Pavlov’s Customer: Are Consumers Wired to Get a Certain Response?

Today we’re going way back to Psych 101. I’m sure that most of you remember Ivan Pavlov, his dogs, and the ringing bell. If not, here’s a brief summary for you. In his study, Pavlov would ring a bell whenever he presented his dogs with food. After having done this a few times, Pavlov tried only ringing the bell without presenting food to see if it would garner the same response on its own, with said response being increased salivation. It did, an increase in salivation was observed; thus an association had been made between the bell and the food.

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Conditioned Reflexes

Through this experiment, Pavlov discovered what is known as conditioned reflexes. A conditioned reflex is a reflex that is learned, such as the excitement that most kids feel (and some adults, too) when they hear the ice cream truck coming.

This is in direct contrast to innate reflexes, which are more instinctive and not something you learn, like Pavlov’s dogs salivating when they saw food.

Fun fact: Pavlov was actually studying the digestive system and how saliva helps break down food when he made the observation that led him to shift gears and conduct the experiment described above, which allowed him to discover conditioned reflexes.

What Your Brand Can Learn From Pavlov’s Experiment

There are two basic lessons to apply from Pavlov’s experiment, be consistent and deliver what was promised. Marketingprofs.com summed it up nicely:

Ringing of the bell creates an expectation x the emotional anticipation of that expectation = salivating canine.

Branding, then, is nothing more, and nothing less, than developing and delivering an expectation. The most successful brands promise that they will deliver their offerings in a specific manner welcomed by a target market, and (here’s the Pavlovian part) they keep their promise over and over again.

Consistent delivery of the promised product also involves listening and actively responding to customer complaints. With most brands having social media accounts, many customers feel that companies should respond to their complaints quickly, with their perception of customer service being negatively impacted if this is not the case.

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Cockroaches and Sponsored Tweet Outrage

One example of how social media has completely changed the customer complaint process is that of Patrick Balfour. Patrick found a dead cockroach in his Subway sandwich and reached out to the company via telephone and Twitter. After an initial response requesting photographic evidence and then exchanges where Patrick did not receive the response he was hoping for, he paid $90 for a sponsored tweet in an attempt to get a better response from Subway and share his outrage with the world.

I shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to tell a story that they should want to hear. I don’t want money; I don’t want subs. All I know is that the way they currently use social media is not doing them any favors.

Clearly the situation did not end the way he wanted it to (or did it?) but at least he got to share his horror story with the world. It is also important to realize that while Patrick did have every right to be upset about allegedly finding a bug in his sandwich, Subway also had every right to ask for proof. There are two sides to every story and the possible ramifications for the chain in the long run could have been significant.

We Have Been Conditioned

So why do we rage on Twitter and other social media channels when we are upset at a company? A lot of people do it in hopes of having their feelings validated, whether it be through coupons, free meals, or a basic apology. We have become accustomed (or conditioned) to receiving free items in return for our very public grievances, and when that does not happen, the situation can get ugly. I am talking Sponsored Tweets kind of ugly.

The customer is not always going to be right in these situations. For example, if it rains at a theme park for an hour and rides are temporarily shut down, customers aren’t in the right to demand their money back. They are not going to get their money back in this situation, no matter how many Tweets they send or Facebook posts they leave.

We can learn a lot from Pavlov, and not just how to train our dogs. Marketers can apply the concepts of classical conditioning and conditioned reflexes to their strategies, including the most effective ways for their brands to deal with irritated customers who may or may not be in the right. It can also aid in better understanding as to why a long wait between responses to customers can illicit what may sometimes appear to be extreme reactions.

About the author

Cristie Rivera

Cristie Rivera is the QA Manager at CopyPress. She graduated from the University of South Florida with a Bachelor's in Psychology and a minor in Criminology. When she isn't busy taking over the world she spends time exploring Tampa and the surrounding cities.