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Opinion: Knowing customer motivators improves returns

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Humans are dynamic. We adapt to our environment so we can thrive in many different lifestyles. Beyond the physical changes of our bodies to fit our daily activities, we can change quite dramatically based on the people with whom we interact.

While most of these changes happen without our conscious awareness, they have been studied and mapped by neuroscientists interested in explaining what motivates us. One such person is David Rock, who crafted a map called the SCARF model.

SCARF stands for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. Each of us humans is driven by a combination of these motivators when we enter social situations, eat at a restaurant or shop at a store, but some motivators will emerge as stronger depending on a person’s life experiences, personality, behavioral style, etc.

If you understand how to spot a customer’s dominant motivators, you can adjust your interaction with them in a way that allows them to feel safe, comfortable and valued. Conversely, violating someone’s social motivators can have surprisingly dramatic consequences. Let’s look at each one in turn.

Status is not always as straightforward as you might think. When we think of how status motivates a person, we often think of sports cars, jewelry and mansions. However, people motivated by status can show it in less tangible ways.

I take great pride in the absurd amount of money I’ve spent at Architect Coffee Co. where I spend many working hours. One of my sisters told a barista there that she was related to me and the whole team responded like I was a celebrity. I’ll take that kind of reputation over a Ferrari any day.

If you have regular customers that are the backbone of your business, think about a couple of ways you can make them feel important. That mental acknowledgement of their significance can be a powerful driver of loyalty.

One of the more common motivators is certainty. It’s the feeling we get when we are sure we know what to expect from our current situation. Without it, we feel a bit uneasy at best and stupid at worst.

If you see someone roaming about your store squinting at your signage, you may want to ask if you can help them find anything.

If you’re taking someone’s lunch order and they’re looking frantically at the menu or asking what you like best, they might be trying to narrow their options.

In a new environment with a lot of decisions to make, nothing is certain.

You can improve your customer’s experience by guiding them to the right solution for them and eliminating the risk that they’ll make a choice they regret.

The need for autonomy is a big thing for employees, as anyone guilty of micromanagement has hopefully learned. It can be important for customers to have autonomy, as well. Customers motivated by autonomy will usually respond favorably to rotating menus, learning about “off menu” items, and having the option to order online, via delivery apps or in store.

Whereas too many options can paralyze someone heavily motivated by certainty, the freedom to choose can encourage these customers to come back to try the other options when the mood hits them.

This is my primary motivator. People driven by relatedness want to be understood and to show that they understand you. If you encounter customers working hard to engage you in conversation, it’s a safe bet that they’re trying to relate.

While the name of the game is often speed in business, getting people in and out the door as quickly as possible won’t build relationships. Taking even 30 more seconds to exchange some kind words with these customers will increase their loyalty and the odds that they’ll refer business to you as they relate to others throughout their day.

Customers motivated by fairness will be frustrated if they see people come in after them and be served before them. They are also the ones who will give up their spot in line to let the pregnant woman go first. Fairness is based on perspective, so it’s hard to live up to everyone’s standards, but consistency is the key here.

If you have clearly defined processes and govern them well, you can keep the majority of these people happy.

If you keep your eyes open and learn to recognize what people really want, you can give your customers the best experience possible at the individual level. There’s no better way to develop loyal, happy customers.

Ryan Baker is the vice president of digital strategy at 417 Marketing LLC. He’s a certified Google Ads specialist and a certified customer experience professional through the Customer Experience Professionals Association. He can be reached at


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