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April 27, 2019

The psychology of an unforgettable customer experience

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

- Maya Angelou

The problem with a good customer experience

According to Accenture, 87% of organizations say a traditional customer experience no longer satisfies customers. A “good” experience is fine, but for your brand to break through with customers, it needs to stand out. An unforgettable experience means customers talk about it. They recommend it. They prefer it. In short, being unforgettable drives your bottom line.

The science behind creating an unforgettable customer experience

So how do we create a distinctive experience? First, it helps to understand how our brains create memories.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman explored this subject in a study about how people remember pain. He asked people to rate their discomfort of colonoscopy procedure after the fact. Kahneman’s team then compared the patients’ “remembered” pain experiences with data recorded during the procedure.

To their surprise, the team found people didn’t score based on the average amount of pain. Instead, patients rated the pain of the entire experience based on only two points. First, the intensity of pain at its worst point, and the pain at the end of the procedure. It didn’t matter how long the experience lasted. The only things that mattered were how intense the peak of the discomfort, and whether the end of the experience was painful or relatively pain-free.

Kahneman found that our brains can’t remember everything so they use mental shortcuts (called heuristics) to pick out what’s important. One of the most important heuristics is emotion. The more intense and more recent the feelings, the more memorable the experience.

These findings are the foundation of the behavioral psychology phenomenon known as the Peak-end Rule.

Peak end Rule via UI Images

What the Peak-end Rule Means for Brands

The Peak-end Rule says that people judge an experience based on how they felt at its peak and at its end, not the average of every moment of the experience. And that’s true whether the experience was pleasant or unpleasant.

For brands, this means customers will remember their whole experience based on only two moments — the best (or worst) part of their experience, and the end.

That’s great news for brands because, according to science, there’s room for error in your experience. To transform people’s memories of your brand, you only have to perfect two moments — the peak and end.

3 brands that use the Peak-end Rule to create unforgettable experiences

Chick fila drive thru customer experience

1. Chick-fil-A: The human drive-thru

The drive-thru can be a stressful place. You’re not quite sure what you want, there’s pressure from the cars behind you, and you’re afraid your order will be wrong when you finally get your food.

Chick-fil-A has eliminated the most stressful points of the drive-thru by introducing humans. The crew members:

  • Come to you (reducing time pressure from other cars)
  • You can ask them questions (no more worry about the accuracy of your order)
  • They end every interaction with the delightful Chick-fil-A trademark phrase, “It’s my pleasure.”
  • Come to you (eliminating time pressure from other cars)
  • You can ask them questions (no more worry about the accuracy of your order)
  • They end every interaction with the delightful Chick-fil-A trademark phrase, “It’s my pleasure”.
Aldi Checkout Experience

2. Aldi: Home of the world’s fastest checkout

At the discount grocery chain Aldi, you won’t find fancy displays or ornate decorations. The shelves are plain metal racks stacked with mostly store-brand products. But the most memorable part of Aldi? It’s lightning fast check-out process.

Aldi has long been home to the world’s fastest checkouts — a huge pain point (and emotional low) in most grocery stores. But because Aldi sells owned-brand products, they are able to create packaging with multiple UPC codes on different panels. Cashiers never have to search for where to scan, rarely look up an item code, and are scored based on how quickly their average checkout process takes.

Aldi has turned an industry pain point into an opportunity to create an unforgettable customer experience.

Zappos Return Customer Experience

3. Zappos: Fast and free returns

The secret to Zappos’ success lies in how they handle the number one challenge of buying shoes online — what do you do if they don’t fit? Because of their liberal return policy, Zappos quickly built a thriving business.

In this case, the peak and end of an experience are tied to the same moment — returning an item. Knowing that Zappos happily takes returns created brand advocates, drove trial, and increased repeat customers.

Why is it important to create an unforgettable experience?

The Peak-End Rule is like the 80/20 shortcut of customer experience. 20% of your experience drives 80% of what people’s memories of the experience. And the more unforgettable the experience, the better the customer:

  1. They’re loyal. Customers who had a “very good” experience are 3.5x more likely to repurchase. According to Temkin Group’s 2018 research, CX has three components — success, effort, and emotion. They state, “while all three elements impact customer loyalty, an improvement in emotion drives the most significant increase in loyalty.”
  2. They’re advocates. Customers who had a good experience are 5x more likely to recommend the company. In fact, “there’s a 21-point difference in Net Promoter Score between consumers who’ve had a very good experience with a company and those who’ve had a very poor experience.
  3. They drive revenue. Temkin also built a model to estimate how “a modest improvement in CX would impact the revenue of a typical $1 billion company across in 20 industries.” On average, these companies stand to gain $775 million in value over only three years.
Woman having a great customer experience

The bottom line

CX projects take a lot of time, money, and sweat equity to complete. They’re rarely small and always cross departments. That means lots of stakeholders, which translates to lots of resistance.

But the beautiful thing about Peak-end is that you can start applying it to your strategy today.

Find the biggest pain point in your customer journey. Attack it, and you won’t just improve that moment, you’ll enhance your entire experience.


Ready to go beyond the basics and create amazing journey maps that make an impact? Then click below to check out my course on Teachable, Creating Magnificent Journey Maps:  

journey mapping course

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About the author 

Jennifer Clinehens

Writing where decisions, design, and behavioral science meet. Author, CX That Sings, and Choice Hacking.