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Creating Defining Moments for Your Customers

Chip and Dan Heath explain how to add defining moments to your customer experience.

The Power of Moments: Why Certain Moments Have Extraordinary Impact

by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Simon & Schuster, 2017

Quick question. Customers rank their interactions with your company on a scale of 1 (very negative) to 7 (very positive). Should you invest more resources in improving the experiences of customers who rank their interactions at a 1, 2, or 3, or those who rank them at a 4, 5, or 6?

When brothers Chip and Dan Heath, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business and a senior fellow at Duke University’s CASE Center, respectively, asked executives how they invest their resources, the executives estimated that, on average, their companies spend 80 percent of their resources trying to improve the experiences of their unhappiest customers. Yet, report the Heaths, in 2016, when Forrester Research tabulated its annual U.S. Customer Experience Index and modeled the financial results in 16 industries, it discovered that “there’s nine times more to gain by elevating positive customers than by eliminating negative ones.”

This finding supports the main point in The Power of Moments, the latest in a series of formulaic but insightful books by the Heaths that seek to illuminate questions with important business ramifications, such as how to make ideas sticky and how to create change successfully. The point in this case is that “positive defining moments” can produce extraordinary effects in both individuals and organizations. The book explains how such moments are created.

“There’s nine times more to gain by elevating positive customers than by eliminating negative ones.”

The authors define a defining moment as “a short experience that is both memorable and meaningful.” Defining moments can be big, such as when you realize you’ve discovered the work you want to do the rest of your life, or small, like when the favorite stuffed animal your child lost on the family’s beach resort vacation shows up at your door with a scrapbook full of photos chronicling its extended journey. Defining moments can change your life or make you a lifelong customer.

In studying defining moments, the Heath brothers find that the positive ones are composed of one or more of four crucial elements: elevation (they rise above the ordinary), insight (they rewire our perceptions), pride (they capture us at our best, reflecting achievements or courageous acts), and connection (they are shared and, in being shared, they bind us together). The more of the four elements that are present in a defining moment, the more powerful it is. More important, say the Heaths, these moments need not be serendipitous; they can be engineered.

Doug Dietz, a designer at General Electric, did just that. As the Heaths retell the story, Dietz spent two years working on a new MRI machine. He was proudly observing the machine (“a brick with a hole in it,” as he described, in an atmosphere that the Heaths call “sterile bordering on menacing”) being used in a hospital for the first time, when he saw the terror it produced in a little girl undergoing a scan and the misery that produced in the girl’s parents. It broke his heart.

But it also inspired Dietz. He switched his focus from the machine to the patient experience and redesigned the latter. He created MRI machines and settings that mimicked a jungle adventure, a pirate island, and a cable car ride. The result: The need to use sedatives to calm young patients plummeted, as did the time needed to conduct a scan. Better yet, kids undergoing MRIs were asking their parents to do it again. “For patients, a moment of agony was transformed into a moment of elevation. Dietz flipped a pit into a peak,” conclude the Heaths.

Happily, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel to create a positive defining moment. Witness how Southwest Airline elevates the deadly serious and boring flight safety announcement with a bit of humor. “If you should get to use the life vest in a real-life situation, the vest is yours to keep,” said one flight attendant, whose quip is now inscribed on a wall in corporate headquarters.

But what’s that worth? When Chip Heath asked the airline’s analytics team that question, they decided to figure it out. And it turned out that when customers who travel more than once per year on Southwest heard a funny flight safety announcement, they traveled an additional half-flight in the next year. “The analytics group calculated that if Southwest could double the number of customers hearing a funny flight safety announcement, the result would be more than $140 million in revenue! That’s more than the cost of two 737s,” write the Heaths.

The Heaths are good storytellers and they have mastered the business book format, which includes a degree of redundancy that is, I guess, necessary to embed ideas in the brains of busy executives. But the real pay dirt in The Power of Moments is the authors’ advice for creating positive defining moments, and that is the core content of the book. In providing this advice, the Heath brothers have created a terrific addition to the literature of customer experience — one that speaks to the need to punctuate consistent service delivery and quality with moments of surprise and delight.

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