The Role of Human Identity in Customer Experience Design

I don’t talk about this much, but about this time three years ago I was homeless for a few months. For various reasons – mainly that I was trying to go at it on my own as a consultant with not enough business to live off of – I found myself nearly broke and sleeping on a friend’s couch when I was actually able to get into his place.

My bank at the time decided they didn’t want to do business with me anymore because my account was overdrawn a few times. I remember pleading with the assistant manager not to close my account because I had a wire transfer coming in, but he had made up his mind. During that conversation, he said something to me that stuck to this day:

“…why are you fighting to do business with a company that doesn’t want to do business with you? There are plenty of other banks that would be happy to give you an account.”

When I look back on that event in my life, I realize that I found a piece of myself in that bank. It wasn’t just an account to me. I had been with that bank for a few years. I opened my first business account with them. The manager at the branch I opened my account at in DC would always chat with me about the DC Latin culture when I went in for transactions. I associated that bank with an important part of my identity – my finances.

But, he was right. I walked down the street and opened another account with a bank and it was great. I had a better experience with them than with my previous bank and recommend them to friends to this day.

In that experience I learned a lesson about human identity. We seek validation of who we are in other people and other things. Our friends, family, and coworkers provide social validation that makes us feel secure in our gender, skills, knowledge, etc. It’s not a bad thing, it’s human nature. We need social validation in the same way we need air and water.

People have a hard time letting go of things we identify with. I found a great quote from C. JoyBell C. on letting go I recently discovered:

“You will find that it is necessary to let things go; simply for the reason that they are heavy. So let them go, let go of them. I tie no weights to my ankles.”

The thing most fascinating about this simple statement is that it points out that we are the source of our own inability to let things go. We place the shackles on our own feet that prevent us from moving on, no matter how we feel about a situation.

We hold on harder to something the more we identify with it because losing it feels like we are losing a piece of ourselves. Think back to when you were a kid and you lost your favorite toy. Or, now, as an adult, when you end a relationship you invested a lot in. It feels like the end of the world, right? That’s because we have a need for a strong sense of self-identity, and often place elements in our identity in external objects as symbols of who we are.

Brands and their products often act as those external validators our self-perception. These external objects are reminders of those events and experiences in our lives that defined us. The shirt you wore the night you went out with the man/woman you fell in love with. The sneakers you wore when you finally were able to run three miles straight. The phone on which you received the call that you got that great job you were vying for.

While this may seem like a stretch for some people, I feel the role of a brand is to tie their products and services to the lives of consumers in a way that affirms their identity. There are brands doing this very well right now – Google, Apple, REI, and Jetblue to name a few. Their advertisements, their in-store experiences, their entire brands are about showing the role that their products and services play in those special moments of our lives that define who they are.

While I was working at Hill Holliday, I especially enjoyed working on the Cigna GO YOU brand launch. One thing we did really well was providing content that really spoke to a person’s individuality. Fans would like and share graphics with lines like “You Do You So Well” because they made them feel good about themselves. 90 characters and a photo affirmed in our fans minds that who they were was special, that they mattered.

This is the key to an effective customer experience journey. It’s not just about how your product looks, or how great your e-commerce checkout process is. Your customer journey should focus on evoking positive emotions that affirm a person’s identity at every consumer touchpoint.

What many brands fail to realize is that rejection, in any form, can have negative effects on people’s ego, changing their perception of themselves, which in turn changes their perception of your brand. Just as a person may never want to play basketball again after their coach tells them they suck, a customer may never want to purchase your product or use your service if you invalidate a concern or issue they have and reject them in their resulting emotional state. It is a belittling and will strip away the value of prior experiences that person had with your brand.

It is not easy to prevent this type of invalidation of a person’s self-identity. You cannot always control how the people working for your brand interact with customers. Your most rockstar customer service agent may have a bad day and lose it when speaking with a customer. While it is really incumbent upon the consumer to let go of the baggage they have from that bad interaction, they are less inclined because they have little motivation for doing so. It’s like dating – if you go out with someone and they make you feel like crap, you can always date someone else. There are plenty more options for consumers out there to switch to than there are dates for them to go on, so their motivation to switch brands is even greater.

Redemption is possible, though. While customers are less likely to think positively of a brand if their first interaction with them is negative, you can change in the eyes of a customer that has had a longer relationship with you. Focus on doing the following:

  1. Apologize for what happened

  2. Show empathy, not apathy, for the resulting circumstances

  3. Take ownership for your brand’s role in contributing to the situation

  4. Do something that makes the situation right in the eyes of the consumer

This reads like a guide to giving a genuine apology, I know. Well, it is. Remember, you are interacting with human beings. You need to act like one.