Dress For Success: The White Lab Coat Effect and the Subconscious Experience

by Colin Shaw on October 14, 2013

Dress to ImpressHow we and things look has an incredible impact on how we react and how we behave? Indeed, it has been proven to even make rational, normal people go to the extent of killing someone. So how do you look? What experience do you give your Customers? Is it deliberate or just accidental? Let me explain…

My mother always said, ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’. Perhaps you have heard someone tell you something similar in your lifetime. The sentiment is a common one of our enlightened society, essentially telling us that the appearance of an item is not the way to judge its value.

While I applaud the lesson my mother and many other mentors have tried to impart to our young minds in our formative years, I must admit that I don’t think that we are necessarily capable of doing this. We judge things by their appearance constantly and we don’t know it. Why do we have an aversion to spiders or snakes – some things are inbuilt within us through evolution. The challenge is in the ambiguous world, as discussed in my recent blog post, “Dealing with Ambiguity: The New Business Imperative”, sometimes we are spot on and other times we are way off base.

Take real estate as an example. If you pull up to a house that has  a huge, broken front window with spray paint on the sidewalk in the shape of a human body, do you go ahead and take the tour or do you move on to the next listing? I don’t know about you, but I would take the tour just so I could write a blog post about the crazy house I saw when I was out looking for a new home!

Of course, I’m joking. But my point is that we can definitely make assumptions about that house based on its appearance and chances are, we will be correct.

For people, our appearance reflects how we want the world to see us, what we are comfortable in, what we think of ourselves.  Some of these looks tend to conform and present a societal archetype to those who see us.

Let me give you an example. If you wear a three-piece suit and shiny shoes, you mean business. But if you have a facial tattoo and a piercing through your neck, you might also mean business but perhaps a different sort. These are extreme examples and stereotypes but what I am trying to say is that your appearance says a lot about you and what you are trying to project, no matter how that can be interpreted by the viewer.

The White Lab Coat Effect

Face tattoos and 3-piece suits can be interpreted in different ways. But one thing that we all seem to have in common is respect for the white lab coat. Not only do we see it as an authoritative figure but we see it as empowering to ourselves.

In a study by the Kellogg School of Medicine, researchers found that students did better on tests that measured accuracy and attention span when they wore the white lab coat.  The lab coat, which symbolizes science and medical doctors, apparently elevated the student’s efforts to live up to it. They were much better at concentrating and more engaged in the activity.

What this says to me is that your clothing not only communicates to others how you want to appear but also that it can change the way you think about yourself.  Your clothing can directly affect your ability to perform a task. So consider that when you get dressed in the morning. My mother had another saying, ‘Dress for success’. She may have been reaching with the book and cover concept, but she was spot on with that one.

But let’s go back to the white lab coat. A more disturbing effect of the lab coat was reflected in a series of social experiments where the wearer of a lab coat was seen as an authoritative figure. When you add that to the environment they were in and what they were being asked to do it provided terrifying results…

In 1961, Yale University Psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of social behavior experiments about obedience. In the study, participants agreed to administer electric shocks to fellow participants in increasing voltages to test how punishment affected learning.  The ‘teacher’ administered the shocks and the ‘student’ received them while strapped into a chair, if they answered questions incorrectly. The shocks started at 45 volts and ran up to lethal doses of 450 volts. The final two switches were simply labelled ‘xxx’.

What the teachers didn’t know was that they were not actually administering the shocks. The protests they heard which started as the shocks got stronger were pre-recorded. What Milgram wanted to know is when the teacher would refuse to continue. His results were terrifying.

Over 65% of the ‘teachers’ went all the way to the end of the switches. They, theoretically, gave shocks of lethal amounts to their fellow participants. Many of them asked questions or protested weakly before continuing but with the mildest of urging from the ‘professor’ in the white lab coat that it was “essential to continue,” they would administer the next shock!

Besides the fact that these results are frightening, it does prove that what you wear can create an air of authority. The lab coat garners respect, even when you are just an actor posing as a professor and asking people to give other people lethal electric shocks!

How to use the Lab Coat in Customer Experience

Appearance does matter in how people make judgements about other people. What a Customer thinks of you because of the way you look and what they think of the product they are buying is an important part of the Customer Experience, the subconscious experience, which most organizations haven’t even thought of.

In the case of the Kellogg’s and Milgram study, the white lab coat created an air of authority. So when it comes to your customer experience, is there a ‘lab coat’ that your team can wear that will create the experience you want them to have? If so what does your ‘lab coat’ look like?

The customer experience is absolutely influenced by appearances. How your people dress in a customer experience is important. But appearance means more than just the clothing they wear. The individual words they use are important. Even their body language is important. All of these contribute to the customer experience, both consciously and subconsciously. We call this the subconscious experience.

Apple knows this to be true. They train their ‘geniuses’ to rub their chins when the customer is speaking because it makes them appear to be listening and considering the problem. They also teach them to use the three F’s, “Feel, Felt, Found,” that helps them acknowledge the customer’s concern, find a common ground with them and then suggest a solution. And of course, they all wear the shirts with the iconic apple, or in other words, the Apple version of a white lab coat.

You can design a customer experience to get the maximum effect by looking at experience psychology. When we are designing the experience it is imperative to take advantage of the tremendous power of the subconscious and psychological experience. Our journey mapping process is called Moment Mapping® and we train our clients on how to redesigning experiences using this methodology. In fact we think this is so important that we wrote a whole book about it, ‘Customer Experience: Future Trends and Insights’.

Experience psychology takes in all the aspects of a customer experience. These include the rational parts of the experience that drive value.  But a customer experience that only takes the rational side of the experience into account is incomplete, I discuss this in greater depth in my post, “ Why Journey Mapping Sucks”. In order to really know what your customer experience includes you must also consider and understand the subconscious parts of the experience as well.

It is in the subconscious part of the experience that your customers are most likely judging your customer service personnel’s appearance. Make sure that you are giving them the right signals in their appearance.

We can learn a lot from Apple, Milgram, and even your dear old mom. It’s better not to judge a book by its cover, but since we know we are going to do it anyway, make that cover say what you want to say. Do it by dressing for success in the white lab coat of authority that best reflects the customer experience you have designed.  By considering all the factors that make an experience, you will design a far better experience that drives customer loyalty and profits for your company.

Colin Shaw

Colin Shaw is founder & CEO of Beyond Philosophy, one of the world’s first organizations devoted to customer experience. Colin is an international author of four best-selling books & recognized Business Influencer by LinkedIn. Beyond Philosophy provide consulting, specialised research & training from our Global Headquarters in Tampa, Florida, USA.

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Colin ShawDress For Success: The White Lab Coat Effect and the Subconscious Experience