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BookWatch: This master marketer says Doubletree’s cookies could teach Amtrak a big lesson about wooing customers

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Alphabet, the parent company of Google, runs a division that is now simply called X with the single aim of developing what the company calls moonshots.

A moonshot is not the same as an innovation; it is something much more ambitious, a silver bullet. Instead of pursuing change by increments, it aims to change something by a factor of 10 (for which the Roman numeral is X). For instance, Alphabet X GOOG, -0.64% GOOGL, -0.59%  funds research into driverless cars, with the explicit aim of reducing road fatalities by at least 90%, making roads 10 times safer.

The argument for X is sound: it is based on the observation the major advances in human civilization have come from things that weren’t merely a sequence of modest improvements but rather were game-changers — steam power versus horse, train versus canal, electricity versus gaslight, antibiotics, vaccines and so forth.

I hope X is successful, but I think that despite their funding, engineers will find their work increasingly difficult. By contrast, psychological moonshots are comparatively easy.

Making Amtrak’s Acela train that runs between Washington, D.C., and Boston 25% faster may cost hundreds of millions of dollars — but making a train journey 100% more enjoyable may cost much less. (If your target audience is the business traveler, your aim may instead be to make the journey more productive).

Either way, ask yourself this. Would you prefer a two-hour train journey with a seat-back table, an electrical socket and Wi-Fi, or a 90-minute journey with none of these things?

I come from Europe. I am not arguing against high-speed rail. Recently I was in Austin, the 11th most populous city in the U.S. It is 80 miles from San Antonio, the seventh most populous U.S. city. It seems deranged to me that there is one train a day in each direction connecting them — and the journey bizarrely takes 3 hours and 25 minutes.

But once you have a tolerable service (an hour and 10 minutes say, allowing people to comfortably make the return trip in a day), adding psychological improvements (a really good onboard café, perhaps) will make more difference per dollar than ever-more speed.

Remember your chief competition is the car. A train will never be more convenient than a car. But you can do more things on a moving train than you can in a moving car. This, not the more quantifiable measures such as speed, is where trains can ultimately differentiate themselves as a form of travel.

The biggest scope for progress in the next 50 years is not improvements in technology but improvements in psychology and design thinking.

Here’s another example: I would classify the Uber UBER, +2.57% map as a psychological moonshot. It doesn’t reduce the objective waiting time for a taxi at all — it simply makes waiting 90% less frustrating. This innovation came from the founder’s flash of insight (while watching a James Bond film, no less) that regardless of what we say, we are much more bothered by the uncertainty of waiting than by the absolute duration.

This is why I believe the biggest scope for progress in the next 50 years is not improvements in technology but improvements in psychology and design thinking. Most of our actions are driven not by what we think, but what we feel — yet most decisions are taken by people who do not believe in magic. And the problem with not believing in magic is that you never seek to create it.

Yet we spend very little money and very little time looking for psychological solutions to bigger problems. We assume that what a thing is matters more than how it is perceived. This is partly because in attempting to understand why people do things, we default to the rational explanation whenever there is one.

No economist would have come up with the Hilton HLT, -0.83% DoubleTree cookie, the warm, freshly baked treat that the hotel chain hands out for free on check-in. Most consumers wouldn’t either. If you asked people what would most improve a hotel, they would talk about prices or the beds or the size of the room. Strangely, to be really customer focused, you often need to ignore what people say — and focus on what they feel.

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I often call features like DoubleTree’s cookies “benign bulls–t”. They are silly, but they make us happy. We care a great deal for small, discretionary gestures.

It is 15 years since I have stayed in a DoubleTree Hotel. In the intervening years I have forgotten most of the hotels I have stayed in, and barely remember most of the brands. But, 15 years on, if someone asked whether I wanted to stay in the DoubleTree or the Hotel X next door, that memory of a bag of cookies would probably sway my decision.

Yes, we may grudgingly accept that people may have unconscious emotional motivations for preferring one brand of hotels over another because we don’t see hotels as an essential product.

But if you suggest that similar unconscious emotional motivations may also be decisive in driving our choice of university, or our use of health care, or our decision to save for retirement, people are scandalized.

Yet an improvement of our enjoyment of any service or experience can often come much more easily through a better use of psychological trickery (more cookies) than improvements in the physical sciences (faster trains).

Why? Quite simply, we are much more wrong about psychology than we are about physics.

Rory Sutherland is the vice chairman of Oglivy & Mather UK and the author of “Alchemy: The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life.”

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