Customer Habits and CX - Beyond Philosphy CX Consulting - Colin Shaw Customer Experience Consultant

The Remarkable Power of Habit to Transform Customer Behavior

by Colin Shaw on November 1, 2019

Some customer habits may be useful for your Customer Experience strategy, and some of them may not. Understanding how customers’ habits form and how to identify them is crucial for Customer Experience.

 We talked about how habits form and understanding your customers’ habits in a recent podcast. We discussed how one of the ways to view patterns is through this two-system lens, meaning the Intuitive and Rational Systems we use in our thinking. 

 You will recall that the Intuitive System is fast, automatic thinking associated with emotional reactions, and the Rational System is slow, deliberate thought related to logic. These two systems help us understand habits and habit formation. 

 Defining Habits and Triggers

 A habit is an automatic action. Therefore, our Intuitive System, which is fast and emotional thinking, handles them. However, habits are not the only type of intuitive or automatic behavior. Instead, they are a subgroup of things your Intuitive System handles for you.

 The Intuitive System likes to take over repetitive tasks and handle them automatically. However, all automatic behavior isn’t a habit. For example, when you drive your car home from work like you do every workday, sometimes you pull into the driveway and don’t remember driving there. While the driving was automatic and handled by the Intuitive System, it isn’t habitual. 

 What distinguishes habits from other types of automatic actions is the trigger or the thing that activates the automated response. Triggers originate in the surrounding environment. When we sense something specific in our physical environment, our Intuitive System then says, “I know what is supposed to happen in response to that.” Then, it spools up this automatic or habitual response.

 I have triggers in my travel experience or environment. For example, whenever I book a flight, the next thing I do is to contact the driver where I will land. It’s a good habit because it means that somebody is there waiting for me when I turn up. My Intuitive System is continuously monitoring what’s happening. As I booked the ticket for international travel (aka, the trigger), my Intuitive System recalls that I should now book a taxi (the automatic response). 

 Another trigger is when I smell coffee walking down a street; I immediately want one. Or when waiting to board my flight and people stand up and move to the turnstile, I want to follow. (However, in this case, my Rational System, which is slow and deliberate thinking, interjects and says, “Hold on. They will call the Diamond Delta group in a moment. You don’t need to get up yet.”)


Why Forming Good Habits is Difficult

 I want to use Alexa more to set reminders and have shopping lists and other routine tasks. However, I am struggling to remember to use it this way. The other way I have done these tasks, for many years, mind you, is too ingrained in my mind, and moving to Alexa isn’t “taking.” 

 So, why is this so hard for me?

 Charles Duhigg had an excellent book called The Power of Habit. In it, Duhigg discusses how some habits are more accessible to create than others. He tells a story about forming a personal bad habit. One afternoon at about three o’clock, he was hungry and went to the vending machine to buy a cookie. A couple of days later, he was hungry and bought a cookie again. Pretty soon, he had cravings for a cookie in the afternoon and was buying one every day. 

 It’s useful to think about habit formation from the perspective of the Intuitive System and its preferences. The Intuitive System is where a lot of our base urges reside, our emotional needs. In the case of eating a cookie, that activity satisfies the Intuitive System. It is not going to take much to form that habit as a result. 

 On the other hand, you could wake up and run five miles every day for three months. However, if you get sick and miss a day, the Intuitive System might break that habit in one day. Why? System One would much rather sleep in than get out of bed and go running.  

 These examples are why good habits are so much harder to form. Good habits often work against the natural inclinations of the Intuitive System. So, they take much longer to reinforce.

 Now, using Alexa for reminders and shopping lists isn’t as good for me as running five miles every day, but the same principles apply. The trigger is too strong to use the old way of handling this task for my Intuitive System to make the switch.

 One way I could fix this is to change my trigger. So, let’s say I use a pad of paper for my shopping list or to jot down a reminder. If I were to write on the top sheet of the pad of paper, “Use Alexa,” it could help me remember to use her to do this. I would change the trigger from using the pad to using Alexa. (Oddly, I would be reminding myself to use Alexa to remind me of something, but whatever works, right?) 


Habits Are Only for Repetitive Customer Behavior

 Habits are a result of your Intuitive System trying to make repetitive actions efficient. Therefore, forming habitual customer behavior is best for repetitive tasks. If the response in not repetitive, then you can’t make it a habit. 

 Also, the context of the purchase must be similar enough that it triggers a response. In other words, not every customer behavior is habitual, and it will never be so. For example, some insurance companies want to make it a habit for customers to use the app. However, customers don’t interact with insurance often enough for it to be a habit. 

Therefore, if you are trying to instill habits in your customers, remember the following:

  • If the customer behavior you want to inspire is rewarding from an Intuitive System perspective, it’s going to be much easier for that habit to form.
  • If the customer behavior works against short-term pleasure or gain, that’s going to be a much harder habit to form. 

 If your targeted customer already has the habit of doing something else, it can be a real barrier for you. One of the ways of disrupting the pattern is reaching your targeted customers at points in time where they are not around these environmental triggers. For example, if you introduce a new toothpaste brand, you are fighting habitual buying behavior. 

 Buying toothpaste often goes like this:

  •  Customers get to the toothpaste section of the store.
  • Their Intuitive System steers their feet into the aisle.
  • It then directs their eyes and hands down to their brand of toothpaste on the shelf.
  • Customers pick it up and put it in their cart, often with no knowledge they have done so. 

 People in Customer Experience discipline and marketing should understand customers’ habits. Moreover, you should also understand the triggers of those habits. 

 Therefore, if your toothpaste customers are buying from you habitually, then great. Keep those triggers right where they are. However, if you need to convert customers into buying from you habitually, then you need to change the triggers. To interrupt the automatic and repetitive behavior, you could try:

  •  Using an end-cap display in a grocery store, because now people are evaluating the toothpaste out of the aisle where they typically are buying their brand of toothpaste
  • Implementing outreach in vacation locations where target customers are not around all of the environmental cues and triggers that activate the ritual behavior 
  • Having face-to-face interaction with customers, aka, free sample distribution display, with a chance to try the product before they buy

 The airlines were smart about interrupting automatic and repetitive behavior when they installed self-check-in kiosks. Back in the day, I used to turn up at the airport and get in the line to check in. One day after I queued up, I noticed these self-service queues for check-in just to the right-hand side of my regular line. I thought, “Yeah, I’m not going to use this because I don’t know if I trust them.”

 However, the airline had people “combing the queue.” These employees were taking people out of the line and helping passengers use the self-check in for the first time. As they walked passengers through the process, the airline employees said things like, “See? Isn’t that simple?” 

 It was simple. Now, I would never, ever dream of standing and waiting in line to check in. Or, frankly, using the kiosk. I check in on my mobile.


Being Better is Not Enough 

 Many organizations change experiences for the better with technology, but then fail to re-educate customers. If they want customers’ investment in the digital transformation, they should invest not only in technology, but also in the creation of some new habits.

 If you can get the customer to form new habits, it can be a win-win. The first essential thing about changing customer habits is you should identify the trigger or the environmental cue that creates the habitual response. The airline recognized my pattern in action; they disrupted my trigger and walked me to the machine. They invested time and effort into changing this customer’s habits and the way I went about doing things.

 Moreover, it’s better for the airline if people use the self-service kiosks because that’s more efficient and less costly than the old way to check in. Most customers also genuinely appreciate getting through the process quicker and easier without having to interact with people. It’s better all around. 

 With the technology and data available today, you can also look at patterns of customer behavior and determine if it is beneficial to you. If it isn’t, then consider how you are going to change it. You should groom customers out of that behavior and educate them into the new into a new habit that is beneficial for you. 

 However, it does also need to be beneficial for them. It’s not just about creating an app for insurance that nobody is ever going to use. Instead, it should be something that enhances the experience for them in some way. 

 Habits form quickly when they appeal to the Intuitive System. When they are already working for you, don’t change anything. 

However, when they aren’t, it is essential to consider ways to provide benefits to the Intuitive System. Doing so will aid in habit formation, even if you do it in stages to make it more acceptable for people. 

Habits are easy, which is why our Intuitive System handles them. In the end, you want the choice to buy your product or service to feel as natural as eating a cookie in the afternoon—especially if you sell cookies. 

 To hear more about Understanding Customer Habits in more detail, listen to the complete podcast here. 

If you want to benchmark your organization’s performance in the new world of behavioral economics against other companies, take our short questionnaire.  Once you submit, we compare your answers against what we know about the market and send you a free personalized report about where your organization is today. 

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Hear the rest of the conversation on Understanding Customer Habits: A Practical Guide on The Intuitive Customer Podcast. These informative podcasts are designed to expand on the psychological ideas behind understanding customer behavior. To listen in, please click here.


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Colin Shaw is the founder and CEO of Beyond Philosophy, one of the world’s leading Customer experience consultancy & training organizations. Colin is an international author of six bestselling books and an engaging keynote speaker.

Follow Colin Shaw on Twitter @ColinShaw_CX

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