lows and the amount of control I had, but what about that all important ending? The ‘high’ generated by the care and attention provided by the medical staff was undone by the ‘exit’ experience. It took almost three hours from the point at which my consultant said I could leave, to my walking out the door – and it would have been longer had I not asked what the hold-up was. I discovered they were waiting for my medication but the hospital pharmacy had closed for the day!

Rule 5 - Be absolutely intentional about managing the customer experience. Don’t leave it to chance.

You can see from my ‘emotion curve’ above that Daniel Kahneman’s Peak-End rule explains very clearly why my experience was so poor. That is why we use this powerful technique with our clients when we audit their own customer experiences.

So what is the take-away from this? The experience you deliver to your customers every day, through every transaction, direct and indirect, either builds value for your brand or destroys it. The customer experience is just too important to be left to chance or delegated to the front-line. The role of the senior leadership team must be to manage the customer experience to create positive experiences that drive customer advocacy and growth. My diagnosis of the hospital I experienced? - a chronic case of mis-management. What would I prescribe? – a dose of their own medicine!