The unconscious way our senses influence the customer experience

Why should it be that hearing the sound of a creaking door should make people rate their back as feeling stiffer or that sitting in a blue room with soft carpet, gentle music and a lavender fragrance would make customers more likely to accept higher prices for buying a car? These are both examples, among many hundreds of sensory research studies and experiments that highlight how the behaviour of humans is shaped by external influences that we are completely unaware of at a conscious level. These sensory influences: smell, touch, sound, taste and sight can deliver both subtle and marked affects on what we do, how we feel and on both the major and minor decisions we make in our lives – from deciding which car we’re going to buy to what pair of socks to put on in the morning! As Dr Tasha Stanton, from the University of South Australia’s School of Health Sciences in Adelaide, the scientist leading the study on back pain explains: ‘The brain uses information from numerous different sources including sound, touch, and vision, to create feelings. If we can manipulate those sources of information, we then potentially have the ability to influence the way people feel’. Can it really be that different smells, sounds and colours can change our behaviour and override what I’m sure most of us believe is the conscious control we all have over our decisions? Here are some examples that highlight just how much we don’t realize about why we do things…

In a study of customer behaviour in bookshops in Belgium, researchers found that the smell of chocolate encouraged people to stay longer and browse more, increased the purchase of all books, but particularly romance and cookery books which customers were almost six times more likely to buy.

We’ve already seen how the sound of creaking can heighten the feeling of back pain, but music too has an influence on customer behaviour. Studies have shown that the tempo of music played in restaurants affects how long we stay in them – the faster the music the less time we stay, which has obvious implications for fast food outlets versus expensive Michelin-starred eateries. Another classic experiment by Nottingham University in a supermarket demonstrated that when stereotypical ‘French’ music was played in the wine section, sales of French wine increased dramatically, but when ‘German’ music was played, it was the German wine sales that rose significantly.

behavioural science in customer experience

Many studies have shown that the colour red has a positive effect on people’s behaviour – those who submitted a picture to an online dating site were more likely to be selected if they were wearing red. Another study, investigating the colour of painted walls in rooms, showed that whereas red enhanced people’s performance on detail-orientated tasks, green and blue walls encouraged people to be more creative.

It appears that what we touch and what we sit on can also affect how we behave. Sensory researchers found that when we touch hard objects and are then asked to judge people, we’re more likely to be ‘harder’ in our opinions of them. Taking this further, in a negotiation to buy a car, those people who sat on a hard chair were far more inflexible in their haggling, literally playing hard-ball in the discussions.

Why should this be the case and what are the implications in the commercial world? To make sense of the world and guide you through it, your brain uses external sensory cues to try and match things together and take the ‘best’ course of action, so smell (the oldest human sense) exerts a big influence of how we feel about an environment and event. Matching smell and sight actually influences our perception of an event – we actually smell rose scent more strongly if we see a red rose, and many restaurateurs (most notably Heston Blumenthal) have used smell and sound to enhance the flavours of the food they serve.

We have carried out lots of customer experience research that shows how changing sensory elements of a customer experience can deliver significant ‘marginal gains’, including the impact of what sales staff wear (its colour and style); different fragrances and colour in different retail zones to encourage browsing or buying; the use of music to speed up or slow down customer flow through certain areas; and the use of different floor materials to influence buyer behaviour.

Science shows that customers can be influenced both positively and negatively by all kinds of unconscious sensory influences during their buying journey. Most of these they will be completely unaware of, so asking them will never get to the truth. What’s needed is better investigation of the marginal gains that can be made depending on the particular part of the customer journey they are experiencing. Then we can design customer experiences so that customers feel better (increasing ‘dwell time’, driving purchase, loyalty and retention), and businesses reap the benefits in terms of sales, profit and customer satisfaction.

You can read more about our research approach and the importance of using of biometrics to understand your customers. Our how we help page can guide you through our approach