Last Impressions Also Matter

Photo by Marcus Dall Col

As the saying goes, “you only get one chance to make a first impression.”

But what about last impressions? It turns out, in many scenarios, last impressions are even more important. 

Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics, explains how we remember events with a definite beginning and end. It’s not based on the first impression or overall enjoyment, “but our memory…has evolved to represent the most intense moment of an episode of pain or pleasure (the peak) and the feelings when the episode was at its end.” This memory phenomenon has been dubbed the Peak-End Rule.

The rule was first observed in the context of medical procedures. Kahneman found that patient’s remembered colonoscopies to be more painful if they ended abruptly or had a high peak intensity, regardless of the overall duration of pain. Hats off to those study participants.

“If the objective is to reduce patients’ memory of pain, lowering the peak intensity of pain could be more important than minimizing the duration of the procedure. By the same reasoning, gradual relief may be preferable to abrupt relief if patients retain a better memory when the pain at the end of the procedure is relatively mild.”

This finding in the context of medicine leads to a broader, and more impactful, observation: How we remember things isn’t objectively tied to the actual experience. As Kahneman explains,  “Odd as it may seem, I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.” 

Let’s do a quick experiment to reveal the differences between your experiencing self and remembering self. Imagine you’re at the movies watching an academy award winning film. The first two hours was a pure masterpiece. World class acting, stunning special effects, and edge of your seat drama. Even the popcorn was perfectly popped. But with 5 minutes left, the theater lights flashed on and the audio screeched to a halt. How would you remember that movie?

Most people would agree that the entire movie was ruined. Your experiencing self had a great time for 96% of the movie. Yet the peak (and final) moments hijacked the entire experience which is now remembered negatively. 

Kahneman explains that “…the experience was not actually ruined, only the memory of it. The experiencing self had had an experience that was almost entirely good, and the bad end could not undo it, because it had already happened…Does the actual experience count for nothing?”

The experiencing self counts in the moment, but the remembering self has the lasting power. The memory is what we tell our friends. The memory is what we include in a Yelp review. After the event is over, the experiencing self fades away and the remembering self takes charge. 

I can’t help but wonder how this phenomenon impacts common business interactions. Here are a few scenarios with “definite beginning and end periods” that are candidates for maximizing the peak and end — and thus, positively influencing the remembering self:

  • Customer service call
  • Industry conference
  • Business meeting
  • Hotel stay
  • Doctor appointment 
  • Speech at an event
  • Job interview

Let’s use a customer service call as a case study. These interactions almost always begin when a customer has a problem — an uphill battle in terms of positively influencing the remembering self. Here’s how most of my customer service calls go:

I call Acme Inc. because of an issue with their product — their anvil is starting to rust. I press 0 repeatedly to get to a real person. After a few minutes on hold, I explain my problem and it’s 50/50 whether they’re able to resolve the issue. The support rep thanks me for calling and asks if I want to participate in a satisfaction survey. I decline, and hang up frustrated. 

In these instances, my experiencing self has a bad time and so does my remembering self. 

But what happens if my peak or end experiences were different? Would this give Acme Inc. a fighting chance to positively influence my memory of the interaction? 

My favorite example of this approach is Zappos, the shoe company acquired by Amazon for $1.2 Billion. Zappos’ key differentiator is their support, or Customer Loyalty Team (CLT). Instead of simply helping their customers purchase and return shoes, they’re “empowered to help and WOW customers”. Each CLT member actually has a small budget, to spend at their discretion, to go above and beyond in helping customers. This freedom allows them to create peak and end experiences that will not only create a positive memory, but potentially last a lifetime. 

A great illustration of this was when a customer called Zappos to explain that she needed to return 5 pairs of shoes due to a medical condition that impacted how those shoes fit. Instead of the typical transactional and frustrating customer support call, Zappos created an unforgettable experience:

“Two days later the mother received a get well soon message attached to a bouquet of flowers. Along with allowing them to return all the shoes, the customer service team upgraded all their accounts to VIP, granting them shipping on all orders without charges.”

Talk about a peak end experience.

Where have you seen the Peak-End Rule in effect? How could you use it to create a positive, lasting impression? 

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