Home » Customer experience » The Peak-End Rule and How It Affects Customer Experience
Last edited: September 16, 2022
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Our memory is biased, and the phenomenon is called peak-end rule.
Here’s how that affects customer experience.
I got my first tattoo recently. While I was sitting there and having my skin poked, I said “Whoa, how do people come here time after time when this hurts so bad!?”
The tattoo artist said “Yeah, people tend to forget about the pain after a while.”
And you know what? She was absolutely right!
When I went to the second appointment, I did kind of remember how it felt like the first time, but somehow the sharp pain still caught me by surprise.
And I’m still planning to do it again someday 🤭
That is exactly what the peak-end rule is all about. Even when the experience was not the best because of the pain, I was so happy with the result that I don’t even care about the nasty poking anymore.
It can work the other way around, too. If the most prevalent feeling after an experience is negative, it marks the whole experience, even if it was quite good overall.
That happens because our brain only remembers the peak and the end of our experience: and especially the feelings that we had in those moments.
Peak refers to the most intense feeling that we have during the experience, be it nice or awful. End is the very last moment of the experience.
The sum of those two moments mark our memories of that experience. The rest of it… We just forget.
As you can probably guess, the peak-end rule plays a great role in customer experience.
When you ask your customers after a while how they feel about your brand, the answer will be dictated by the peak-end effects.
Are there special peak-end rule hacks that you can use to boost the customer experience?
For sure! Many user interface designers make use of these hacks, as well as marketers. Gamification, ensuring smooth experiences, and leaving positive last impressions are some tactics to employ.
You can even hack your own life with the mind games of peak-end rule.
In order to do that, you must understand how the rule works. It has been researched especially in relation to painful medical treatments, UI design and advertisements.
Let’s dig into the science behind the peak-end rule and lasting positive memories.
It is best to have a positive peak near the end of the experience, and end the experience with a positive note, too. That way, the most positive feelings are experienced recently and remembered more likely.
Imagine a situation where you are scrolling through a company’s website.
At first, you are not that impressed. When you scroll down, you find something super interesting, which peaks your interest in a positive way.
In an alternative universe, you see the interesting bit first, and then scroll down expecting the rest of the visit to be as enjoyable. But it isn’t: it’s all very boring after that.
Which scenario will produce the better memory?
Yeah, most likely it will be the one where you get positively surprised.
There are some studies that have pointed out an opposite result: the beginning can be an equally effective peak sometimes, especially in a negative sense.
In my opinion, it illustrates how complex the human experience is.
There’s only so much we can do to try and “manipulate” people’s memories.
You would think that having more than one peak would be more defining for our memories.
That’s logical, but it doesn’t quite work like that.
If two experiences were otherwise identical, but instead of one peak there were two or more peaks… They would still leave behind the same impression long term.
After a couple months, you probably don’t even remember the details of the website that you visited. All you have left is an overall feeling (=whether the website was cool or not).
Maybe the number of peaks does not matter that much, but the length does.
You are watching a presentation. There is one moment when the presenter forgets what to say, and awkwardness ensues in the audience.
Luckily, the awkward moment only lasts for around 30 seconds, and after that, the presenter gets back on track and delivers an amazing presentation.
In the second scenario, the black-out lasts for 2 minutes. The presenter takes a moment to think, but recovers and delivers a great speech.
Which one are you more likely to remember as an awkward situation? After all, both had the exact same thing happen, just for a different time.
An improving experience results in a better memory than an experience that includes a positive peak in the beginning, and worsens towards the end.
Let’s say you have a little bit of difficulty with customer service. The interaction starts out with you being frustrated because the person who is serving you does not understand what you mean.
Later on, you get on the same page, and the customer service agent succeeds to help you in the best way possible.
The customer service situation starts out amazingly. The agent is polite, and you get along well.
With time you notice that the agent has no idea what they are doing. They suggest the wrong solutions and take a very long time to serve you.
In the end, there is no solution and you leave the situation empty-handed.
I bet you would remember the first scenario more fondly.
A quicker peak has greater effect in the memory than a peak that ramps up slowly.
Have you ever had high hopes about how something will work, because everything is going so smoothly, and then suddenly you fall fast to reality?
I’m pretty sure you have had that happen in relationships and even during a job hunt. That must be a sore memory.
Customer experience is not immune to the phenomenon, so make sure that your promises match what you can provide for the customer.
On the other hand, this can work to your advantage, if your product is even better than what the customer expected at first.
Event that ends with an improving trend is more likely to result in a positive memory, even if the experience before it was bad.
I’m not saying you should stop caring about the middle part of the customer interaction, but especially pay attention to how you end it.
I think most workouts are like this for me. I start out with the hardest part (which doesn’t feel good, and you are lying if you say it does) and end with a lighter note. This way I still feel positive about the workout, and am motivated to do it again.
Something about human nature just makes us remember the bad times more vividly than the good memories.
If something goes wrong in the customer journey, it’s possible that the client will never forget.
It is possible to avoid getting stuck in the negative memories if you focus on a mindset change.
Unfortunately, it’s up to each individual to do so. You can’t save your client if they are not willing to save themselves!
A fascinating exception to the peak-end rule is when people base their memories off of the expectations rather than the actual experience.
How does this work in practice?
When you enter an experience with the expectation that you will have a great time (or miserable time), you will likely remember it like that even if the actual experience was different.
If you go to the dentist thinking it will be awful, you will probably leave the dentist thinking it was awful. But in reality, the dentist was very nice, nothing hurt, and you even got some compliments for how well you have taken care of your teeth.
An opposite example: you hype up your expectations for a concert. During the concert, someone pours their beer on you, you get painfully stuck by someone’s elbow, and the acoustics are also not that great.
Nevertheless, you leave the concert thinking it was great!
How can you hack this memory bias as a marketer?
If you get your prospects thinking that your brand is cool even before they have interacted with you, you are winning!
The real challenge for your business is to know which moments produce the highs and lows.
Solution for that is regular customer feedback.
Conduct feedback surveys on different parts of the customer journey to find out how people experience the interactions with you.
A handy tool for it is Net Promoter Score. It provides you with one metric that you can follow throughout the buyer’s journey.
You might notice that some touchpoints receive higher than average scores, or vice versa.
It’s a good indicator of positive and negative peaks.
When you add open feedback to the mix, you can find out exactly what makes people feel that way. As a result, you get to improve the experience and perform better.
Moreover, by learning the peaks and valleys, you can optimize the timing of your testimonial requests.
As a result, you get more and better testimonials.
Consider this sequence:
The testimonials in turn improve the customer experience of new potential customers, because
All of this can be done easily with Trustmary.
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We learned that our memories of past events are based on the peak and the end of an experience.
After a while, we don’t really remember anything else except for how we felt during those moments.
Am I saying that you should disregard all other points of the customer journey except for the peak and the end? Absolutely not!
Always aim to produce the best customer experience possible.
However, pay close attention to how your customer feels at the end of the interaction or customer journey. If they experience a worsening trend, their memory about your company has been stained, potentially forever.
Lot’s of businesses (especially we marketers) focus on how to attract customers in the first place. We strive to get the leads and convert them into customers.
But once a business transaction is done, do we take good enough care of the customer? How about when the lead does not convert: do we still produce a good memory for them?
Your next question might be: “Why should we care about the memories of those who are not our customers?”
Thinking like that is a major mistake. Never underestimate the power of word-of-mouth!
Someone with a good experience might recommend you to their friends. Bad experiences cause harm for your reputation overall.
Moreover, you can capture digital word-of-mouth in the positive peak moments. Use Trustmary to conduct feedback surveys, collect testimonials from happy customers, and showcase them on your website.
In case you want to learn more about the peak-end rule and research done on it, see these additional readings:
To learn more about customer experience and how to leverage it, we have some great resources:
What is the Peak-End Rule?
Peak-end rule is a psychological phenomenon. It shows that people do not remember details of past experiences. They only remember the specific feelings that they had during the most intense moment (peak) and the ending of an experience.
How to utilize the peak-end rule in building customer experience?
Keep in mind that the ending of an experience is crucial. Don’t forget about your customers after a touchpoint: make it memorable in a positive way. If the customer experience has not been the best during the buyer’s journey, you still have a chance to fix it in the end.
How to leverage the peak-end rule in marketing?
Offer peak moments through marketing. Produce positive feelings for your prospects. Additionally, time your testimonial requests in the positive peak moments. This way you get more testimonials for your marketing efforts.
How to know what is a peak moment?
In order to find out what are the peak moments of your customer experience, conduct feedback surveys. By measuring customer satisfaction in different touch points, you learn what to improve and what is working already.
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