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Let’s get emotional about business

Friedemann Hahn

Most companies work on the premise that efficiency and good value for money are what really matters to consumers, but a memorable, emotional experience can make a profound impression too, writes Stefan Thomke for MIT Sloan Management Review.

There’s a trend towards designing customer experience to give an enduring positive connection when people purchase products or services. But, says Thomke, these often lack the magical element of emotion.

A professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, he has heard students relate tales of employees who go the extra mile for customers. They describe their most memorable customer experiences with reports of surprise, delight, happiness, relief and empathy, rather than the expected factors of value, extra features and added efficiency.

“People like to think of themselves as logical, but the truth is that emotions inspire decisions,” he says. This is backed up by research and learned opinion, including neurologist Donald Calne, who asserts that “emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusions”. Thomke also cites psychologist Richard Lazarus’s clarification that “cognition (thinking), emotions (feeling), and motivation (acting) work as a system, with emotions serving as the critical go-between”.

As human beings rather than automatons, strong feelings can lead us to act irrationally – a theory backed by research studies in both B2C and B2B worlds. A Gallup report confirms that finding and harnessing that emotional connection can result in significantly outweighing rival businesses gross margin (26%) and sales growth (85%) by inspiring loyalty exclusive of price variations.


The emotional factor often escapes businesses because they are focused on avoiding or dealing well with complaints, says Thomke, who calls this “myopic strategy that leads to consistent mediocrity”.

The way people make choices has widened considerably, often influenced by social media. They research alternatives, seek recommendations and talk to other consumers before making decisions. Anywhere en route, an emotional switch could flip that will bring them to your door rather than someone else’s. 

It is the differences in what you offer that really stand out; people always remember bad experiences and usually forget mediocre ones. 

“Positively varied emotional journeys can have the richest payoff,” says Thomke. “They leave indelible memories, increase customer loyalty, and have multiplier effects in a world where customers are closely connected.”


1) Awaken the senses. Pay attention to the aesthetic, tactile, fragrant, or perhaps sonic to tap into emotions. Luxury car brand Ferrari went to extraordinary time and trouble to create the right engine roar for its alluring turbo-charged 488 model, rightly judging that this had exceptional emotional pull for drivers. 

2) Turn the tables on poor experience. When customers are having a bad time, that’s when to pull out the stops and cheer them up. Show employees how to tune in to customers’ emotions and respond quickly to shift disappointed to delighted. Thomke says stage magicians regularly play with people’s emotional states to enhance their enjoyment. They “constantly think about the audience experience, understand the emotional value of rapid shifts from disappointment and confusion to happy resolution”.

3) Concoct surprises. Little details can make a big difference. Thomke refers to Sony, whose customers loved their new TV designs but disliked the fact that cables were visible. Three years of research and hard work later, the company’s engineers found a way to hide the cables, surprising and delighting the customers.

4) Brush up your storytelling. A compelling story stirs emotions and creates connections. Look for quirky and original detail to draw people in. Thomke’s example is the mechanical watchmaker Lange, an old company that builds their timepieces then takes them apart and rebuilds them for extra accuracy. Their story celebrates the romance of quality, wind-up watches, as opposed to ubiquitous, cheap, quartz versions.

5) Keep experimenting. Pinning down emotional trigger points that prompt customer action isn’t straightforward. It can take much trial and error to ascertain what works. Online travel accommodation company Booking.com is constantly testing new initiatives – up to 1,000 at a time – that could coax emotional response, such as surprise at securing a bargain or fear of missing out on one. 

Ultimately, emotional experience is about how people feel about your company, your product, your services and your employees, and how that translates into sales and loyalty. If there isn’t a connection yet, you can create one.

Source Article: The Magic That Makes Customer Experiences Stick
Author(s): Stefan Thomke