Future of CX

Small things that have a dramatic impact on your cx

Colin Shaw
last edited on
May 2, 2023
5-6 mins

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Things impacting customer Experience

Oscar Wilde’s famous quip shapes my marketing philosophy, “There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” One of the reasons the brilliant quote rings true is because of the concept of Priming. When you bring attention to things, it influences how people act upon them. Priming activates some part of our mind, and that’s enough to produce this response out of us.

We talked about Priming on a recent podcast. From a technical perspective, Priming is a term that describes doing a little bit of something that will activate some idea in your mind and getting a response out of it. The word Priming comes from the old term “priming a water pump.” So many old water pumps would need someone to pour a little bit of water into the pump so that the water would come out.

“There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” -Oscar Wilde

Social psychologists often use Priming in their experiments. For example, some researchers did a study in a wine store. They discovered that music playing affected customers’ choices. When playing French music, French wine sales went up by a ratio of five to one. The exciting bit was if you had asked the customer, “Why did you buy French wine?” customers wouldn’t say, “because of the French music.” Priming is a subconscious element. Customers don’t understand why the French wine looked more appealing to them that day, but the social psychologists did.

Priming memories

Memory is crucial to customer loyalty. You can’t be loyal to something that you don’t remember. However, memories are like a fishing net, and understanding why could help you know a little about the significance of Priming.

So what do I mean by memory being like a fishing net? Imagine there’s a fishing net that’s under the water. You pull out the net by one knot. As the knot breaks the surface, some tangles are out of the water, and some under the water.

Now imagine that the one knot you are holding is a customer memory. All the other knots in and out of the water are customer memories, some above the surface and below. The memories are connected, just as the fishing net knots connect.

Those knots’ strength is affected by many things, not least because some memories were more emotional than others. Regardless of the strength, all the memories connect, and when you activate one of them, you activate the rest to a certain degree.

This fishing net example helps us understand what Priming does.

If, in this metaphor, the water represents our subconscious and pulling some of those knots above the water level means bringing it into consciousness. Therefore, those memories are the ones that we’re aware that we’re thinking about it. Priming pulls some of those knots close to the surface, lurking just below consciousness in the subconscious. We are not aware of remembering these.

Some of those knots around the one you are holding can be different things like images or pictures, an advert that you saw the night before, or that as you walk past the aisle in the grocery store. You see the same picture that makes you remember the product or service.

For example, if I make it cold, you’re consciously aware that it’s cold. That knot of coldness and everything associated with it may have pulled above the surface. But under the surface, maybe a desire to feel warmer and situations where you felt warmer probably haven’t broken the surface. But because you pulled up a part of the net, you’ve primed one knot. Then, the other ones around it are now closer to the surface where they can start to influence your behaviour even if you’re not aware of it.

Smell is a vital memory evoker and primer, too. Have you ever been to a Lush store? Lush sells bath salts, soaps, various things that have the feel of handmade or at least not mass-produced. The smell is strong. You can tell there’s a lush store a hundred yards away. If you smell something, you’re probably aware that you’re consciously smelling something, but that smell will pull up a part of that net, and that’s going to pull a lot of other things up to the surface, maybe including a desire to go into the store.

Regardless of the strength, all the memories connect, and when you activate one of them, you activate the rest to a certain degree

Priming experiences

When you apply Priming with the Customer Experience lens, you also realize that some organizations are not aware of how the little things they are doing are priming the customer. For example, cable companies do not prime you properly. (What a surprise!) You are already fired up because your bloody Internet’s gone down for the 497th time that week, and they are trying to sell you bundles through the hold. Of course, that intermixes with the repeated message that that “your call is important to them.” The effect is the opposite. Each time the terrible music pauses to let in the “your call is important to us” message, I cringe. It reminds you of every other time you’ve been frustrated and waited on the line for resolution and every different negative feeling.

Primers pull some of those responses to the surface. So, as an organization, you have to ask yourself, are you drawing positive or negative reactions?

We worked with an insurance company in the UK, where we were looking at the fact that they had several repeat calls into a call center. We discovered that after placing an order, the insurance company agent would tell the customers, “Your policy documents should be with you within five days.” And 76 percent of people that had that experience were then phoning back after three days and saying, “I’m sorry, but when was I meant to be getting my policy documents?”

It was the word “should.” By saying, “you should,” it primed feelings of doubt. We had the live agents say instead, “Your policy documents will be with you within five days.” The call volumes move from 76 percent down to six percent within three weeks.

It is important to note that the callers had no idea why they called back before making the change. If we had asked, they would have said something else. However, the words you use are essential when it comes to priming correctly. While I dislike scripts, guiding people on the type of terms you would prefer for them to use, and giving them feedback is appropriate. These subtle word changes can influence people’s reactions to their situation.

When managing your customer experiences, think about whether you can steer customers in the right direction by pulling up some of these more positive associations in their memory’s fishing net instead of some of the more negative ones.

The idea of priming properly to evoke positive associations dives down into Journey Mapping. When you’re designing your customer journeys, understanding how you prime customers can explain what causes them to do things you don’t want them to do. Furthermore, look for what you can do to prime the memories that influence customer behavior in the most important ways for your business. It would be essential to consider:

  • What music are you going to be putting on hold?
  • Which images are you going to be using?
  • How does it smell in your physical location?
  • What are the words that you want to use?

All of those things should be priming customers to do something that you want. However, it should be appropriate.

Anchoring is a heuristic, which you might recall means a shortcut in our thinking to help us make decisions, resulting in a bias. Anchoring describes where you start with something, typically a number, and then adjust from there. The bias occurs because we choose bad anchors, and then we often under-adjust from there. For example, if you have people list at the last four digits of their Social Security number and then have them estimate the price for something, the price they estimate will be biased towards whatever number they listed first—even though people know that a social security sequence has nothing to do with the cost of the item they are estimating.

Anchoring is like Priming because you put a thought in somebody’s mind. There is a sales technique that somebody was talking to me about the other week where you tell a customer the rough price. It becomes an anchor, but also it weeds out those customers who can’t afford it, helping you qualify your prospects. Moreover, much evidence shows that the first party in a negotiation who offers the opening bid becomes an anchor. Typically, it is better to open the talks yourself because you’ll end up somewhere closer to where you want to be rather than if you allow the other person to open negotiations.

Some of the things you’re priming your customer with you might not realize. It could be you are priming them to have an unrealistic expectation. A lot of advertising does this. Customers see great things on TV, these incredible images of what it’s going to be like when you interact with this organization, and then it’s something terrible in reality.

We’ve talked before about the two cognitive systems that people have, the Intuitive System and the Rational System. Priming occurs because your Intuitive System is always there in the background, trying to help monitor what’s going on. When you’re trying to decide, your Intuitive System is trying to make you more efficient. It will pull up related ideas if you might need those, pushing those closer to the surface so that they’re available. With Priming, your intuitive system is monitoring what’s going on and sees the prime and says, “oh, this might be important.” It pulls up these memories, these thoughts, these feelings, and pushes them closer to the surface if they might be useful to you, and influences your behavior.

So, we shouldn’t think of Priming as something malicious. It doesn’t turn people against their best interests, hijacking them. Instead, Priming makes ideas available that the Intuitive System processes and then can bring to bear for the person who’s for the customer.

So, what do you so with this information?

The first thing you should do with this information is to recognize that you will be priming your customers now one way or the other. There’s no neutral point on this. It will impact your customer. The issue for me is, is it deliberate? Did you mean to do it?

The second thing you should consider is whether you want to continue with these primes. Are they yielding the right behavior? Are you getting the results you want?

The third thing you should do is adjust your primes. Given the experience you want to give your customer what new primers should you be putting in place? Bear in mind that these are not universal. Different groups of customers will feel other primes depending upon what’s important to them. So the whole area of customer segmentation and everything else plays a part in this.

Moreover, if you are not aware of why primes will inspire what behavior, or even what primes your customers want, we recommend undertaking research. When you understand what customers value, you can design an experience that gives it to them.

However, it can be challenging to discover what customers really want; sometimes, customers don’t know themselves. In these cases, it is vital to undertake research to uncover them.

Most importantly, remember that you’re already doing this. People’s Intuitive Systems are already on the lookout for these primes because that’s what the Intuitive System does to help. So, give some thought to it. Are there ways to improve the customer experience by being sensitive to the primers you’re sending out instead of being ignorant and potentially making things worse accidentally?

This article was originally published on the Beyond Philosophy blog.

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Colin Shaw

Colin Shaw is recognized by Linkedin as one of the ‘World's Top 150 Business Influencers’. He is Founder & CEO of Beyond Philosophy who helps organizations unlock growth by discovering customers' hidden, unmet needs that drives value.

Colin has written 7 bestselling books on Customer-driven growth and is the co-host of the highly successful Intuitive Customer podcast.

He has also been voted twice as Brand Quarterly readers on one of the 'top 50 Marketing Thought Leaders Over 50' and has been established as one of the top ‘Customer Service Gurus’ in the world by a Global Guru poll.

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