A rather clever and interesting experiment, led by Michael Treadway at Vanderbilt University, sheds light on what we, perhaps intuitively always knew.

Humans hate effort

The experiment is an insight as to why we humans hate effort. What exactly happens in our brains as we tussle between effort and indulgence?  Treadway’s study shows that the human brain, when it faces an unpleasant effort, generates a response in the insula (an area deep in the brain which processes, among other things, pain and negative emotions) that is very similar to its response to real pain.

This is the ‘response cost’ we experience going through and suffering unpleasant tasks.

Yet we persist

In another interesting study conducted by neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, he gave rats access to a lever that emitted an electric shock whenever the lever was pressed. One would expect the rats to avoid the lever altogether after the first instance, or perhaps the second, especially since there was no consequent material reward associated with the pressing of the lever.

But surprisingly this is not what Panksepp found. The rats kept going back for more despite the electric shocks they received. These rats were “seeking out” the buzz that came from depressing that lever. Instead of being driven by any external reward or motivation, the rats were internally motivated by the need to “seek” and thus kept coming back despite the disadvantages and pain such seeking journeys resulted in.

Panksepp further posited that all mammals, including humans, are “wired” to seek, because the act of seeking releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is linked to reward and pleasure. Panksepp spent decades mapping the emotional systems of the brain he believes are shared by all mammals and believes “Seeking is the granddaddy of the systems”. 

Seeking is what motivates us each day to get up, go out there and seek the world even though it may seem rather repetitive and seemingly unrewarding. It’s why animal scientist Temple Grandin’s experiments show that even animals in captivity would much rather prefer to search for their food than to have it delivered to them.

For humans, this desire to search is not just about fulfilling our physical needs. Panksepp says that humans can get just as excited about the seek for abstract rewards as much as for tangible ones. 

In other words, it is the journey (the exploration and investigation that sometimes leads to reward and sometimes not) that we “seek”, not so much the destination itself. In this, humans act much like other mammals: we respond to an internal reward mechanism that incentivises us to seek out new and memorable experiences, insights, and surroundings. It is the search and the journey itself that generates the addictive buzz that allows us to overcome the natural “pain” of effortful action.

Love the experience, hate the effort

What both these studies tell us is that seeking gives us immense pleasure and produces emotions and journeys that stay with us. But despite this innate desire to seek, humans remain on an active lookout for ways and methods to avoid effort and the consequent pain. It would seem then, that while we seek out journeys that are “experiences” in themselves we also try to do so in ways that incur the least amount of pain and effort for us.

And yet, day in – day out, in the context of marketing and selling, companies ironically put their consumers through enormous pain and effort during the consumer journey and the desire for “seeking” experiences. Effort that most of the times could be avoided adds nothing to the overall consumer experience and certainly not to engendering a sense of loyalty amongst these consumers. 

Companies also seem adept at delivering consumer journeys and experiences that are designed more from the “inside-out”, than from the “outside-in”. Experiences that are designed more for organisational internal efficiencies than for consumer ease.

Experiences need to be designed and executed based on deep consumer insights and empathy.  Our research of a decade tells us that when they are not, what should be a pleasurable, dopamine-releasing journey becomes instead a journey rife with pain and effort. In the era that we live in, the Age of the Customer, creating such pain just does not make sense.

Building memorable experiences

In a seminal research paper published in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) in 2010 by Mathew Dixon et al titled Stop Trying to Delight Customers, an interesting statistic was offered. According to a survey conducted by the authors, 89 of 100 customer service heads indicated that their main strategy was focused around exceeding customer expectations in order to deliver on customer delight.

Yet the same survey showed that customer delight was only tenuously linked to enhanced Customer Experience. Despite the enormous efforts and significant costs associated with achieving “customer delight”, 84 percent of surveyed customers indicated that their experiences were painful and were nowhere close to the promised customer delight scenario envisaged.

The same HBR research paper also highlighted that a significant majority of organisations focus on customer satisfaction surveys to gain insights for improving the customer journey.

The challenges with survey-based self-reporting tools such as these are two-fold: first, the design of the study seeks insights that are geared towards enhancing customer delight and the operational fixes that go along with that objective and thus end up seeking answers to known questions as opposed to probing the unknown, the unsaid, and the unaware. Second, survey-derived insights run the risk of being biased in multiple ways. Cognitive biases, scoring biases, authority biases, or simply plain old ennui can all inadvertently skew the results of customer satisfaction surveys.

So, a question naturally arises: If customer satisfaction surveys are overrated and poorly linked with loyalty and experience, is there a better alternative? One possibility is to focus on a more engagement-oriented metric, like customer effort. But traditional single question surveys on customer effort are just as flawed.

Which brings us back to Treadway’s Vanderbilt study. Would organizations get better results if they measured the pain consumers go through when they interact with the organisational experience? Could elimination of effort and its associated pain be a primary building block for delivering a great consumer experience, as part of a delightful consumer journey? And if so, how does one accomplish this?

Measurement beyond customer satisfaction surveys; measuring the non-conscious

Advancements and rapid commercialisation in applied neuroscience now make it eminently possible to measure customer effort across processes and touchpoints using a combination of declarative surveys and non-invasive tools rooted in neuroscience that together can deliver both nonconscious and transactional insights.

Further, the superior granularity of applied neuroscience methods enables researchers to break down “customer effort” itself into its constituent components of Time, Physical, and Cognitive effort and measure these independently. Our experience in this area over a decade is rife with success stories of savvy organisations focusing on elimination of pain at such a granular level.

It is now increasingly clear that marketers and sellers who wish to deeply engage with their consumers have much to learn from the excellent insights from the research of Panskepp and Treadway, on our aversion to effort as well as our deep desire to seek. Combine these insights with Matthew Dixon’s work around customer effort and an interesting roadmap emerges. A map that has the potential for organisations in understanding and redefining the design of consumer experiences.

We have seen that while consumers are “wired” to seek, they would rather seek with as little effort or pain as possible. Designing and delivering a truly memorable, pleasurable experience with close to zero pain and effort should therefore be the goal of savvy marketers who want their consumers to keep coming back for more.

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