Getting the Gist of the Customer Experience

gistverbatimNeuroscientists say we tend to remember the meaning and forget the details. When the time comes to make a decision, we naturally rely on our general impressions gained through experience. Because of this, doing essentials right is all that really matters when it comes to increasing customer loyalty.


Simpler, faster cognition


The brain stores two types of information, gist and verbatim.[1] Gist is vague, qualitative, categorical representation of bottom-line meaning. Verbatim is detail, such as precise numbers or exact wording. Where verbatim records facts and figures for our conscious mind, gist encodes emotional intensity and valence (positive or negative) for our subconscious.[2]


The brain recalls both gist and verbatim representations, but gist memory is easier to retrieve.[3] Let’s say you are told there is a 20 percent chance of rain, and then you’re immediately given a phone number to remember. You’re unlikely to recall the exact probability (20%) if you’re asked about rain, but you’ll remember that the chance was low. While our conscious mind is well suited to help us evaluate complex situations, it’s easily overloaded.[4] In comparison, our powerful subconscious recalls and processes many simple things in parallel and at lightning speed.


Scientists believe that as we acquire greater experience, we increasingly make decisions based on gist as opposed to the verbatim details.[5] In fact, what distinguishes an expert from a novice is his or her ability to discriminate relevant from irrelevant information.[6] For example, a junior analyst crunches myriad financial numbers to uncover patterns whereas investment superstar Warren Buffet often makes gut decisions.[7] Although gist-based processing emerges from our primitive subconscious, it’s actually more sophisticated than our modern, conscious, contemplative system. Choices are based on meaning rather than literal information, and better decisions result from processing fewer inputs.


Evidence also suggests that people are happier with their gist-based decisions. In one study, those who made snap judgments chose the best car significantly more often than those who had time to deliberate the details.[8] And an emerging neuroscientific theory asserts that gist-based reasoning is our “default” decision making mode.[9] Scientists find that people naturally base emotional forecasts, such as future satisfaction, on categorical gist representations unless they’re prompted to make a verbatim judgment.


The trust factor


Our natural behavior to judge on meaning rather than details has been demonstrated in commerce. Researchers have shown that trust between a customer and supplier is a key determinant in customer loyalty, especially when it comes to perceived buying risk.[10] When levels of trust are higher, customers exhibit affective commitment, citing positive relationships or brand factors as the reasons they purchased again. When trust is lower, customers revert to calculative commitment, renewing purchases based on relative product performance or cost. This suggests decision makers first rely on their gist representations to make choices unless the circumstances call for critical evaluation of verbatim information.


If our goal in business is to secure repeat customers, it makes sense to capitalize on our tendency for gist processing. That means the granular details of any interaction are less important than having a net positive emotional experience over time. And if the customer experience we deliver systematically endears a greater sense of trust, renewal decisions then become more likely in the future.


Getting the gist


Psychologists say trust is comprised of three factors: ability, benevolence and integrity.[11] Ability is defined as competence, predictability and consistency. Benevolence is caring, goodwill, empathy and commitment to shared goals. And integrity is fairness, objectivity, honesty and open communication. Customers interpret trust in how a supplier’s words and deeds fulfill these attributes. When interactions continually reinforce them, the exact details don’t matter—in time, customers get the gist.


Organizations can design their customer journeys to systematically bolster trust. Great customer-facing processes:


  • Make first impressions count. Customers feel most vulnerable right after they buy. They must be assured their decision was the right one, and that the people behind the brand know what they’re doing and genuinely care about their needs. For example, hospitality leaders know that what starts right, stays right. Top hotels greet customers with eye contact, a smile, and a warm welcome, setting the stage for a positive stay.
  • Ensure a single point of ownership. Nothing frustrates customers more than a salesperson who abandons them after the sale. Whenever possible, customer journeys should assign a single person responsible for ensuring optimal success, satisfaction and continuity. For example, after a salesperson closes a software order, she conducts a warm handoff call with the customer and the assigned Customer Success Manager who then configures the product, trains the customer, and continues to assist until desired results are achieved.
  • Keep promises. Sales sets expectations. Operations fulfills them. Making sure what’s pledged will actually be delivered is an obvious first step in building trust. Well-designed customer journeys ensure company employees formally clarify deliverables and benefits at key points, boosting alignment and agreement between the customer and the supplier’s own internal functions.
  • Get quick results. The clock is ticking once the deal is done. Customers not only need to use their new solutions, they must achieve the results they were after—both business and personal. Accelerating speed to value realization must be a key factor in the experience design.
  • Make sure you’re there when they need you. Adversity reveals character, and it’s especially true in how a supplier helps a customer in crisis. Being responsive, taking ownership and solving problems quickly and professionally are essential for engendering trust.


In the customer journey, as it is with human gist and verbatim cognition, the details of every interaction aren’t nearly as important as the overall experience. And when companies systematically create an environment of trust with customers every step of the way, they make it easy and natural for customers to do what they’re wired to do—make the right decision about renewing.



[1] Reyna, V.F. and Brainerd, C.J. (2011). Dual process in decision making and developmental neuroscience: a fuzzy-trace model. Developmental Review, 31 (203) 180-206

[2] Rivers, S. E., Reyna, V. F. and Mills, B. (2008). Risk taking under the influence: A fuzzy-trace theory of emotion in adolescence. Developmental Review, 28(1), 107-144

[3] Brainerd, C. J., Holliday, R.E. and Reyna, V.F., (2004). Behavioral measurement of remembering phenomenologies: So a simple child can do it. Child Development, 75(2), 505-522.

[4] Hasher, L. and Zacks, R.T. (1988). Working memory, comprehension, and aging: A review and a new view. The Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 22, 193-225.

[5] Reyna, V.F. and Brainerd, C.J. (2011). Dual process in decision making and developmental neuroscience: a fuzzy-trace model. Developmental Review, 31 (203) 180-206

[6] Jacavone, J., and Dostal, M. (1992). A descriptive study of nursing judgment in assessment and management of cardiac pain. Advances in Nursing Science, 15, 54-63.

[7] How Buffet relies on his emotions, The Emotionally Intelligent Investor: How Self-Awareness, Empathy and Intuition Drive Performance blog. Accessed July, 2016

[8] Dijksterhuis, A., Bos, M. W. Nordgren, L. F., and van Baaren, R. B. (2006). On making the right choice: The deliberation-without-attention effect. Science, 311 (5763) 1005-1007.

[9] Wilhelms, Evan A., and Reyna, Valerie F. Neuroeconomics, Judgment, and Decision Making (Frontiers of Cognitive Psychology). Taylor and Francis, 2014. Kindle edition.

[10] Ruyter, K., Moorman, L., and Lemmink, J. (2001) Antecedents of commitment and trust in customer–supplier relationships in high technology markets. Industrial Marketing Management 30, 271–286

[11] Borum, R. (2010) Science of Interpersonal Trust. Selected Works of Randy Borum, University of South Florida