Motivational Speaker Dan Heath on Why "Great Experiences Hinge on Peak Moments"

How a 1950's Motel in LA Outranked the Four Seasons on TripAdvisor

Kindra Cooper

Magic Castle Hotel

The #4-rated hotel in Los Angeles, according to TripAdvisor, is a canary-yellow 1950s apartment building turned motel satirically named The Magic Castle.

Its one and two-bedroom suites have a decidedly mundane aesthetic redolent of the Holiday Inn Express – in fact, the bathrooms scream “nursing home” and the beds lack bedspreads.

And yet, the humble hotel beats out five-star properties charging more than triple the nightly rate, including the esteemed Four Seasons Beverly Hills.

Magic Castle Hotel

When bestselling author and motivational speaker Dan Heath visited, he requested a room with a balcony expecting Southern California views of the North Pacific, however distant. The balcony on his first-floor room measured about a foot wide – barely enough space for two black plastic chairs – and stood about three feet off the ground.

“It was functional because you could just finish your morning tea and hop over the side and get on with your day,” Heath joked at Verint Engage 2019 in Orlando, Florida, showing the audience a series of underwhelming photos he took on his cell phone during his stay.

“I haven’t deceived you at all, these pictures are real,” Heath said, as a conspiratorial grin spread across his face. “But I have concealed something, and that is that this hotel is obsessive about the power of moments.”

Magic Castle Hotel

By the backyard-sized pool is a wall-mounted cherry red phone with a cryptic sign above it that reads: “Popsicle hotline.” Pick up the receiver, hold it to your ear and someone answers, “Popsicle hotline. We’ll be right out.”

“Within a matter of minutes someone comes out wearing a suit holding a silver tray loaded up with grape, cherry and orange popsicles,” says Heath. “They deliver them to you poolside wearing white gloves like an English butler. Why? Just because they can and because it’s fun.”

The icy treats are free, just like the snacks on the list by the front desk, the board games available for borrowing, wash-dry-and-fold laundry service and the magicians that perform tricks in the lobby several days a week.

Magic Castle Hotel

Heath says CX professionals are misguided in their belief that creating great experiences means “wall-to-wall perfection” when psychology shows our memories disproportionately cherish just two kinds of moments: “peak moments,” meaning our most positive or negative moments, and transition points like birthdays, weddings, graduations and other milestones celebrated in most cultures. The rest is recollected in snippets that are mostly forgettable.

“That is certainly the story about the Magic Castle; there is much to forget,” said Heath. “The rooms are average, the lobby is well below average...but they deliver these magical moments that stay with you and six months later that’s what you’re talking about.”

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But CX strategists are often preoccupied with using big data, surveys and voice of customer to trawl for problems to fix instead of focusing on building peak moments, or they obsess over maintaining NPS and CSAT like it's a score in a game.  

“In life we can spend so much time trying to fix potholes that we never get around to building the peaks that might have made people forget a hundred potholes en route,” said Heath, who co-authored The Power of Moments with his brother, Chip Heath, who teaches organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

In the book, the Heath brothers identify four psychologically definitive moments. Elevation moments generate an exhilarating, positive emotion, such as excitement or adrenaline-induced nerves, while moments of insight are typified by epiphanies where “in an instant we realize something about ourselves or something about our world.”

Moments of pride accompany achievement or an act of courage, like the historical moment civil rights activist Rosa Parks resisted segregation laws by refusing to relinquish her seat in the “colored” section of a bus to a white passenger. Finally, moments of connection deepen our personal relationships, often through a shared hardship.

Read more: How Chobani Used Experiential Marketing to Become the #1 Greek Yogurt Brand

Surprises also count as elevating moments, hence the notoriety of Southwest Airlines’ funny flight attendant safety announcements. At its Dallas headquarters the airline company has a Wall of Fame with plaques bearing favorite jokes flight attendants have told over the years; Heath cited a few.

One reads: “Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to smoke, the smoking section on this airplane is on the right wing and if you can light ‘em, you can smoke ‘em,” and “Put the oxygen mask on yourself first, then on your child. If you’re traveling with more than one child consider which one of them has more potential.”

“Six months after you fly from Orlando to Nashville there’s probably going to be very little that you remember about that flight,” said Heath. “But if there’s something that you do remember it’s probably that funny, script-breaking announcement that was made.”

While writing the book, Heath and his brother met with the Southwest Airlines customer insights team to ponder the dollar value of funny flight announcements not to justify it but out of simple curiosity.

“I think amusing your fellow human beings is plenty of payoff, full-stop,” Heath insisted.

Data found that 1.5 percent of surveyed passengers cited a comical flight safety announcement as a memorable part of their flight. The team tracked the dollar spend for each of those respondents before and after the flight to see if the funny announcement was an inflection point.

They calculated that customers who noted the announcement purchased an additional 0.5 flights on average in the subsequent year, so the team dug deeper to extrapolate its monetary significance.

“We decided one interesting way to view this is to say, what if we could double the number of passengers who cite funny flight safety announcements maybe by telling more of these jokes or telling better jokes?

Based on previous calculations, incremental revenue from telling jokes during a federally mandated flight safety announcement amounted to $138 million per year. Of course, the calculations contained built-in assumptions, but Heath says they prove humor bears a dollar value.  

Peak moments apply as much to the employee experience as the customer experience. A first day at a new job is an often overlooked yet pivotal transition period that shapes a new hire’s perception of their role, the company and their coworkers.

However, most businesses handle this anxiety-inducing time “like it’s a nuisance.” First days are spent setting up login accounts, reading compliance documents - perhaps even watching a dreary orientation video.

John Deere, a household-name manufacturer of agricultural, construction and forestry machinery, designed a end-to-end experience for new hires that starts well before their first day.

Right after accepting your offer, you receive emails from your prospective office buddy who sends a photo and introduces themselves as a “Deere friend.” They give you the lowdown on office culture, where to eat lunch, what to wear and where to park your car.

When you show up on your first day your prescribed companion is waiting for you at the door with a cup of coffee. In the lobby, you see your name displayed on the flat screen monitors and by your desk is an unmissable, three foot-tall banner marking you as the office newbie so people will stop by and introduce themselves.

Your computer screensaver reads: “Welcome to the most important work you’ll ever do.”

When you open your inbox for the first time there’s an email from Sam Allen, the CEO. He embeds a video discussing his career at John Deere and the company’s mission to provide food, shelter and infrastructure to a growing global population.

After your colleagues take you off site for lunch, you notice on your desk a stainless steel replica of the original so-called “self-polishing” plow invented by the company founder in the 19th century.

“You walk out of there at the end of the day after these special moments and you’re thinking two things,” says Heath. “The work we’re doing here matters, and I belong here, they seem to want me here.”