Helping Consumers Cross the Boundary

Seemingly minor situational cues can prompt greater customer engagement and commitment, enhancing satisfaction and loyalty.
November 23, 2010
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Last year, while visiting Malaysia, Professor Leonard Lee went to see Petronas Towers, among the tallest buildings ever constructed. Tickets are free, but the towers are popular, and when Lee got in the line, it extended well past the end of the rope line. “I noticed a strange thing,” he says. “As soon as I crossed from outside the rope to inside the rope, I felt a really strong sense of relief.”

Yet, the end of the rope line was nondiagnostic — unlike, for example, a countdown clock that tells commuters how far away their bus or train is from the station — indicative not of whether Lee would eventually receive a ticket but only of his relief at having reached it.

Lee tends to notice things like the end of rope lines because his research often investigates the point at which consumers move between considering a purchase decision and committing to a purchase. These thresholds can serve as a virtual boundary that consumers cross psychologically. Before crossing the boundary, consumers are said to have an out-of-system or deliberative mindset, in which they are considering but are not yet wholly committed to completing the task at hand. Once over the boundary, consumers quickly adopt an in-system or implemental mindset in which they are committed to following through on an action. Lee worked with Min Zhao and Dilip Soman of the University of Toronto to understand how incidental, nondiagnostic cues — like the end of the rope line at Petronas Towers — serve as boundaries and whether these cues can prompt different mindsets and levels of commitment from consumers.

A simple experiment simulating a wait in line at the post office demonstrated the basic dynamic that Lee experienced at Petronas: Participants waiting in a line with a long rope line were willing to pay a much smaller amount of money for optional express service, suggesting they would rather remain in line, evidence of an in-system mindset. By contrast, those waiting at the same position in a line of equal length but with a short rope line (so that participants were beyond the end of the rope line) were willing to pay more to leave the line to get express service, suggesting an out-of-system mindset. A similar experiment with ATMs highlighted how the length of rope line alone could be enough to prompt consumers to act on in- versus out-of-system mindsets: when the rope was shorter, people were less likely to continue waiting in line than when it was longer.

To provide further evidence that individuals really do adopt a more action-oriented mindset as a result of crossing such boundaries, the researchers set out to investigate whether people become more optimistic and risk-taking, two characteristics of an in-system mindset. This time, instead of physical cues (such as the length of a rope line), they used purely semantic cues to prime participants to adopt either an in- or out-of-system mindset. Two groups of participants were asked to participate in what they thought was a computer-based study in a large computer lab. The actual study took place in an adjacent waiting room, beginning when a research assistant directed the first group to join him inside the waiting room until the computers were ostensibly reconfigured for further stages. While waiting, each participant completed a paper-and-pencil survey that included questions to assess how risk-seeking and optimistic the participant was. The other half of the participants completed the same survey in the same waiting room; however, for this group, the research assistant prompted them to move from the computer room by telling them to wait outside in the waiting room. Participants in the first, or in-system, condition exhibited a higher propensity for risk-taking than the out-of-system participants, as measured by which hypothetical gambles they said they would be willing to take in the survey. The in-system group also expressed more optimism, saying they were more likely to hit a greater number of golf balls into a hole than the out-of-system group.

The researchers also showed how the simple act of asking people to wear name badges could prompt greater motivation (by being more persistent in searching for a given set of words within a matrix of letters), but also that people grow accustomed to such cues and stop responding when those cues are used repeatedly. This all suggests that there are any number of incidental cues, both verbal and physical, that, used with care, can make consumers feel more engaged and more likely to stick with a cumbersome or inconvenient process. For example, a retailer may not be able to make long lines move much faster during a busy holiday season, but offering incidental cues may help stressed holiday shoppers feel they have fewer barriers to negotiate on their way to the register, cultivating greater customer satisfaction and loyalty.

One significant but less obvious application, which one of Lee’s co-researchers is working to implement in a healthcare system, is the selective use of incidental cues to decrease the anxiety experienced by people with serious medical conditions. “A patient may still need to wait for an organ transplant, but promoting an in-system mindset, even if it does not shorten the wait, can reduce anxiety and promote greater overall well-being,” says Lee. “The same principle can be applied to other service or retail settings.”

Leonard Lee is associate professor of marketing at Columbia Business School.

Leonard Lee

Leonard Lee was a Columbia Business School faculty member from 2006 to 2014.