The ABCs of PCT and Its Critical Role in Outstanding Customer Experiences

Long ago I received my Ph.D. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in dynamic, interactive human systems like married couples, families, and businesses.

Along that educational journey, I was exposed to many theorists and various models of human motivation and perception (operant and classical conditioning, needs hierarchies, etc.). One organizing concept has proven to have a considerable amount of value when it comes to thinking about and constructing outstanding customer experiences. So here’s the question, what do you know about PCT?

PCT, which stands for Perceptual Control Theory, links back to research conducted on negative feedback loops. For our purposes, here’s how it relates to the relationships we have with our customers.

Perceptual Control Theory is best exemplified by the thermostat attached to the heating Thermostatand air conditioning units in your home.

When the sensor attached to your thermostat perceives a temperature below it’s set to activate the heater, the sensor trips a switch and voilá your heater comes on. When the sensor perceives a temperature above it’s set for cooling, then trips a switch that turns on the air conditioning unit.

This example demonstrates one of three conditions that commonly cause action in a perceptual control system – namely “range.” There is an acceptable range of temperatures that produce NO action from the system. It is only when the temperature is perceived “out-of-range” that action occurs.

ScaleSimilar to range is the concept of set-point. In this case, there is a single point (not an upper limit and lower limit as is the case with a range) that prompts action. Since I am prone to dieting, I will use food intake and my scale as examples of my set-point dieting approach. Typically, I don’t change my behavior until my scale hits a specific number. Once I see those digits pop up on my scale I begin to act by curbing my calories and increasing my exercise.

I have no lower set-point. I’ve never seen my scale with a number so low that I began eating more or exercising less. I’m not activating behavior based on a range but instead, I have a single set-point guiding a specific course of action.

XThe final important concept in PCT is error. You can think of this as a system that operates in the “off position” most of the time except when a triggering event occurs.

The alarm system in my home is a classic example.

I arm my home alarm before I leave and for all practical intents and purposes, no action is taken by my alarm system 99.99% of the time – since all the sensors receive no signal of movement or breach. It is only if or when a sensor perceives an “error or alarm trigger” that a siren starts blaring and my cellphone starts ringing.

Enough about PCT, and on to it’s important application to customer experience delivery. Customer perceptions also regulate their actions toward a brand.

If your experience falls out of range with expectations born from other service providers, your customers are likely to complain, rate you poorly, speak ill of you on social media, and churn.

If your customers recently had fabulous experiences from another service provider (maybe more efficient service thanks to a competitor’s app) your customers are likely to reset their thermostat and you will be required to step-up your game to remain “in-range” for perceived tolerable service.

Finally, there are certain things if done to a customer (an alarming error) that can cause them to squeal their siren; thus going from being passively engaged with you to being boisterous as they leave you.

Our job as customer experience providers is to listen for the perceptions of our customers and understand the control systems that prompt them to action (e.g. churn, maintain loyalty, or make a referral). Moreover, it is incumbent on us to deliver experiences that won’t result in “alarming errors” and instead cause them to elevate their expectations of OTHER providers.

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Joseph A. Michelli, Ph.D. is a professional speaker and chief experience officer at The Michelli Experience. A New York Times #1 bestselling author, Dr. Michelli and his team consult with some of the world’s best customer experience companies.

Follow on Twitter: @josephmichelli

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