Next to creating that are efficient and effective, we might want to learn how to products, services and experiences that build emotional engagement.

Photo by Aga Szóstek

The simple truth is this: customers don’t care about the success of our products. They just care about their own success. And what constitutes that success? It is ‘becoming a person they want to be. If a solution: a product, service, technology supports that desire, customers develop an emotional attachment to it. If not, the relationship stays strictly transactional: if you offer the best price and the best availability, will use your solutions. But if a competition appears on a horizon with a better pricing or more convenience, they will be fast gone.

Deep needs

It is scientifically proven that people have one basic desire in life: to be happy. The best path towards happiness leads through fulfilling our deepest needs, the innate necessities that determine our physical and mental well-being. As humans, we want to engage in activities that are coherent with our values, focus on things that are interesting and that make us feel well about ourselves. Fulfilling deep needs is the best fuel for motivating and directing actions of people.

If our deep needs are unmet, we will do all we can to satisfy them. If it appears difficult, we develop practices to accommodate for growing dissatisfaction. If we are not able to succeed anyway, we do everything to protect ourselves from unwanted consequences either by acting or inaction. In other words, if a given solution taps into our deep needs, the motivation to use it comes from within. If the solution fails to do so, we need external motivation to keep on using it (like, for example, a low price).

So, what are these deep needs that can be tapped into? Self-determination theory distinguishes three main deep needs we as humans have:

autonomy: doing things in our own way (it is important to add that autonomy involves being volitional, acting from our integrated self but it does not entail being separate from, not relying upon or being independent of others).

competence: feeling good at what we do.

connectedness: feeling close to the people we care about.

By digging into several sources, I went further to figure out what constitutes each of these three basic deep needs. Here’s my take at it.

Autonomy consists of:

— control: power to influence or direct the course of events.

— flow: joy from emergence into an optimal activity.

— meaningfulness: acting in way that makes deeper sense.

— expressiveness: ability to manifest my true self.

— subversiveness: ability to break rules.

— thriving: ability to live the life up to its potential.

— serenity: keeping mind at peace.

— optimism: hopefulness and confidence about the future.

— self-concordance: ability to keep a harmony between needs and activities.

—memory: ability to look back.

Competence is built out of:

— well-being: feeling healthy and active.

— confidence: having a positive opinion and faith in oneself.

— choice: recognition and enjoyment of one’s good qualities.

— growth: ability and possibilities to develop.

— competitiveness: being better than others.

— stimulation: offering excitement, finding something new or unknown.

— challenge: testing abilities on demanding tasks.

— creativity: ability to thing and express original thoughts and ideas.

— patience: capacity to accept a delay and problems without being stressed.

— perseverance: ability to keep on until the end regardless of obstacles .

Finally, connectedness includes:

— trust: firm believing in reliability, truth and ability, being dependable.

— respect: feeling worthwhile, being trusted and believed in.

— fellowship: supportive friendship, intimacy, being part of a community.

— safety: being free of danger and insecurity.

— fairness: making judgements free of discrimination.

— thoughtfulness: anticipation of wants and needs of others.

— generosity: being kind and able to share.

— influence: having influence of what others think, feel and do.

— appreciation: recognition and enjoyment of one’s good qualities.

— compassion: ability to forgive and empathize with yourself and others.

Pretty neat set, right? Try to think of any solution you feel a deep connection with. It is likely that you will quickly find, which of those needs it taps into.


Over a hundred years ago there was a notably wealthy family in New York. They had 5 children, each of them successful but one. William suffered several physical troubles and both his artistic and scientific endeavors kept dwindling. In an attempt to find something he could be successful at, William decided to study medicine but by the mid of the second year he needed a break. He once more asked his (pretty annoyed at that point) father to sponsor a trip to Amazonia, which he had to abort after eight months due to severe sickness. Feeling totally low, William decided to commit a suicide. But not right away. In one year. He decided that for one year he will stop feeling sorry for himself, commit to one thing and just do it. If it is unsuccessful, he will go on with the plan of taking his own life. Today he is known as a father of modern psychology and the author of “The principles of psychology” where he, as the first one ever, observed that people consider their possessions as an extension of themselves.

His thought was further developed by a sociologist Erving Goffman who wrote that the objects we own (physical as well as virtual, although in Goffman times virtual objects were rather the domain of science fiction) support us in telling a story of who we are. Such objects also help us to achieve the desired outcomes in our lives as the author of “Flow” Michail Czikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton explain in another book “The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self”. An additional explanation offered by an MIT professor Sherry Turkle states that objects we surround ourselves with become our daily companions that help us think. Based on these perspectives, it is safe to say that we see objects we use as elements of our life story. Due to all these reasons, it is undeniable that we invest emotional energy into our possessions. We solutions that help us understand ourselves. We get attached to them, use them over and over again, and give them a personal meaning.

Yet, most of the companies trying to get us to use their offerings seem to firmly believe that the best way to catch new clients is to offer them a reward of some kind. Banks offer increased interests on saving accounts, telecoms give discounted plans, SaaS companies entice with freemium offerings. All these actions offer external stimuli for customers to join in not an internal one. The problem with such an external motivation is that it doesn’t build engagement and loyalty. It is like all-you-can-eat buffet: you might get there when you are really hungry but this is not a place that has chance to become your favorite restaurant in the world.

Role enhancement and role transition

As humans we rationalize any experience we go through. We tell ourselves a story of how we see it fit into who we are. So, the companies need to help us to positively rationalize our interactions with them. Looking from a very high level, there are two ways to build emotional engagement of customers:

— through role enhancement: by designing solutions that help people get closer to the ideal version of themselves. Role enhancement can be achieved by allowing customers to follow their own rules rather than external regulations set by the company. Such a possibility makes them feel accepted. For example, Zappos built its entire concept of customer service based on authentic relatedness between the company and customers, making people feel safe to ask for help until they feel satisfied with the answer.

— through role transition: by designing solutions that help people discover or reinvent themselves. Role transition can be built by offering customers control of technology, space, information and also of behavior of others. It can be done by allowing them to meet their aspirations through offering them a possibility to become a better version of themselves often by creating rituals. Think of SPA centers, good restaurants or hotels — they all are great examples of such practices in business.Another example can be Chick-Fil-A and their idea of father-daughter date night with little girls turning into princesses and their dads into knights or Anthon Berg with their Generous Store.

Building emotional engagement

Building an offering and service based on people’s deep needs offers an untapped yet space for growing your business. Think of it — who doesn’t want to feel good about themselves after an interaction with a bank, a travel agent or a shopping assistant? Role enhancement and role transition are two main directions that can be chose in this process. But there are other elements that elevate the emotional engagement effect in humans.

Positive feedback to customers should be a rule number one for any CX-centric business no matter how dreary the situation. Often companies either completely forget about feedback or take a defensive position trying to protect themselves rather than finding affirmative ways to communicate. Beware that negative feedback makes people feel incompetent and stupid damaging your company relationship with them. This is why it is so crucial to well construct any rejection or refusal materials.

Since we as humans are social animals, one more way to build their emotional engagement is to create a community where people share and adapt values, rituals and regulations that are the modus operandi of a group they want to be a part of. Look at Umpqua Bank with their idea of serving local communities: they engage artists, entrepreneurs, individual clients by offering a platform for them to meet and interact.

Yet another way to do so is to engage customers in optimal challenges to build the feeling of mastery and effectiveness. Games are the best example here but other applications such as Trip Advisor or FourSquare also use the mechanisms that make thier users feel more and more competent in what they do.

Finally, you can give customers the space to self-organize their own actions in ways that best fits their schedule, competence level and need for assistance.

The bottom line is this: the successful businesses often build (consciously or subconsciously) a basis for self-determined actions of their customers by providing flexible yet clear processes, values and structures that allow people to voluntarily get involved in activities after being socially prompted, emotionally energized or simply intellectually interested. There are thousands of ways to do so. What way will you choose?

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