Why Reciprocity is the Key to Building Deep Customer Relationships

Jinsop Lee’s inspiring 2013 TED talk on multi-sensory experiences in our lives affirmed a hypothesis I’d been harbouring for years – that the most pleasurable human experiences involve all of our five senses.

Simple and powerful, his theory explains why eating a good meal, dancing in a bar or sleeping with your partner feels so enticing. Experience design, thus, should incorporate stimuli across multiple sensory dimensions.

A few industries traditionally excel at this such as the high-end hospitality and entertainment sectors, beauty and SPA establishments or luxury malls, for example. In these contexts, multi-sensory experiences account for a large portion of value created.

Take Jamie Oliver’s restaurants: Good, simple food served in a great ambience, with an open kitchen and small retail portion within the premises. It’s a journey of culinary appreciation and discovery for which we gladly pay a premium.

I like to assume a technical view when looking at brands’ efforts to engage customers through the senses and was curious to discover a common trait shared by all exceptional customer experiences. Why are some multi-sensory experiences far more attractive than others? What is the difference between a good and a great customer experience?

A major misconception with regards to experience design is that customers in a certain target demographic have the same needs, and want the same things. Just like we don’t all want to drive the same car or live in the same house, we don’t necessarily seek the exact same interactions.

Personalisation plays a pivotal role in creating exceptional customer experiences, and is absolutely irreplaceable. Cleverly designed communities allow brands such as fitness app Fitocracy to better engage their users and help them stick to their goals. Existing users endorse the activity of newbies, and discuss health challenges in a supportive, forum-like fashion that builds empathy and social context.

A similar misconception exists around repeat engagement. Many of my peers believe brands should deliver the same experience every time, but that’s only part of the truth. Humans love variety, especially in a familiar context. We stick to a brand because we seek a certain standard, not because we love monotony.

Platforms such as AirBnB have a highly engaged user base for this reason. Nespresso introduces new variations every season, which creates both variety and anticipation. Absolut Vodka assigns a random design pattern to some of its bottles, each one completely unique. All three are iconic brands.

This points to a major flaw in prevalent experience design theory: “Prescribing” a customer journey in a one-size-fits-all, standardised and repeatable matter doesn’t work. Brands prioritising consistency of expression over actual, experiential value-add, fall short of customer expectations and lose out in the long run.

Read this related idea:  Krulak’s Law

An essential element of exceptional experiences is involvement: Humans experience by doing. We love to make choices, share our opinions and interact with the world around us. We want to participate as much as we like to receive. Underlying this is the psychological principle of reciprocity.

The best brand experiences establish personalised mutual relationships with customers – defined by equality of power over, and involvement with, each other. At Ritz-Carlton, each employee is given an allowance of up to $2,000 to remedy a customer complaint. This is one of many initiatives to empower staff and show real commitments to guests’ wellbeing.

In the crème de la crème of experiences, reciprocity occurs across four dimensions: The transaction dimension (getting a fair deal for what you pay); the personality dimension (feeling like you and the brand “jive”); the interaction dimension (striking a balance of service and customer actions/decisions); and the peer dimension (feeling that fellow customers are enjoying a similarly good experience).

I recently designed the user experience of local start-up mypassport.asia, a single subscription giving users access to dozens of boutique gyms, yoga places, and the like, in Singapore.

It’s a highly personalised, dramatically simplified and visually engaging interface that talks to people’s fundamental human needs to integrate wellbeing affordably into their daily lives. Designed to be intuitive from the start, the interface is highly visual and guides through imagery, gently providing wayfinding along the way.

It encourages exploration of the interface at one’s own pace, therein connecting users to work out cultures they identify with. Rather than using a static customer journey, the design is purely driven by empathy and user empowerment.

As a fundamental human metric, the degree of reciprocity we achieve in our lives directly impacts our sense of happiness. The more reciprocal our human interactions, the more joy we experience ourselves.

The highly collaborative nature of humanity hard-wires us to seek relationships of mutual benefit with people and brands. To build such a relationship with your customers, a flexible approach is needed – one that requires empowering the people involved in delivering the experience and deploying flexible processes that allow for genuine human touch to be applied.

Author: Philipp Kristian Diekhönera global TEDx speaker, entrepreneur, and author of The Trust Economy

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