May 23 Webcast – Accelerate Profitability through Transformative Customer Service

I will be presenting a live webcast, “Accelerate Profitability through Transformative Customer Service”, on Thursday, May 23 from 1-2 p.m. EDT, offered by Modern Distribution Management. There is no charge for this webcast.

Here is a link to register for this event:

You can also view the webcast at a later time by using this link: and select “Archives.”

I hope you find it helpful.

Unlikely Operations Heroes – Sales Reps

A few weeks ago, I met with the top operations managers of a major multinational consumer products company. These executives were very interested in understanding how to become more innovative. What could they do? What have other companies done? What is the current best practice?

Innovation is a very broad topic that can apply to many different things, so what was their specific problem? The cause of their concern was that their production facilities were very efficient, but the company’s rate of product innovation was becoming so rapid that they were worried that they might not be able to support it without major changes. This is what they meant by innovation.

As we discussed the situation, they mentioned the company’s sales and marketing group as the source of this situation. Suddenly, the pieces fell into place.

The sales reps’ problem

A few years ago, I had an opportunity to work with one of the company’s major distributors on sales force productivity. I spent several days riding with several sales reps and understanding their situation. It turns out that these sales reps, also, were having serious problems with the company’s accelerating pace of product innovation.

How was this product innovation manifest? The sales reps were being bombarded by an endless stream of changes. A few were large, like the introduction of an important new product line. But most were small, almost trivial, like a new point of purchase display for a minor product.

What was most striking about this situation was that each innovation, large or small, was accompanied by a new sales objective that became part of the sales rep’s bonus calculation. The reps actually had 15-20 different objectives!

I knew that a sales rep can’t simultaneously maximize 15 objectives, and the customers would balk at responding to all these changes. So what did the reps do?

Each rep picked the two or three objectives that he or she thought would make the most difference, and ignored the rest – and often these varied from rep to rep. How did this crazy situation arise?

I remember talking to the sales reps and customers, and thinking about the portfolio of product innovations.  I had an image of dueling product managers at headquarters, each producing a stream of product (or packaging) changes because each had to show “progress’. Each vying for slightly enhanced revenues.

And each product manager seemingly oblivious to the big picture, including the critical second-order consequences for both sales and operations.

Who’s driving the boat?

In our meeting, I related my experience with the sales reps. I suggested that if I had a room full of their sales reps, the sales reps would have expressed the same frustration with the company’s situation.

In this company, it appeared that product management was “driving the boat”. Each product manager was focusing on only one rather narrow primary measure: his or her product revenue or gross margin – without regard to the overall effect, or to the important (but hard to measure) second-order effects on both sales and operations, and on the customers. The operations and sales groups were stuck essentially “waterskiing behind the business”.

Why was this occurring? The answer stems from the transition we have been going through from one business era to another.

What happened?

In the prior Age of Mass Markets, which occurred throughout most of the twentieth century, revenue maximization was the win strategy. Companies had relatively uniform pricing  (for much of the period, manufacturers could actually set retail prices), cost to serve was relatively uniform as the product was just dropped at the customer’s receiving dock, and economies of scale meant that large production volumes led to diminishing unit costs. And diminishing unit costs meant more profits.

In this situation, product management was indeed driving the boat. Their job was to maximize revenues. Most consumer product companies were characterized by a relatively small number of high-volume brands. In this situation, the cost of the small “tweaks” in products and packaging were small compared to the huge gains in scale.

Over the past thirty years, however, our business system has changed enormously. We have entered what I call the Age of Precision Markets. In this new era, companies have instituted complex pricing varying from customer to customer, and even product to product. Cost to serve varies again by customer, and even by product within a customer. Products have proliferated into all ecological niches, and flexible manufacturing and outsourcing have enabled many niche products to achieve minimum efficient scale.

Today, profit maximization requires a deep understanding of the interaction between pricing and cost to serve on a very granular basis (individual products within individual accounts). It also requires the tight integration of product management with the groups responsible for the second-order costs it so often produces. Chief among these are the critical costs of sales inefficiency and operations complexity – just what the top operations managers and sales reps were so concerned about.

A natural alliance

In today’s business era, sales and operations have surprisingly aligned interests. They are poised to form a natural alliance to maximize profitability, often without realizing it.

Several months ago, I wrote a widely circulated blog post, “Unlikely Sales Heroes – Supply Chain Managers”. The thrust of the post was that the traditional way to sell to important accounts – sales rep ramping up sales volume, then bringing the operations manager in at the end for a courtesy call, or “sales first, supply chain last” – is an obsolete and counterproductive approach to account development that stems from the past Age of Mass Markets.

In today’s Age of Precision Markets, all this has changed. Leading companies have found that the most effective way to develop and accelerate sales in their most important accounts, their “islands of profit”, is to introduce their operations and supply chain managers to their counterparts in the key customers early in the account development process. The operations managers naturally bond with their customer counterparts, and together they quickly develop innovative ways to work together to create new efficiencies.

This process has two very important results: (1) the customer will become much more profitable handling and selling your products, and this will create huge, rapid sales increases for your company; and (2) in the process, you will lower your own cost to serve. Think about this: your operations team creating huge new revenue increases coupled with lower cost to serve. The best of all worlds.

In my graduate class at MIT and in my executive courses, I often ask whether in a company all revenues are equally profitable to serve. The answer is “of course not”. It is clear to everyone that some revenues fit the supply chain and operations, while others do not.

This leads to a very important conclusion. The most important way to achieve quantum increases in operations productivity is for the sales force to bring in revenues that fit the company’s supply chain and operations. This means that in a well-run company, the sales reps are primary determiners of operations productivity –  the unlikely operations heroes.

Does this mean that we must turn away important new sources of revenue because they don’t fit our current operation? Of course not.

It does mean, however, that both sales and operations have to develop a deep understanding of the complex interaction between revenues and costs on a very granular basis (individual products in individual customers), and they must have highly efficient processes to coordinate and align their sales and operations activities.

When your sales and operations are fully aligned, your revenues will be maximized and operations costs will be minimized. Today, your supply chain managers should be your most important sales heroes, and your sales reps should be your most important operations heroes.

What about the product managers?

Returning to the recent meeting with the consumer product company’s top operations managers, it became clear that the company’s product managers were maximizing a small portion of the company’s profit picture. They were not aligned with either sales or operations.

In the past, this was not a big problem, but today it was causing enormous headaches.

This led to a very important question. How could the operations managers (and sales force) change position from “waterskiing behind the business” to helping “drive the boat”.

The answer was that they had to shift their activities from a focus on finding ways to cope with an untenable situation (which they saw as a need for innovation), to a new focus on developing effective ways to partner with their counterparts in sales and product management in order to create alignment.

And this was nearly impossible to do when everyone was so busy fighting the fires caused by the counterproductive, over-rapid pace of product innovation.

The key to gaining alignment was to open a parallel discussion on how to work together over the next few years in order to maximize profitability and profitable growth. This would surely involve new coordinative mechanisms, new metrics, and new incentives.

The net result, the true definition of success: all three key groups “driving the boat” together.

Unlikely heroes

In the Age of Precision Markets, the key to long-term success is to develop effective processes to tightly align your key functional areas – sales, operations, and marketing – in both your company’s day-to-day activities and in its positioning for the future.

In this new era, your supply chain and operations managers should be sales heroes, and your sales reps should be operations heroes – all working together to raise your company’s performance through the roof.

Channel Mapping for Profit

In my previous blog post, “Customer Intimacy vs. Operations Excellence: Why Not Have Both?”, I explained that leading companies are gaining market share and growing profits by focusing their resources on the customers that are giving them high sustained profitability, and finding new ways to coordinate with these accounts to increase these customers’ profitability.

When these astute suppliers increase their customers’ profitability, the customers give them much more share of wallet, and ease the pressure on the suppliers’ prices. Importantly, the improved operational coordination –  smoother order patterns, improved forecasting, elimination of redundant functions, lower inventories –  reduces the suppliers’ costs and increases the suppliers’ profitability as well.

This process creates a classic win-win: the customer wins and the supplier wins even more. The only losers are the competitors, who see their market share drop and are left wondering why.

This powerful profit dynamic is critical to profitability management, and a channel map is the key to success.

Mapping your channel

A channel map is one of the most important, but least used, elements of an effective profit improvement program. It is the key to big, sustainable increases in profits and growth, especially in your most important accounts. It also provides decisive competitive differentiation – building big barriers to entry based on customer knowledge, relationships, and trust. This enables you to secure and grow your most important customer relationships, and to penetrate and grow critical potential accounts.

The power of a channel map is that it gives you a detailed overview of the cost buildup as your products flow through your company, and into and through your customer’s company. The objective is to identify ways to increase efficiency and reduce cost. You also can use the same technique for coordinating with your suppliers to lower your own input costs.

The starting point in a channel map is to partner with a customer, and select a few representative products. I suggest that you “warm up” by developing a channel map with a relatively small, but very well-managed customer, in order to get comfortable with the process.

In developing the channel map, it is important to work with a willing, engaged counterpart manager from the customer. (This underscores the importance of developing relationships with your counterpart managers in key customers well before they are needed.) He or she will help you understand the customer’s operation and estimate the costs, and in the process you will develop a close working relationship with a customer manager who can help explain the process to his or her fellow managers, vouch for the results, and later help drive the change process.

The second step in channel mapping is simply to trace the product flow through both companies, identifying each step in the process. Very quickly, you will see important points of leverage. Typically, you will find a number of costly redundant functions, and you will be able to spot key points at which information that is readily available in one company will really help the other. This early, easy step is very eye-opening, and quickly shows everyone the value of the process.

The third step is to roughly cost out the steps in the process. As with profit mapping, “70% accurate” information is almost always sufficient. If you have developed an internal profit map of your own company, you will be very comfortable with this process, and it will go relatively quickly. My new book, Islands of Profit in a Sea of Red Ink, explains how to do this.

In this process, it is very important to be comprehensive in your view of cost. For example, channel maps were essential in the work that led to the development of one of the first, most widely-followed vendor-managed inventory systems, which Baxter developed in the hospital supply industry.

A work team from Baxter traced the product flow for representative products through a representative hospital, observing the steps in the process and roughly estimating the cost of each. The hospital’s management had simply assumed that they could gauge the cost of handling the hospital supplies by looking up the budget of the materials management department.

However, when the work team spent time in the hospital actually observing the process, they found that a surprisingly large portion of nurses’ time was spent in ordering and handling supplies, as well as in frequent trips to the hospital stockroom to obtain missing items. When they added in the estimated nurses’ time (based on interviews), it amounted to about half of the handling costs. This was a major issue because there was, and still is, a shortage of highly skilled nurses, and their time is really needed for patient care.

The channel map showed another critical hidden cost: Baxter’s sales reps had to spend an inordinate amount of time expediting product and addressing customer service issues stemming from poor intercompany coordination. In most companies, removing this needless problem in effect increases the company’s sales force by 20-30% – without any cost.

Opportunities for improvement

Once you’ve developed a step-by-step understanding of the intercompany product flow, and an estimate of the cost of each step, opportunities for improvement will literally jump off the page. Most companies are relatively efficient within their “four walls” internal operational processes, but they almost never see the true intercompany picture. This valuable new view almost always shows very easy, lucrative opportunities to quickly improve profitability for both companies.

Returning to the hospital example, the work team observed that the hospital’s metrics included inventory levels, but not handling costs, because the former was easy to measure and the latter was not tracked across multiple departments. Consequently, the hospital CFO managed the hospital’s inventory very tightly, but had no way to understand the essential trade-offs with other important costs. When the team completed the channel map, it became crystal-clear that by increasing hospital inventories slightly on low-value items, both the supplier and hospital could reduce their expensive handing costs enormously.

As another example, the work team was surprised to find that the order pattern for steadily-used products was very erratic, and this was causing very high costs.  They decided that the simplest solution was to set up a standing-order process, in which the supplier would ship a predetermined amount of the steadily-used products to the hospital every week. The hospital could alter this standing order if needed, and receive the  product promptly. This radically lowered the inventory and handling costs for both channel partners.

It also had other important benefits. Because the standing orders covered the same high-volume products each week, the supplier could pack the products on the pallets in the way that was best for the hospital, usually put-away order. This made the shipment very fast and convenient to receive and handle. This seemingly small change was a huge benefit for the hospital’s personnel, and they strongly supported the new process.

Continuing process, continuing value

Channel mapping is not a one-time event. It should become a core component of your profitability management process – especially for the key accounts in your “sweet spot.” This is how you secure and grow your islands of profit; it is one of the most important arrows in your quiver.

Every element in the process is hugely beneficial. As you work with your key customers on the channel map, your managers will develop close, trusting relationships with their customer counterpart managers. This trust is immensely important: it is the precondition to later change management and a huge barrier to entry.

As your managers and their counterparts use your channel map to discover opportunities for profit improvement, a broader set of managers in both companies will develop comfortable patterns for working together. They will have many opportunities for informal talks in which they will get to know each other’s deeper hopes and concerns. This will naturally lead both to work together to develop new ways to create mutual value.

In this way, channel mapping, which starts as a way to develop operating efficiencies, transforms naturally into a core element of an extremely productive strategic partnership. When you achieve this, both you and your customers will strongly and steadily grow your market share and profitability for years to come.

And remember, you can develop the same ultra-productive relationships with your key suppliers as well, harvesting huge profit and strategic benefits for years. Upstream or downstream, channel mapping is the key to ongoing success.

Customer Intimacy vs. Operations Excellence: Why Not Have Both?

Several years ago, popular business books trumpeted the importance of focusing your company by choosing a distinct business model. One best-selling book offered these alternatives: (1) customer intimacy – delivering what specific customers want; (2) operations excellence – delivering quality, price, and ease of purchase and use; and (3) product leadership – creating the best products and services.

While strategic focus is an appealing idea, my long experience working with companies on profitability management suggests that there are other dimensions that are much more subtle and powerful. And much more profitable.

Take the example of the choice between customer intimacy and operations excellence.

It seems obvious that a company cannot both provide individual service to customers and drive operating costs down. After all, individual service is custom-tailored and expensive, while operations cost-minimization requires extreme standardization. How can you have both?

Islands of profit

The answer lies in the central message of my book, Islands of Profit in a Sea of Red Ink. Every company I have seen is 30-40% unprofitable by any measure, while 20-30% provides all the reported earnings and subsidizes the losses.

The core reason why this occurs in so many companies is that managers so often serve all their customers in an “all the same” way. They standardize on a business model, and simply assume that it will fit all their customers (otherwise, they wouldn’t fit as customers).

Leading companies today, however, have shattered this approach to business strategy. And they are reaping enormous, lasting benefits – leaving their competitors in the dust.

Several months ago, I participated, along with the heads of operations of P&G, Chiquita, and Pepsi, on a panel on Supply Chain Transformation. These three leading companies have been creating enormous new profits and market share gains, even in the depth of the recent recession, by doing exactly what the old popular business books disparaged – combining customer intimacy with operations excellence.

All three companies are pursuing a similar strategy. They have analyzed their profit maps, and they clearly understand which customers are providing them with high sustained profitability – their islands of profit. They have the insight and discipline to invest considerable resources in securing and growing these customer relationships.

It turns out that the best way to secure and grow a key customer relationship is to integrate your operations with those of your customer – in a highly individualized and effective way. When you do this well, you lower your key customer’s cost and increase the customer’s profitability. This pulls through surprisingly large sales increases, often 35% or more, even in highly-penetrated accounts.

As a P&G vice president once observed in an MIT workshop, “We sell to Wal-Mart’s CFO.” That’s why P&G’s account team in Bentonville Arkansas includes a very strong component of financial managers. Their job is to calculate Wal-Mart’s increase in profitability created by P&G’s supply chain and marketing integration, and use this information to pull through even more product sales.

What’s happening here? Customer intimacy combined with true operations excellence driving customer profits, and creating big revenue increases.

Virtuous cycle

But that’s not all. At the same time that these three companies are creating huge customer gains through custom-tailored operations integration, they are radically lowering their own operations costs. How? By smoothing order patterns, tuning customer inventories, deploying substitutes in carefully-selected situations, and other measures.

These initiatives shift the focus of supply chain efficiency initiatives from optimization solely within the vendor’s “four walls,” to optimization of the joint vendor-customer supply chain. This shift creates enormous new efficiencies – for both companies.

Fortunately – well, insightfully really – all three companies invest a major portion of their operations efficiency gains into deepening their key account relationships, especially operations integration. This smart move renews the cycle, enabling them to create even more customer profitability, to further grow their market share, to gain new operational efficiencies for themselves, and to gather even more resources to invest in making their key customers ever-more profitable – renewing again this endless virtuous cycle.

The key to success: customer intimacy merged with operations excellence.

Sea of red ink

But that’s not the whole story. There are two keys to success. The first, described above, is the ability to use custom-tailored operations excellence to lock in and grow your most profitable business – your “sweet spot” in the market, your islands of profit.

The other key to success is to create differentiated serving models for your other segments. For customers who are important, but not willing or able to partner well, you can develop other, more appropriate relationships backed by clear, distinct service models. For yet other customers who did not warrant integrated relationships, you can offer more standard, menu-driven approaches. (I cover this thoroughly in the Operating for Profit section of Islands of Profit in a Sea of Red Ink.)

One major company even told its smallest customers that unless they could order a truckload of product a week, they would only serve them through master distributors (who specialized in serving small order customers very efficiently). This enabled the company to draw back a major portion of its resources, and channel them into more rapidly growing its “sweet spot” customers.

Multiple parallel service models

What does this mean for the profit-maximizing manager?

You have to move beyond the old “one size fits all” approach to business strategy, and understand that within your book of business, you have a number of very different types of customers – and that each type of customer, or market segment, requires a different, appropriate, cost-effective service model (and degree of operations integration).

For your most important “islands of profit” customers, you may need to customize individual, highly-integrated supply chains. For other customers, you probably need a relatively small number of standardized serving models tailored to each of your market segments. How many? Old Byrnes family recipe: perhaps 5-10.

This more subtle understanding of your business will enable you to secure and grow your islands of profit, and convert your sea of red ink into a very lucrative expanse of business.

Customer intimacy or operations excellence? False choice. The right answer is: the right blend in the right places.*

* Thanks to Brent Grover of Evergreen Consulting for pointing out this terminology when we participated, along with Klein Steel’s Laurie Leo, in a panel at the recent Waypoint Analytics Advanced Profit Management Conference.

What’s Wrong With a 95% Service Level?

Customer service level is a core measure of company performance. This measure seems completely obvious: after all, if you increase your line-fill or case-fill from 94% to 96%, your customers will surely be much more satisfied. And satisfied customers will buy more from you, increasing your profits. Right?

This seemingly simple logic has critical flaws that are very important for your company. Is your objective simply to maximize average customer satisfaction? Or is your objective to maximize your company’s profitability and growth? These are not necessarily, or even often, linked.

Think about the following questions, in the context of a company with a 95% service level.

  • Which customers get the bad 5% of your service measure? How would you feel if your best customers – the customers in your company’s “sweet spot” (those that produce the most profit and have the highest growth potential) – received unreliable service 10% of the time, while your marginal customers enjoyed 99% service? How would you feel if both your best customers and your marginal accounts received the same poor service 5% of the time – after all, this is what the measure indicates.
  • How bad is the 5% deficiency? Is it hitting key customers running a VMI or cross-dock system with one week delays, or is it hitting customers carrying ample inventories with an overnight delay? Is it hitting critical products or commodity-like products with many substitutes?
  • What price are you paying for making promises you can’t keep? If you always made realistic customer service (order cycle) promises that you could keep virtually 100% of the time, would your customers trust you with a slightly longer order cycle, or are they simply insisting on very tight cycles to give themselves “breathing room” for your service deficiencies?

When you focus on aggregate measures of customer service, in reality you are maximizing what’s easiest to measure, not what gives you the most profitability and lucrative growth. This is another artifact of the Age of Mass Markets, when companies distributed as widely as possible, customers had plenty of inventory, and computers were in their infancy.

Service differentiation is a much more effective way to frame and measure customer service. In a nutshell, you should make different order cycle promises to different customers depending on your customer relationship and the nature of the product.

Consider a simple 2×2 matrix, with core and non-core customers, and core and non-core products. A core customer is a significant steady customer, often one whose supply chain is integrated with yours. A non-core customer is a smaller, occasional customer, or even a large, high-potential customer that uses your competitor as its primary supplier. A core product is either a high-volume product or a critical product with no substitutes. A non-core product is a slow-moving product, not critical, and often with ample substitutes.

If you think about each quadrant of the matrix, it becomes clear that each quadrant’s customer/product characteristics logically suggest a different order cycle.

The core-core quadrant requires fast, completely-reliable service, and here a 95% service level is particularly deadly. For non-core customers ordering core products, you might offer guaranteed 2-3 day service, but always keep your promises. This will allow you to produce 100% reliable fast service for your core customers (from local stock), while gaining the leeway to source product from centralized stock to meet the occasional spikes in demand that non-core customers sometimes produce with occasional large orders. The alternative is to carry a huge amount of costly safety stock in the effort to treat all customers the same.

There are important exceptions. If a non-core customer is a high-potential account that a sales rep is working intensively, it can be bumped into the core category, as long as you reexamine this after a period to see whether the relationship has changed.

The service differentiation logic is similar for your non-core products. By definition, non-core products are those not needed urgently. When a core customer orders a non-core product, most of the time it can be sourced from local stock, with an order cycle of perhaps 1-2 days.

The big cost drain occurs when non-core customers order non-core products. Here, you will need a massive amount of local safety stock to meet an aggregate measure like 95% service level (with short cycle time). The correct course is to make an order cycle promise of perhaps 3-4 days, so you can source the product from a centralized pooled inventory.

Three important customer service principles emerge: (1) you should match your order cycle promise to the nature of the customer relationship and the product characteristics; (2) you should make different promises to different segments of customers for different segments of products; and (3) most importantly, you should always keep your promises.

The right measure of customer service is not aggregate line-fill and case-fill: it is always keeping your promises. Service differentiation will enable you to maximize your profitability and to develop high sustainable profitable growth. The classic dilemma of trading off between cost and service is an obsolete, misleading concept. It assumes that all customers and products are the same.

You can have your cake and eat it too if you have clarity, focus, and follow-through – and you let go of the tacit goal of trying to be everything to everyone.

Think about another common measure of customer satisfaction: net promoter score. This is a commonly-used measure that compares customers who would recommend you against customers who would not. The problem is that this is another aggregate measure with all the flaws of an overall measure of customer service level.  (Aggregate surveyed customer satisfaction has the same problem.) Clearly, the customers in your “sweet spot” should have net promoter scores off the charts, or your islands of profit will be sinking beneath the waves.

What about the rest of your customers? If you implement service differentiation effectively, they should also have a very high net promoter score. They will have a clear understanding of their relationship with you, they will trust you to always keep your promises, and they will know exactly what they have to do to change their relationship and therefore their order cycle.

In business, the worst news is not knowing what to expect.

Stumbling on Customer Service

Some of the most useful books for business aren’t about business at all.

Recently, I read a terrific book that is extremely readable and very relevant to business, Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert. Gilbert is a professor of psychology at Harvard. This book is a very well-written and well-researched discussion of how people actually anticipate, perceive, and recall their experiences.

Bottom line: many of the assumptions that we make about how customers will react to customer service and many other customer-facing activities are misleading and incorrect. Consequently, we have a big opportunity to shape our customers’ experiences in ways we probably haven’t imagined. Similarly, we make systematic misjudgments in our decision-making, both in daily activities and in major initiatives.

I strongly recommend reading this book. I offer below a number of interesting points – all well documented – that emerge from the book. I’ll make a few suggestions about how these points tie into business activities, but leave it up to your imagination to draw the inferences for your business.


We tend to overestimate the likelihood of good events occurring; thus people are unrealistically optimistic. Even if a bad event occurs (e.g. an earthquake), within a few weeks people are unrealistically optimistic again. (Think about the implications for deciding whether to end an initiative or program with only mediocre performance.)

People are even more unrealistically optimistic if a very bad event occurs. For example, cancer patients are more optimistic than their healthy counterparts.


If a bad event is predictable and we anticipate it, we develop ways to rationalize and adjust to the impact. This gives us a feeling of control. Gilbert cites experiments in which subjects who receive strong shocks in a regular pattern deal with it better than subjects who receive mild shocks at unpredictable intervals. (Think about your policy for letting customers know in advance about service problems.)

People find it gratifying to exercise control, not for the result but for the exercise itself. When people lose the ability to control things, they feel unhappy, helpless, and despondent. Losing control has much worse effects (on health and wellbeing) than never having had control. The feeling of control is one of the wellsprings of mental health. (I recall reading about classic industrial engineering experiments in which assembly line workers who were allowed to work to the bottom of a bucket of bolts were much happier and more productive than those who had the bucket endlessly refilled.)

We really value the freedom to choose. People will pay a premium today for the opportunity to change their minds later, even if the economic consequence is overwhelmingly unfavorable.

Shaping perceptions

If a person describes his or her reaction to an event just after the event, the person will recall the description rather than the event, even if the description is not accurate. Most events have both positive and negative aspects. This means that you can shape someone’s recollection by asking questions that highlight the aspects you want the person to remember.

This works prospectively as well. If we suggest that someone focus on one aspect of an event, he or she will tend to disregard the other aspects. There are several commonly used film clips that illustrate this. For example, in one clip, viewers are asked to count the number of times a group of people pass a ball to one another, and the viewers fail to notice a gorilla walking through the group. (Again, this suggests ways to shape customers’ perceptions of actual experience.)

Information acquired after an event actually alters a person’s memory of the event. (For example, if you give a report card on your overall service, it will obscure a customer’s recollection of individual problems.)


When we imagine an upcoming event or an object (e.g. a plate of spaghetti), we visualize it as being much richer and more ideal than the full range of possibilities. This inevitably leads to disappointment.

People have a general inability to think about the absence of events. For example, a person will readily remember tripping, but not be aware of all the times he or she didn’t trip. (This is why rare customer service problems unrealistically dominate customers’ perceptions.)

When we are selecting something, we focus on the most positive attributes. When we are rejecting something, we focus on the most negative. This leads to a common situation in which a person will both select and reject the same thing at the same time by focusing alternatively on positive and negative attributes, becoming paralyzed with indecision. Here’s another example of our tendency to overestimate the extremes: we overestimate the happiness of people in California, and underestimate the happiness of people with chronic illness or disabilities – both have a “normal” degree of happiness.

Predicting the future

When we think about events in the distant future, we focus on why they will happen; when we think about events in the near future, we focus on how they will happen. Think about promising to babysit for a weekend several months in the future versus thinking about the details of what you will do when the weekend starts tomorrow. (This is very relevant to evaluating mergers and other big initiatives: from a distance we leave out consideration of the implementation details, and later wonder why we committed to do it. The upshot: get immersed in the details early so your evaluation is realistic.)

People tend to assume that the future will look largely like today. Underestimating the future is a time-honored tradition. Arthur Clark observed, “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.” People almost always err by predicting that the future will be too much like the past.

When we have “holes” in our conceptualization of the past and the future, we plug in today. This means that our predictions are prejudiced by assumptions that things will not change. It also means that our view of past relationships and events is changed by what we feel today. This is especially powerful in predicting how we will feel, or in remembering emotions. People have great difficulty imagining that they will later (or previously) feel differently than today. This is not a “logical” issue, but a psychological one: we can visualize objects changing, but can’t “prefeel” emotions differently from our current experience.

We remember feeling what we believe we must have felt, rather than what we actually felt. Memory is less like a photograph than a collection of impressionistic paintings.

Preference for variety

People imagine that they would prefer variety more than they do. The reality is that they only prefer variety if habituation sets in. Otherwise, in episodes separated by time, they strongly prefer favorites.

Relative preferences

People are much more sensitive to relative amounts than to absolute amounts. In experiments, subjects preferred to receive a pay progression of $30 followed by $40 followed by $50, rather than $60 followed by $50 followed by $40, even though the latter amounted to more. Similarly, we prefer the sequence of a bad deal changed to a decent deal, to the sequence of a great deal changed to a good deal – even though the latter is “objectively” better.

We are more willing to contribute a small amount if we are first asked to contribute a much larger amount. The same applies to paying for a product or service. This is why stores often place an overpriced item next to a very overpriced item.

It is very hard for people to choose among similar items. In experiments, physicians faced with the choice of prescribing two similar medications prescribed neither much more often than those physicians who only had one medication available. (Think about the implications for product assortments.)

People prefer to avoid a loss, more than to have the possibility of a gain. Many transactions fail because the seller overestimates his or her prospective unhappiness, while the buyer underestimates his or her prospective happiness. The seller implicitly wants compensation for a possible powerful loss, while the buyer expects a less powerful gain. (Think about the implications for negotiating an acquisition.)

Perceptions of difficulties

People are very resilient in the face of trauma. Most bereaved people experience a relatively short period and low level of distress, relative to their expectations. The same is true of people who suffer a disability.

In fact, most people consider their lives enhanced by the experience of trauma. This is the result of what Gilbert calls our “psychological immune system,” which causes us to adjust quickly and rationalize the impact of a truly traumatic event. In a strange example, able-bodied people are willing to pay much more to avoid being disabled than disabled people are willing to pay to be able-bodied again. When things really go wrong, our minds actively shape our perceptions to make the best of things.

Paradoxically, it is more difficult to achieve a positive view of a somewhat bad experience than a really bad experience – because in truly difficult circumstances our minds find ways to justify and rationalize the new situation, while they do not do this with normal setbacks. Suffering triggers defense mechanisms that eradicate it, but we can’t predict that this will happen.

We are more likely to develop a positive view of something if we are stuck with it. Hence, patients feel more distress if a medical test is inconclusive than if it is positive.


We seek data that confirms what we already believe. In studies, researchers have shown that the wide availability of information on the Internet has led to increased polarization, as people focus on the information that reinforces their preconceptions, rather than weighing information that supports alternative positions.

Similarly, our minds select from our memories the “facts” that fit our preconceptions, and this strongly shapes our perceptions and even our recollections.

People ask questions that elicit the answers they want to hear.

Interestingly, when people have a problem, they especially seek information about others doing more poorly than themselves. For example, in a study, 96% of cancer patients said that they were in better shape than the average cancer patient.

Expectations and regret

When we feel dread in anticipation of something, we assume that this is how we will experience and recall the event. Our most consequential choices (e.g. marriage, profession) are most shaped by how we imagine our future regrets. We are especially prone to exaggerate our view of future regret when the choice is unusual rather than more conventional. (“Showcase” projects can ameliorate this because they are a low-risk way to generate new experiences.)

In an interesting study, 90% of respondents expected to feel more regret if they foolishly switched stocks, than if they foolishly failed to switch stocks. Most people think they will regret foolish actions more than foolish inactions. But in reality, after the fact 90% of people really regret not having done things more than they regret things they have done. It is easier to visualize or imagine inactions than new actions with uncertain consequences.

People consistently choose certainty over uncertainty, and clarity over mystery.

The bottom line: it is very hard to predict accurately our reactions to future events because we can’t imagine them, or what we will think and feel if they happen.

Changing the perception of experiences

Explanations change people’s extreme perception of experiences. For example, simply talking, and especially writing about a trauma will generate surprising improvements in well being and physical health. This is particularly true when the writing contains an explanation of the trauma. Similarly, writing ameliorates the impact of an extremely good event.

What is memorable

We remember unusual and infrequent events (e.g. where we were on 9/11) and assume that they are more common than they really are. (Perceptions of customer service are formed by the worst experiences, not the average.) This is why we repeat mistakes so often.

We remember the end of a sequence much more than the beginning, middle, or average. People’s perceptions are overwhelmingly shaped by the most recent events. In studies, people were more concerned by how they would feel at the end of their lives, than about the total amount of happiness they experienced in their lives.

Making predictions

The best way to make predictions about future happiness is to find someone who is now having the experience and ask how he or she feels. (This is especially important in a job search. It also reinforces the importance of “showcase” projects.)


There are three main problems with the way our imagination works: (1) our minds fill in and leave out information in predictable, but unexpected ways, and we don’t even realize it; (2) we project the present into the future, and again don’t realize it; and (3) we fail to see that things will look different once they happen.

Here’s a final thought: the average person doesn’t see himself or herself as average. We attribute other people’s choices to features of the chooser (e.g. Jim prefers red ones), while we attribute our choices to characteristics of the choice (e.g. it had a richer color).

Customer service and decision-making

When we conceptualize and measure customer service, we most often simply assume that people are “rational.” Thus, it seems obvious that if we produce 96% service, it is better than 95% service.

But the insights that Gilbert offers instruct us that there is a lot more to it than that. A simple example: If the 95% is accompanied by a warning and explanation of impending problems, and the customer can choose a substitute or alternative, the customer will be happier than if he or she received a higher nominal service level with no “heads-up” or ability to exercise control. (Remember: the only thing worse than bad news is no news.)

Similarly, a company with a 98% service level with a few memorable disasters will be perceived more negatively than a competitor with a 94% service level accompanied by report cards reminding the customer of the “great” overall service and a few anecdotes of “heroic” service incidents.

Stumbling on Happiness also sheds light on a number of systematic errors and misperceptions that we naturally make in evaluating decisions and predicting how we will react to future events.

These factors are critical to the way we conduct our daily business, as well to the processes we use to frame and evaluate our major strategic moves. If we are aware of these tacit factors, we can take deliberate steps to significantly improve our performance. The key is awareness and understanding, and all at no cost.