Daniel Kahneman, Customer Service, and Perception of Quality

Last week, we went to listen to a talk by Daniel Kahneman and by coincidence I’ve just finished reading his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, just a few months ago. The ideas in the book are amazing and worth a read (it would be great if the two academic papers included in the back of the book and for which Dr. Kahneman received his Nobel Prize in Economics were printed in a font larger than 8 points!). And a few days after the lecture, I was struck by an obvious application of his ideas, or more to the point, how his experiential self versus remembering self concepts help explain the customer service phenomenon.

It has been known for a long time that politeness of error messages and civility of customer service play a strong roll in how the experience with the product is remembered.

Google Image Search results for error "messages"

Above a small portion of the Google Image Search results for “error messages”. The internet is full of these because people get so irked by such messages that they want to share their bad experiences with others. The results are just as illuminating for “bad customer service stories”. Again, a good bad story has legs!

But interestingly enough, there are some situations where a bad story is remembered as a good one. There have been numerous studies showing that given the same number of errors/crushes per application, users who get polite and apologetic error messages remember their encounters in a more positive light (than those who get the standard: “okay to reboot your computer without saving?”). And similarly, customer service that tries to be understanding and supportive gets higher marks even if they couldn’t really solve the problem. Why is that?

Well, Daniel Kahneman has the answer! He describes two different “selves” as part of our psyche: the remembering self and the experiencing self. Dr. Kahneman conducted experiments showing the clear distinction between these two concepts.

One such experiment focused on pain: subjects were asked to submerge their hands in cold water (not so cold as to be torturous, but quite unpleasant nonetheless). One group of subjects held their hand in cold water for about two minutes and then was asked to rate their experience. The other group held their hand in cold water of the same temperature for two minutes and then an additional minute while the water was slowly (and unknowingly) warmed up. The second group — the one who had their hand submerged for much longer, and thus was kept uncomfortable for that much longer — rated the experience as less unpleasant then the first! How can we explain this? Dr. Kahneman explains this by postulating that it is the remembrance of the experience that we really care about and not the experience itself.

Dr. Kahneman managed to show this result over and over again. And one of the questions he asked the audience was: “Would you spend the same amount of money on vacation if you knew that you would loose all memory of it the minute you get home?” Just think about it — would you? Most say it’s not worth it! Thus our experiential selves are less important (or not at all) to us as our remembering selves.

This is behavioral economic is all its glory…

So next time you are setting up a customer service department guidelines or developing text for your error messages, think what really counts — how the story of interaction will be remembered!

And here’s Dr. Kahneman himself at a TED event: