Step 1 in Retention Marketing: Overcome Buyer’s Remorse

group of desperate regretful people having duh momentRetention marketing should begin immediately after the sale. Why? A better customer experience starts with overcoming the natural human tendency for buyer’s remorse. Marketers should start new customer relationships by signaling cognitive closure.


Coulda, woulda, shoulda

We’ve all experienced regret after making a decision. “I could have taken Laura to prom instead of Sharon.” “I would have studied law but my dad insisted I study engineering.” “I should have bought the red dress, not the black one.” We feel remorseful when we make a choice and later perceive the rejected alternatives might have turned out better.


Rethinking our choices is part of being human. Neuroscientists say that whenever we make decisions, our brains use mental models to represent the various options.(1) We simulate possible outcomes for each option, retaining both the chosen and the rejected alternatives in memory. Scientists think the brain encodes these hypotheticals so we can more efficiently update our behaviors without directly experiencing them.(2) However, when a period of time separates the anticipated from the actual rewards, we can sometimes second-guess ourselves.(3) Feelings of regret ensue, and chronic rumination can even lead to depression.


A subtle fix

Buyer’s remorse, the feeling we sometimes get after making a purchase, is often easy to counteract. An obvious step in B2B is to eliminate the typical lag time between Sales and Operations after the transaction. A prompt and effective handoff between internal silos prevents the customer’s brain from getting stuck in limbo and sliding towards rumination. In the software business, for example, a “warm transfer” between the salesperson and Customer Success Manager at the time of sale is an ideal solution. Before customers have the chance to reconsider, CSMs occupy them with the onboarding process, never a look back.


Remarkably, even subtle signals can provide closure. Our subconscious naturally responds to symbols and metaphors, and research has shown that physical acts of completion can prevent buyer’s remorse and increase satisfaction.(4) In a fascinating experiment, researchers asked test subjects to seal a plastic container after choosing a chocolate from the mix. Control subjects were told to leave the container open. Those who covered the containers rated satisfaction with their selections significantly higher than those who didn’t. The experiment showed that when people consciously and physically removed post-choice alternatives, it signaled to their subconscious that their decision was final.


Visual cues similarly trigger cognitive endpoints. For example, the way agencies edit TV commercials affects a consumer’s ability to remember brand names.(5) Neuroscientists measured brain activation in subjects viewing ads with different endings. In one version, a child and grandfather walked off the scene before a message appeared, and in another, the actors stayed in the frame as the message materialized. The researchers found that keeping the cast on screen doubled brand recall. When the characters left, the ad suggested it was the end of the story. As a result of conceptual closure, the consumers’ brains stopped recording memories, leading to their failure to later recall the message.


Simply telling people things are going to be all right works surprisingly well, too. Psychologists have long known that “priming” test subjects with subtle suggestions before an experiment can dramatically bias the outcomes. The same is true in advertising. Researchers found that including “You can trust us to do the job for you” in an auto service firm ad caused perceived trust scores to jump by as much as 33%.(6) Verbal and written affirmations clearly pay dividends.


Communicating closure… after the close

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Engineering effective handoffs between customer acquisition and value delivery processes is one way to promote higher loyalty. The company’s marketing team can also contribute. One suggestion is to carefully suppress buyer’s remorse in the first e-mail of a post-sales drip campaign. It might look like:


  • Showing a photo or video of a sunrise piercing the darkness
  • Titling, “Welcome to the start of a new day—working together to achieve your goals!”
  • Thanking the customer for completing their order and describing the next steps
  • Including a customer quote about how happy they were after making their decision
  • Providing a brief survey to give feedback to the departing salesperson who helped them


When images, words and actions all signal the completion of one phase and the beginning of the next, customers won’t dwell on past decisions. With a little push, their subconscious minds will let go of their natural second-guessing and get on with enjoying the benefits promised them.


(1) Kahneman, D., and Miller, D. (1986). Norm theory: comparing reality to its alternatives. Psychological Review, 93 (2): 136-153
(2) Abe, H., and Lee, D. (2011). Distributed coding of actual and hypothetical outcomes in orbital and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Neuron, 70, 731-741, May 26, 2011
(3) Kocsel, N. et al (2017). Trait rumination influences neural correlates of the anticipation but not the consumption phase of reward processing. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 10 May, 2017.
(4) Gu, Y., Botti, S., and Faro, D. (2013) The impact of choice closure on satisfaction. Journal of Consumer Research, 40: August 2013.
(5) Silberstein, R., Nield, G., Pynta, P., and Seixas, S. (2015). Conceptual closure: The impact of event boundaries on long-term memory encoding and advertising effectiveness. Asia Pacific 2015, a publication of ESOMAR World Research.
(6) Li, F., and Miniard, P. (2006). On the potential for advertising to facilitate trust in the advertised brand. Journal of Advertising, 35: 4, Winter 2006, 101-112.

Ed Powers
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