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The Peak End Rule - a behavioural science theory you could apply today!

I took the book ‘Thinking fast and slow’ by Daniel Kahneman (the psychologist, economist and Noble prize winner) on holiday with me five years ago and I’m so pleased I did. I had the time to read, reread and take notes on it while I turned the pages.

While I discovered a wide range of new theories and ideas, one specific theory called the ‘Peak End Rule’ stayed with me and I would like to share it with you now – I’m hoping that my explanation will nudge you to be even more proactive with your customer complaints and also feel reassured that a complaint is a massive opportunity, it’s not always a threat.

Here’s how the Peak End Rule works. When any of us have an experience, there are often peaks and troughs. There are moments that make us feel good, bad, very happy or very angry depending on the nature of the experience, how the experience compares to our expectation and the way people interact with us along the journey.

Take for example new clients to your firm. We know from the research undertaken by Clare Fanner at the Law Marketing Firm that clients can feel anxious, worried or confused when they approach you for help. Most often when their work with you is completed they feel better than when they started, but sometimes things can go wrong. Clients might perceive that they have not received sufficient communication from you or the communication has been incorrect or inconsistent. They may feel that they have not been kept informed or the costs associated with their case had escalated to exceed what they expected. The list goes on.

Last summer I experienced a rollercoaster of emotion packed with mini peaks and troughs. I was buying a flat. On one hand the firm seemed thorough, they chased the Vendor’s solicitors and presented a coherent case during the negotiations. Occasionally I had to chase them for paperwork. We could say that the majority of the journey with this solicitor had been good, I was feeling positive. There had been positive peaks throughout the process as I felt like ‘my guys’ were doing all they could and they were on my side.

The end of the experience was a different story. I was excited, nervous, apprehensive as we approached the time I thought we were going to complete. I was waiting to hear from my solicitors. I was waiting for the call to say that the property was mine. I had champagne in the fridge and we were all on tenterhooks in the household, even the dog knew something was going on.

I gave it two hours, two hours on from the time I was expecting the joyous call to confirm completion to happen. My frustration and anxiety got the better of me. I called the solicitor and asked if the completion had happened. ‘Oh yes, all done. Didn’t anyone tell you?’ Boom.

And in that moment, all of the good work ‘my guys’ had done in the preceding months evaporated from my memory. This action took over.

This is the Peak End Rule – this is what Daniel Kahneman talks about. It works both ways – you can have a poor experience during your journey with a company but if the experience at the end is so good, connected, thoughtful and compassionate, the ‘volume’ of the poor experiences during the journey is turned down – you focus more on the feeling at the end which is more powerful. You forget about the negative and you focus on the positive.

In my case, because the negative thing happened at the end, all of the good work the legal firm had done on the journey had been forgotten and all I could focus on was the fact that I was just another number, this dream home was mine, but there had been no excited call from the law firm as I had expected, there was no acknowledgement of how I might be feeling after this long drawn out process.

I felt flat, the champagne stayed in the fridge for a couple of days and I crafted a letter of disappointment and complaint to the firm pointing out that this experience could have been more memorable for the right reasons. I received an email back without an apology – so when this firm called me a few days later asking for more business, namely to craft my Will, I let them know about the Peak End Rule …. and I contacted their competitor for this service. If they had apologized and rescued this situation, I would have given them another chance. This didn’t happen, they were busy and on to the next job.

What does this all mean?

You can rescue a bad situation – if people have had a poor experience on their journey with you, you can salvage it. You can turn those people who complain into advocates, even cheerleaders for you.

Pay attention to the behaviour, language and tone of communication from your customers – you could prevent a negative trough. The fact is we remember extremes of emotion, so when you receive a complaint and you don’t deal with it as the customer expects, you are adding insult to injury making the experience indelible. Why don’t you ask the client how they would like this to be resolved! You might be surprised that they just want you to listen…

Make sure you know when a complaint might be coming and quash it when you can – you might think that this is a wasted effort as it might turn into nothing, but believe me, it will cost you more than a couple of hours work if you don’t invest in the complaint’s infancy!

When you do get complaints - think of them as an opportunity to create a highly positive Peak End. This will help you to approach them with a positive mindset and you’ll find you’re better at resolving it.

Sandra Thompson is Director of The Ei Evolution (formerly Exceed all Expectations). She brings emotional intelligence / empathy / compassion to businesses which makes them better places to work and more profitable. When legal firms can charge almost 10% more per hour when they use their skills of emotional intelligence, this isn’t a soft skill, Ei brings hard results. Contact her:

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