In the movie “The Big Sick,” the main character, Kumail, pulls up to a drive thru at a fast-food restaurant at the end of a bad day.
“Can I get a burger with four slices of cheese,” he says.
“Four burgers. Anything else?” comes the voice from behind the metal speaker.
“No. One burger with four slices of cheese.”
“I’m sorry. We can’t do that.”
“Just put four slices of cheese on a burger.”
“We can’t do that.”
“Who the F is this ‘We’? It’s just you and me. We’re just people. Just listen to me. F this corporate identity. Just put four slices of cheese on the burger.”
Sitting in his office at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Jonah Berger laughs at the exchange. The marketing professor and author of two New York Times business bestsellers can relate. As a professor of marketing, he deals with the challenges of customer experience and corporate culture on a daily basis and sees the scene as a classic example of how messing up even the smallest of details can drive a wedge between customers and companies.
“I was reading a paper from a colleague of mine that looks at very simple differences in pronoun use,” he says. “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.
“So 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.”
After penning his two books—“Contagious: Why Things Catch On” and “Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior”—Berger has found himself in high demand from businesses looking for help in launching a new customer loyalty program or healing one that is ailing.
All too often, he says, businesses are interested in increasing what he calls “behavioral loyalty,” which is about maintaining sales, when they really should be focusing on what he calls “attitudinal loyalty,” which is about how much they actually like the brand. If a customer truly likes the brand, they will continue to purchase the products and even forgive the company of a mistake happens.
“For example, I just got off a flight with American Airlines,” he says. “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.”
To build that attitudinal loyalty, some of the better brands—and a lot of startups—are bypassing the traditional methods of marketing and focusing exclusively on building customer experience. Word-of-mouth recommendations from satisfied customers, they have come to realize, are far more effective and valuable than any paid media effort. So rather than pumping money into an advertising campaign, they put it back into enhancing the customer experience—offering free next-day delivery, seamless interactions, etc.—making it so the customer is so delighted with the experience that they can’t help but share it with their friends.
In the short-term, those measures often appear to be merely unquantifiable expenses, but in reality, they are actually highly effective tools to building strong loyalty.
“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.”
Within that are two key customer experiences that are often overlooked: “listening,” and its close relative “responding.” Nothing makes people feel like they’ve had a bad customer experience as when there’s an issue and they feel someone hasn’t listened to 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,” Berger says. “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.’”
So, if someone asks for four pieces of cheese with his hamburger, for goodness sake, give him four pieces of cheese.

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