Jonah Berger is a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and author of New York Times bestsellers Contagious: Why Things Catch On and Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior. In addition to his teaching responsibilities, Berger works with a wide range of businesses—from Fortune 500 companies to small start-ups, and multinationals to non-profits—to help drive new product adoption, sharpen effective messaging, and develop marketing strategy.

We see a lot of brands that struggle to create customer loyalty. Is there one key takeaway from either or both of your books that you would recommend to them?
This is implicit in both books, and that’s the biggest thing to building customer loyalty is you need to understand your customers, put them at the center of your business and base your business on satisfying their needs. All too often, I think, businesses are interested in increasing what I would call behavioral loyalty, which is, “Someone bought from us today and will buy from us tomorrow.” But they’re not as interested as they should be in what I would call attitudinal loyalty, which is, “Do you actually like the brand?”

To use a simple example, I just got off a flight with American Airlines. I flew with them a bunch last year, so I have a lot of miles with them. If you look at it from a behavioral loyalty standpoint, it would look like I’m extremely loyal. But if you look at attitudinal loyalty, I’m actually not very happy with American Airlines. If I had an option to switch, I probably would. I like Delta a lot better. Delta, unfortunately, doesn’t always fly the routes that I’m going. But when I have an opportunity, I do fly Delta. Too often people think, “Well as long as people are coming back, that’s great, so we don’t have to understand their needs and deliver value to them to get that attitudinal loyalty.”
 
One of the biggest challenges we see with brands is actually listening to their customers. They may collect feedback and hear what they say, but they don’t truly listen. Do you see that same challenge in your research or with your consulting?
I think the challenge with listening is often about being honest and authentic. We’re working on a big project right now on customer satisfaction, looking at customer service calls from both an airline and a big online retailer. When people call in they might be unhappy, but do they leave happy and if so why. Obviously giving them more stuff will make them leave happy, but what about the language that we use and how we interact
with them?

What we find is that it’s not necessarily about what you give them, but about how you deal with situations that are difficult. When people get frustrated is when someone says, “Oh yeah, that thing you care about, that’s not really important or that’s not really a problem.” What works is when someone says, “You know what? You’re right. I’m sorry. We screwed up.” They listen to the concern. They show the customer that they heard that concern. But they also don’t just say they heard it, they say, “This is what we’re going to do in the future.” I don’t think customers expect businesses to be perfect. There’s infrequently a business that doesn’t screw up in some way, shape or form. The challenge is not to not screw up. The challenge is seeing screwing up as an opportunity. When we don’t deliver something on time or we lose your bag, what do we do about it? Do we pretend that everything is OK? Or do we say, “Hey we screwed up, and this is what we’re going to do to fix it.”

I tweeted at United Airlines a couple of years ago: “You have all these ads that say you have great wifi. I booked this flight because there’s supposed to be wifi, and there’s no wifi.” And the response I got back was, “We have some of the most wifi-equipped planes in the United States. We’ll have more than 100 by the end of the year.” What that showed me was they were not listening to what I was saying. They weren’t actually saying, “What is this guy actually saying and what can we do about it?’ They were sort of going with their boilerplate language. Nothing makes people less happy than feeling like someone didn’t listen to them. So, you start with that listening but you don’t end with listening. Say what you’re going to do to make it better and then move forward.
 
Is empowerment of frontline employees part of that solution?
Certainly, but I want to separate the two types of empowerment. One is empowerment to what we give someone; the other is empowerment to what we say to someone. Very few businesses are willing to empower frontline employees to give someone something, and that make sense. If we’re an airline, we can’t give everybody free flights. Some great retailers like Land’s End or Zappos are very willing, as part of their DNA, to give people things. But it’s not just about what we give them. It’s also about the language that we use. Too often brands focus on, “Well, we can’t be unscripted in what we give people.” What I’m saying is they should be more unscripted in the language that they use, in terms of being willing to recognize that when they screw up, it’s an opportunity.

To relate this back to word of mouth and some of the things I talk about in “Contagious,” many brands have realized that the best advertising strategy is great customer service. Many brands, particularly startups, say, “Rather than devoting a lot of money to advertising, we’re going to invest all that money in customer service and next-day shipping and great experiences and seamless interactions so people are so delighted with what they receive that they can’t help but talk and share.” That organic word of mouth, that earned media, is much more valuable than paid media and much more likely to help these brands catch on and be successful in the long term.
 
So many people are so hacked off by the time the get to a live person. Can the language we use really make that big of a difference?
I was reading a paper from a colleague of mine that looks at very simple differences in pronoun use. So, imagine you call up a customer service representative and they say, “We are happy to help you,” as opposed to, “I am happy to help you.” The simple difference in pronoun use, between “we” versus “I” is that “I” is much more effective, even though most companies use “we.” Customers see that as distancing. They don’t see the representative as empathetic. They don’t see them as willing to help.

You may have seen the movie “The Big Sick.” There’s this great scene where this guy drives up to a drive thru and says, “I’d like a burger with four slices of cheese, please.” The person at the drive thru says, “OK, you’d like four burgers with cheese.” And the guy responds, “No, I’d like one burger with four slices of cheese.” The guy says, “We can’t do that.” He says, “Yes, you can.” They go back and forth, and finally the guy says, “Who the F is this We? There’s just you and me here. It’s just the two of us.” And the same thing often happens with customers. Rather than apologizing, businesses take this distant language and don’t allow their representatives to be empathetic, to use words like “I” and take responsibility for issues. Even if it’s not the representative’s fault, by saying “I’m sorry you feel frustrated. How can I help you fix this?” That’s much more effective than standing behind the boilerplate and not meeting the customer where they are.
 
How do you change that mindset? We see a lot of companies that are reluctant to change how they operate or won’t see the importance of the customer experience.
Companies that want to pretend they do these things well and sort of do what others are doing without understanding why it works aren’t going to successful in the long term. That’s why you see a lot of startups innovating in areas like loyalty, customer service, delivering great experiences, reducing friction points,
because a lot of the big brands aren’t necessarily willing to spend the time and resources necessary to allocate to these things.

One of the big challenges is the way that people see these sorts of engagements. They see them as an expense. They stop spending on marketing, on customer service, because they want to cut their expenses. That’s the wrong way to think about it. If your goal is to retain customers in the long term, this is something that allows them to do that. You wouldn’t say, “Oh, we want to cut our expenses, let’s cut our advertising to zero,” because you realize that’s not going to help the brand in the long term. It’s the same with customer experience. You can’t see them as expenses but as necessary tools to get you the results that you want to achieve.
 
Is it harder for larger companies to change?
It’s not impossible. Look at the Zappos and Jet Blues and L.L. Beans and Nordstroms. They have figured out how to do this. Yes, in the short term it may be a little more expensive and a little more complicated, but in the long term it really pays dividends. I’m adverse to a one size fits all solutions. When I work with clients, it’s really about going in and understanding their customers and their needs, and whether it’s building solutions or processes to address those needs, it may be challenging but it’s not impossible.
 
Are there things a brand can do to transform the process based on what they should be measuring? Or is that going to be highly contextualized based on the brand?
To me it all starts and end with data. What are the metrics that we are going to try to improve in the long term, and what can we do in the short term to move in that direction? I agree that it’s often not possible to overhaul a process right away. But I think the biggest challenge for many of these organization is they are measuring the wrong things. If you measure how quick customer service representatives get off the phone, and you incentivize your reps based on how many calls they can do in an hour, they will do more calls but the outcomes will be worse. Anything you measure, people will try to optimize.

It’s like the old adage of the drunk and the streetlight. The drunk guy is looking for his keys underneath a streetlight and a police officer comes over to help him and says, “Are you sure you lost them under the streetlight?” And the drunk guy says, “No, but that’s where the light is.” Measurement shines a light on an aspect of our business, and whatever that aspect is, people will try to optimize it—NPS score, the speed of the call, short-term things like if they are satisfied after the call versus a long-term thing like if they come back and purchase with six months. Whatever it is we try to measure, people will focus on that and try to optimize it.

So really, we have to think about what is it that we’re trying to change. Is it a short-term metric? A long-term metric? Which one do we want to use now versus later? And then you have to set up small steps that lead to an eventual larger one—things that will allow the business to move in the right direction. Certainly, there are times when something becomes so big it becomes scary and it doesn’t become implemented because no one wants to do it. I’ve been doing consulting now for a number of years, and in the early stages, we had great meetings and great ideas and nothing got implemented. Part of that was that everyone was on board, but we didn’t think about the process to get those great ideas to actually become something. It’s very important to have short-term steps to make sure the long-term change happens.
 
What role do you see company culture playing in all of this?
Often when I give a talk on “Invisible Influence” I show this great video. It’s in an optometrist waiting room, and a bunch of actors are hired to stand up at the sound of the tone. What we were interested in seeing is if others who were not the actors would also stand up, even if they had no idea why they were doing it. So not the first time, but by the second or third time, once this person sees everyone else standing up at the sound of the tone, they stand up, too. OK, that makes sense, they’re going along with the group. But then what’s interesting is, we get rid of all the actors one by one, and now when new patients come into the room, what you find is that non-actor picked up that meaningless behavior from the rest of the group, passed it along to the new people. The people who were not even in the room when the actors were there were still standing up at the sound of the tone. This to me is the perfect example of company culture. You may have some bad people in the organization, and you can get rid of them, but if the new people learn from the people who were there when the bad people were there, they still pick up the same bad habits. You never get that organizational change.

So, what’s key to creating some of these organizational changes is to ask, “Who are the new hires gaining that organizational culture from?” You have to make sure those networks are right so the people are learning from the right individuals and they get the good habits and they teach them to the next generation as well.
 
How do you solve that problem?
There are organizations creating lab groups or small start-ups within the organization to incubate new ideas. You see organizations that say, “Look, if we allow this group to exist within the bigger broader organization, they’re just going to get lost. They’re going to pick up the same bad habits. So, they create almost separate business units within the organization that are tasked with a new project, with taking on innovative things, with going in new directions, and allowing them to be separate and build their own culture and not get sucked into the vortex of the larger organizational culture. When these small bets go well, you see them bringing on more people and making initiatives. Google has done a great job with this with Project X. They say, “We’re not going to put all of our money behind this, but we’re going to make small bets on things that we think could be big in the future, using a small set of people who are separate from the rest of the organization. We’ll give them a limited timeline to see how well they can do and if they do well, then we’ll put more resources behind it.”
 
I thought they were moving away from that? That they were shuttering those groups?
I’ve done some work with a bunch of those groups, and what is definitely true is that some of those groups have been shuttered. But I don’t see them moving away from that practice completely. It’s more of a planned obsolescence, if you will. They give people who work in those groups incentives to cancel those projects. Rather than giving them incentives by saying, “Your pay or compensation is based on this being successful,” they actually say the opposite. They say, “We’re going to give you incentives to shutter this unless it’s working really, really well.” The incentive is to say we’re not going to do these just because we started them; we’re only going to do them if they’re great. A small percentage of them are working, but the ones that are working are doing really well. They’re shuttering those that are no so successful, but they probably wouldn’t be successful in the long run either.
 
Getting back to the book, what was the impetus to writing the book.
“Contagious” was a fun ride, and I did a lot of speaking and consulting from it. But what I found is I would often talk to audiences or work on projects and people would ask a question, something like, “How can I be persuasive or influential at the office?” Or, “I’m a manager and I’m having a hard time motivating my employees and driving them to action.” I had some thoughts that were based on research, but they weren’t things that were in “Contagious.” What I realized is that “Contagious” was a really good tool and good solution for a certain type of problem. If you’re trying to get a product or service to catch on or content to go viral or more word of mouth, that book solves that problem really well. But it doesn’t solve all problems really well. So, “Invisible Influence” was really written in response to some of the things that came out after “Contagious,” some of the challenges that I found businesses wrestling with, and I wanted to bring some research to address those problems. We all recognize that influence exists in the world. We just don’t think it affects us. The first challenge to being more influential, to using the tools of influence, is understanding when and how it works. The book is really about, one, recognizing influence in the world around us and, second, how can we use the tools to be more effective both at home and at work.
 
Were there pieces going into the book that weren’t there or ideas that you had not coming to fruition?
Certainly. I’m actually in the process of sketching out the idea of a third book based on the fact that there just was not enough room to include everything in “Invisible Influence.” The challenge with writing a book is deciding what should be in as well as what should not be in. There are always things that fall on the cutting room floor. One of the things I’m looking at now is how do we incite or ignite change? How do we change, whether that’s an organization, or customer behavior or minds? How do we get some of these changes to happen?
 
If you could give one recommendation to brands, what would it be and how could they get more insights out of the book?
One takeaway from each book: From “Contagious,” it’s about how to turn our customers into a marketing channel. How do we turn our customers into the largest and most effective sales team we’ve ever had? Customers are much more effective, more trusted and provide more targeted information than our paid media ever could. So how do we by understanding word of mouth, drive time into a marketing channel?

            And in terms of “Invisible Influence,” the one takeaway is how can we be more influential? How can we be more effecting in changing people’s minds or behaviors whether it’s within our organization to motivate our employees to adopt some of these new initiatives, but also outside of our organizations when we’re trying to influence customers and change customer behavior. If we understand how influence works, we can take advantage of its power.

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