The Psychology of Habit Formation with Roxana-Maria Barbu

AskNicely Team

In February 2022, hundreds of leaders from service businesses across the world gathered together online to take part in the Global Frontline Experience Summit, an event we are delighted to sponsor and host again after it’s hugely successful first run in 2020. It was a phenomenal event with a contagious heaping of inspiration, excitement and possibility for anyone working in the customer experience and frontline service space.

If you’ve been following AskNicely for a while, you’ll know how obsessed we are with habit formation. So obsessed, in fact, that we wrote a book on the 7 Habits of Empowered Frontline Teams. Through working with thousands of experience brands around the globe, we discovered that the world's best brands such as Starbucks, Uber, the Ritz-Carlton and Disney all operate around a set of daily habits to focus and motivate their frontline employees to deliver awesome customer experiences. But how do we actually go about forming those habits? Roxana-Maria Barbu is a Cognitive and Behavioral Experience Researcher, and is here to provide a glimpse into the fascinating psychology of habit formation and how to facilitate it for both your customers and your frontline employees. 

The Basics of Habit Formation

How many days do you think it takes to form a new habit? 

  1. 5 days
  2. 21 days
  3. 66 days

While 21 days was trending for a while on social media, the answer is actually 66 days. 

“66 days is the average time it takes to achieve long lasting behavior change (i.e to form a new habit). It can take as fast as 18 days, but it can take up to 254 days.”

This wide range is our first clue that habit formation is complex and highly impacted by each person's individual circumstances.

In its simplest form, we can break down habit formation into 3 steps: 

  1. Reminder - the never ending alarm that tells you what to do. Go for that run! Finish 2L of water! Read that book!

  2. Routine - what happens when we listen to the reminder, we end up successfully engaging in a routine. E.g the 5K run every Monday, the faily 15 minutes of reading before bed.

  3. Reward - the outcome and impact of the habit. For example, the quality of sleep after reading before bed instead of scrolling before bed.

Let’s take this 3 step approach into the context of frontline work. Say you're working at a hotel managing a group of frontline service associates. They are reminded to greet every guest that walks through the door with a smile, and a friendly hello. If your frontline employees hear or see that reminder every day, it will successfully turn into a routine, and if your employees are rewarded for following through, it will form into a habit. The underrated key is catching your employees doing things right - habits don’t form without reward. 

Psst 👀You can use a recognition tool, to ensure to catch people doing things right and build a customer obsessed frontline culture based on positive feedback.

The Journey of Habit Formation 

Diving a little deeper, Roxana takes us through the journey of habit formation. It starts off with motivation. This can either be intrinsic, meaning it’s motivated by internal rewards, or extrinsic, meaning it’s motivated by external factors. For example, working hard because you enjoy being good at something is an intrinsic motivation, and working hard because you want to earn a bonus is extrinsic motivation. While in an ideal world everyone would be intrinsically motivated, it’s important we design our products, services and technologies to cater to both forms of motivation. Who doesn’t want a bonus, right? 

After motivation, comes chaotic performance. This is just as it sounds, a trial and error period of learning, failing, trying against and refining. Once the process is nailed, it becomes repetition, before eventually hitting the transition point. The transition point describes the time at which a habit goes from being a conscious repetition, to an automatic behavior that requires low cognitive effort. 

Think of a product or service brand you choose every time without thinking. Maybe it’s the airline you fly with or the type of milk you have in your fridge. If you choose the same brand everytime, you have successfully passed the transition point and have formed a habit of buying and built loyalty towards a brand. The end goal of course for all experienced brands is to gain this level of customer loyalty. 

How to Make Habit Formation Easier 

How many times have you tried to form a habit and failed? Maybe it’s a health related habit, a work related habit or even a spiritual habit. If you’ve failed, you’re not alone. The reality is, habit formation is really darn hard. So, in the context of frontline work, how can we help our frontline employees to form habits easier? 

Roxana says we should turn our focus to user research and experience. When we’re talking about forming habits for customers, this translates to customer research and experience, and when we’re talking about forming habits for frontline workers, it translates to employee research and experience. Whether you're designing a service for customers or employees, it’s important to consider the following steps. 

  1. Strategy

    Understanding the service and its goals in relation to people, the business and technology. For example, the goal of the AskNicely frontline success platform is to provide everything frontline teams need to delight every customer, everytime.

  2. Scope

    Defining the service in relation to people, the business, and technology. What are the opportunities and pain points? What does the end user’s journey look like?

  3. Structure

    Designing the structure of the experience to meet the people, business and technology goals. For the AskNicely frontline success platform, we identified the 6 areas service businesses need to thrive: customer feedback, frontline coaching, employee feedback, insights, recognition and workflows.

  4. Skeleton

    Design the details of the service to meet the people, business and technology goals. This is about detailed interaction design, user feedback and development implementation.

  5. Surface

Finally, define the visual and interaction details to support the people, business and technology goals. This considers visual design and testing. To bring it down to the AskNicely frontline success platform, this looks at our popping purples, fun notifications and clean design, all with the goal of enhancing the frontline employees experience, motivating them to deliver great experiences.

The ARC Framework 

Roxanna and her colleagues and the Macadamian Institute, developed a framework to acknowledge that it takes more than function and usability for a product or service to be successful. 

“People, consumers, users embracing a new product, or even a different version of the same one are undergoing a behavior change regardless of how small.”

The ARC framework serves as an intuitive way to think of the product/person interaction along the journey. 

Pre-Onboarding: First Date 🍷 

People are seeing the solution for the first time and are getting a glimpse of its offerings. They need to be impressed enough to try it, whether it’s to download, sign up or buy. 

Onboarding: Honeymoon Phase 🏝

If the pre-onboarding phase was effective, the relationship continues. This could go two ways: people are engaged in the newly acquired experience, or they don’t like it and they interrupt participation. 

Daily Usage: Long-Lasting Partnership 👨‍❤️‍👨

If people enjoy the benefits from the solution, they remain engaged and may use it daily. 

Growth & Beyond: til’ Death Do Us Part 💍

[Optional] This stage identifies the elements beyond daily needs such as the person elevating their role from user to contributor, or establishing a human connection or community that extends beyond the initial outcome, cultivating a long-lasting, meaningful relationship. 

Solutions do not exist is a silo 

Roxana closes her presentation by stressing that there is an intricate relationship between the solution, the person and the environment. She gives an example, explaining that friends of hers use a health app to manage their diabetes…

“They use the app to manage their diabetes, both for tracking their physical activity and for inspiration for activities. One of the main activities were their Aqua fitness sessions that they would do a few times a week, but when COVID hit, their main activity went out the window with no suggestions of what else they could do safely. The app did not adjust itself to account for an environmental and societal change that is pretty much affectiving everyone.” 

In order for solutions to get to the long lasting relationship phase, they must adapt to the ever-changing environments of customers and employees. 

Habit formation, whether it be around forming new customer habits to create brand preference, or for creating habits for your employees to implement, share the same basic makeup: reminder, routine and reward. There must be something in place e.g a service standard reminding employees to deliver on an action. They must do that action repeatedly and consistently until it becomes second nature, and they must be rewarded and recognized to celebrate success and reinforce the habit, making it stick for good. 

Want to see more presentations from the Global Frontline Experience Summit? We’ll be releasing blogs every week diving into all the juicy insights from our incredible lineup of speakers. In the meantime, you can join the Frontline Magic Community to receive updates, frontline news and more! 

AskNicely Team
About the author

AskNicely Team

AskNicely Team
About the author

AskNicely Team

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