Customer experience people will really judge you by: the Pratfall Effect for business


Tales of the (un)expected: Leaving a positive customer experience impression may be a matter of how you deal with unforeseen mishaps

Picture the scene: you’re at a professional conference, and a well-known name from a well-known firm is coming to the end of a very interesting presentation. There were lots of very well laid-out slides which illustrated the subject clearly, a couple of engaging videos, and a very polished delivery. In other words, a highly competent performance all round: the applause for the speaker is well deserved.

The next presenter steps onto the podium, plugs in her laptop, and as the title slide appears on the big screen: disaster. She inadvertently tips over the glass of water that stands on top of the lectern, emptying the contents over her computer, and the screen goes dark, except for the ominous notice ‘NO SIGNAL’.

A few people in the audience laugh, but most attendees watch in shocked silence – all too aware of the horror the speaker must be feeling. “There, but for the grace of God, go I…”. Barely 10 seconds have passed but it feels like an eternity. The speaker picks up her dripping laptop, and one of the organizers hurries to the locus of the incident with a kitchen roll and starts to mop up the spillage. As she places the laptop on its side on a table near the edge of the podium so it can dry out, the presenter turns to the audience: “Sorry about that – I was of course hoping I would catch your attention with my talk, but not quite like this! I guess it’s going to be a presentation without PowerPoints. Who knows, that might even be a bonus!” The audience laughs.

She goes on to speak engagingly for twenty-five minutes, occasionally writing something on the flipchart (that nobody so far has used), to emphasize or illustrate what she is saying. As she concludes, she apologizes once again for the incident at the start, picks up her damp computer and leaves the stage under an applause that sounds more like an ovation. Somehow her barebones talk seems to have made a stronger impression than the slick, sophisticated presentation from her predecessor. What is going here?

What you just witnessed is known as the pratfall effect, a term first coined by Eliot Aronson, a psychologist at the university of Texas, and colleagues in 1966. The researchers found that a superior person’s attractiveness can be enhanced by committing a clumsy blunder (while this would decrease the attractiveness of a mediocre person). Such a blunder, they hypothesized, “removes the onus [on the superior person] of being ‘too good’, making [them] seem more human”.

There is probably even a little more to it. When you’re good, really good at your job, all the time, people tend to get used to top-notch performance, and come to see it as only natural. By showing how you act in response to the unexpected, you make a much more powerful impression.

Pratfalls, but for businesses

Exactly the same can apply to businesses and how their customers experience them. Think of your utilities or internet provider. It’s only natural for the light to come on when you flick the switch, and for water to flow the tap when you open it. It’s only natural that whenever you check your email, look for the opening hours of the DIY store, or want to watch that funny rabbit video on social media, your high-speed internet is ready to execute your fingertips’ commands.

It’s hard for these companies to deliver a really outstanding customer experience when customers expect (and generally receive) service levels that are very close to 100%. And such high expectations are no longer limited to vital services like utilities and internet.  

When companies in retail, travel, hospitality, fashion and so on routinely offer the consumer exemplary service, the differentiation can only come from the exceptions – when something unforeseen happens. And unforeseen things do happen of course – no matter how good a firm is at delivering routine.

Ironically, the higher the expectations of excellent service as a matter of course, the more important it is to ensure the response to a non-routine event is equally good. If customers assume they will be satisfied just 85% of the time, disappointment is not that unusual, and they are more likely to take it in their stride than if the norm is 99.9% satisfaction. That 0.1% of the time a customer is dissatisfied will disproportionately influence the overall customer experience. That is the customer experience people will really judge you by.

Many retailers have shifted their business online as a result of the way COVID-19 has been messing with our way of living. If you are one of them, don’t limit yourself to establishing order taking, payment and shipping processes that are slick, speedy and streamlined, but also ensure that you’ve got a well oiled machine to handle the occasional slip-up – a wrong item in the delivery, something damaged, a mistake on the invoice. The benchmark has been set by the world’s largest online retailer (which needs no introduction), and you’d better measure up.

But in high street, shopping mall or retail park stores, things can go wrong too: a damaged shirt, a missing component in a self-build shelf, a manufacturing fault in a pair of shoes. And once we get travelling again, an error in booking an airline ticket, a broken showerhead in a hotel, an accidentally underdone steak – they’re all unexpected events where, as a supplier, you have an opportunity to shine and show what the customer experience means to you.

The people in the audience in the vignette at the beginning of this post didn’t immediately belittle the unfortunate speaker – they knew mishaps happen. And the way she responded to the setback reinforced her competence, more than a flawless performance would have done. In the same way, companies can shine when something goes wrong, through the way they deal with the problem.

And just like you would probably have forgotten the speaker who made the polished presentation with the flashy slides, but would still vividly remember the speaker who spilled the water, and proceeded to give a great unplugged talk, customers remember more positively the companies who impress with their competence when they need to deal with an unexpected issue, even if they are to blame.

For customer experience is, to a large extent, a tale of the unexpected.