Shopping should be a simple, painless process, but too often it is anything but. As we start our customer journey, whether in a shop or online, we begin to encounter those irritations that make us want to give up. It might be that the retailer is difficult to find; perhaps they have a complicated website or maybe when you walk through their door, the sales team pounce on you immediately.

We all encounter moments like these that make us reconsider or even quit the process altogether. We call these moments ‘Tripping Points’.

So what causes tripping points? Our perception of brands will have been based on the messages we have been exposed to: this might come from our own research, marketing campaigns, or what our friends and family say. The brain is programmed to seek congruence and as a result tripping points will be triggered if what we experience when we come into contact with that brand doesn’t match what we expect.

Crucially, this mismatch of expectations and reality is as true of better-than-expected experiences as it is for worse-than-expected ones, so you might consider whether it’s really worth over-delivering on your promise, rather than just setting accurate customer expectations and then simply matching them.

Humans must know why the unexpected occurs, it’s hard wired into us – it’s what helps us to survive.

The distraction triggered by tripping points activates physiological and neurological responses that the customer experiences as stress. Even a single tripping point causes stress, but the more they experience, the higher the stress levels. Our natural response to stress is ‘fight or flight’, so at best this means an uncomfortable experience for your customer, and at worst they’ll walk away if the stress reaches an unacceptable level.

Furthermore, the level of stress that a customer is willing to tolerate (either consciously or unconsciously) is dictated by their desire for the product or service.

In effect, you can ‘buy’ tripping point tolerance by presenting an irresistible offer. But, conversely, the need for purchase inducement is reduced if the level of stress experienced by customers at each tripping point is minimised – which is clearly better for business.

Tripping points fall into three categories: the sales process; the environment (both real and virtual), and/or the people responsible for interacting with customers. Some tripping points may be obvious, for example, complicated pricing (process), badly maintained or inaccessible premises (environment), or poor product knowledge (people).

Others may appear trivial – whether a sales person greets the customer or not. Some cut across standard practice, like having patience with browsers or being prepared to honestly explain how prices are calculated. But all tripping points matter. They can make a big difference to the customer experience and could derail the sale by making the customer uncomfortable.

So how can we overcome tripping points? Some may be easy to remove; some are unavoidable (e.g. mandatory finance documents) but need to have their impact ‘softened’; others may need to be compensated for through pricing or adding value, but all should be addressed to increase the likelihood of a sale.

However, because they are the result of unconscious mental processes, the cause and impact of tripping points might not be obvious, so customers rarely remember what the actual tripping points were and will drop out of the buying process without consciously understanding why.

Clearly, if customers don’t know why they didn’t buy, what chance does the retailer have of understanding why a sale failed? (It’s also worth considering the value of surveys and customer questionnaires – if people don’t know or don’t accurately remember why they responded as they did, and can only provide a rationally-filtered response that may have little or no bearing to the actual reason, what is the point in doing them?)

Fortunately, due to the rapid advance of scientific knowledge about how humans make decisions, we now have the ability to identify tripping points in real time as they occur and measure the level of stress they cause.

By using psycho-physiological research we can reveal the moments when customer expectation is at odds with reality and match this up with video and audio monitoring to identify exactly what causes them. As a result we are able to create a Tripping Point Index – a scientific analysis of the customer’s experience providing objective measures of stress. The Tripping Point Index can also determine how much each tripping point matters to the overall customer experience – and therefore how likely it is to impair the journey to a sale.

Whatever their nature, our evidence is clear: finding and then fixing tripping points increases sales, profit, customer retention, staff retention and productivity.

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