Customer satisfaction memory reverses over time

Using vacations as an example, new research shows our memory reverses over time:

If you vacations starts out great and finishes horribly, you are more likely to remember it as terrible right after you return. No surprises there.

If your vacation starts poorly, but finishes on a high note you remember it as great upon your return. Also not suprising.

But if we ask you about the two vacations after a while your memory reverses. You are now more likely to remember the vacation that started great as great and the one that started poorly as terrible.

What does this mean – well – if you are designing consumer experiences (and you have to chose – we hope no company operates this way, but) the first experience your customer has with your brand should be better than the following experiences as the first affects how they talk about you for years to come to a greater extent than how subsequent experiences turn out. First impressions count – they really do.

From the upcoming issue of Journal of Consumer Research:

In the study, authors Nicole Votolato Montgomery (College of William and Mary) and H. Rao Unnava (Ohio State University) set out to broaden our understanding of how people evaluate past sequences of events, such as vacations.

“How consumers arrive at an overall retrospective evaluation of such experiences that contain a variety of distinct incidents is important to understand because it not only reflects consumers’ enjoyment of the experience, but it also impacts a consumer’s intent to purchase similar experiences in the future,” write the authors.

In two studies, researchers had participants read scenarios detailing a recent 7-day vacation that included numerous events. Some read about a vacation that started awfully and ended up fantastic, and others read the opposite scenario. Participants were asked to indicate how likely they were to purchase a similar vacation, how much they would pay, and which events they recalled.

Much depended on when people were asked to evaluate an experience, the authors discovered. When asked to assess an experience immediately following it, participants based their evaluations on the events that occurred at the end of the experience, because they were better able to remember the final events. After a period of time had elapsed, people weighted early events more heavily because they couldn’t remember final events as well.

“Consumers exhibit a preference for experiences that improve over time versus worsen over time when evaluations are assessed immediately, and they prefer the reverse when evaluations are assessed following a delay,” write the authors.

“Our findings suggest that marketers may engineer experiences to maximize customer enjoyment by improving the most memorable events. For long-term customer enjoyment, marketers should attempt to make consumers’ initial experiences with a service or product very positive,” conclude the authors.

Paper: Nicole Votolato Montgomery and H. Rao Unnava. “Temporal Sequence Effects: A Memory Framework.” Journal of Consumer Research: June 2009.

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