Photo: Liam Fahey, left, and Raj Srivastava, a chaired professor of marketing and digital commerce at Emory's Goizueta Business School.

Marketers spend untold amounts of money to define who their customers are, what their needs are, and how to ensure they have positive experiences that will translate into sales. What these marketers and researchers often overlook is the role and importance of emotions as an influence on customer behavior.

For Liam Fahey, a scholar in areas ranging from management strategy and organizational behavior to marketing and competitive intelligence, such oversight is like leaving money on the table.

During a 2008 lecture before some of Atlanta's elite marketers, Fahey, chief architect at Emotion Mining Company (he is also co-founder of the Leadership Forum Inc) delved into the often neglected area of emotions to reveal the wealth of data that examining and measuring emotions can offer marketers. The event was sponsored by the Emory Marketing Institute.

When it comes to deconstructing the customer experience, all too often emotions are not carefully considered. This is especially surprising because every customer experience stimulates emotions. Seeing an ad on TV, using a product, or engaging with a sales person may spawn an array of feelings, notes Fahey.

In addition, emotions reside at the heart of customers' needs and wants, contends Fahey, and so-called rational customer choices are always influenced, and are often driven, by emotional considerations. 

For example, a customer is leaning toward buying a product because it has superior functionality while being priced approximately the same as a rival product. A rational choice would be to buy the product-better functionality, same price, says Fahey. But, what if the customer feels uncomfortable with the brand? What if the retail store makes the customer feel unappreciated? What if the product's color evokes the negative emotions associated with the customer's least favorite football team? What might seem like a simple rational choice now becomes a more complex choice process in which the customer's emotions play a pivotal role and may well lead to a purchase decision that the so-called 'rational' choice criteria might not have predicted.

To this end, Fahey, along with Thomas Snyder, the inventor and founder of Emotion Mining whose background includes neuroscience, medicine and psychiatry, is developing better ways to access, measure, and leverage emotions. Together they are quickly building one of the largest databases of customer emotions, which is why their organization is named 'Emotion Mining Company.'

Researching emotions

Fahey's firm has developed a set of Web-based data gathering and analysis methods that highlight the role emotions play in defining and motivating customer experience. For instance, one unique capability of the methods enables researchers to distinguish between expressed, conscious emotions and unexpressed, subconscious emotions, i.e., those emotions not readily or reliably expressed-emotions that customers may not even be aware of themselves. 

According to Fahey, the Emotion Mining methods can also deconstruct the customers' emotional experiences as a direct means to detect their aspirations-in short, needs that otherwise would remain off the radar screen for most marketing managers using traditional research methods.

To understand the emotional life of customers is quite important, as it impacts their preferences, choices and commitment to brands and leads to behaviors and ultimately financial performance, he says.

Positive and negative emotions

One preliminary method Fahey uses gives the percentage of positive and negative emotions associated with any customer experience. Although it represents the simplest emotion finding, in many instances it alerts marketers to the existence of the need to change the experience, and in some cases, the need to change the experience significantly. An emotion need unfulfilled indicates the presence of a marketing opportunity, Fahey explains.

To illustrate his firm's methodology, Fahey offers the case of a financial services firm that was a client of Emotion Mining. In the analysis of the financial services firm's sale of insurance to consumers, the percentage of negative emotions involved in the average sales transaction was 70%. Neither the customers nor the sales professionals were enjoying the buying-selling process. Clearly, something was so fundamentally wrong with the customer experience that, if corrected, the outcome could only enhance sales, he says.

Expressed and unexpressed emotions

Distinguishing between what customers consciously say and what they subconsciously feel beneath their professed emotions is another aspect of Fahey's research and work at the Emotion Mining Company. 

In the case of the financial firm, Fahey explains, customers consciously indicated they felt confident about the product they were buying and comfortable that it would serve their financial needs. Thus, feelings of confidence and comfort about the insurance offering must be created for customers; in the absence of these emotions, they will be less likely to purchase what is offered them.

So, how do marketers tap the needs and wants of customers that otherwise remain undetected? According to Fahey, to isolate and target real customer needs, marketers must uncover the generally unexpressed, rather than focus on the typically expressed, emotions associated with the customer experience-a primary target of the overall Emotion Mining methodology.

At Emotion Mining, unexpressed emotions and needs are identified in a Web-based, game-like program in which respondents are asked to answer two or three questions in the form of How does something, or doing something, make you feel? The data gathering process provides respondents with a choice of six to eight emotion words in response to each question. Respondents then write-in 'verbatim' what that emotion feels like to them, and a baseline is determined for each emotion. The analysis protocols then automatically generate both quantitative and qualitative outputs including the conscious or spoken emotion and the subconscious or unexpressed emotions. Analysis of the emotion profiles generated for specific groups or segments (e.g., customers who purchased a product and others who did not) then enables insights to be developed about, for example, the content and sources of key emotions, how the emotions could motivate or inhibit specific types of behaviors, and as a consequence, which action programs might be warranted. (For more information on this technique, visit

In the case of the financial firm, follow-up research of customers who had purchased insurance revealed three strong unexpressed subconscious emotions about the purchasing experience:

  • Insecurity: the experience was exceedingly demanding -- involving daunting communications -- and socially bewildering.
  • Depression: customers felt vulnerable, alone, and afraid of the salesperson.
  • Anger: they felt trapped in a system that felt wasteful of their time, energy, and resources.

After an extensive analysis of the verbatim associated with these three negative

emotions, the financial services firm's marketing team concluded that customers were experiencing overwhelming feelings of powerlessness, stupidity, frustration, uncertainty and distrust in the purchasing experience, notes Fahey. The team concluded that even customers who had bought the product felt that the whole buying-selling process was disadvantageous to them, disempowering of them, and dysfunctional for them.

A second analysis focused on those customers who did not buy the insurance offering. This customer segment also revealed the same three unspoken emotions. However, much to the surprise of the marketing team, the three emotions meant something different compared with those who purchased the product, he says. For instance:

  • Insecurity: customers were overwhelmed by lots of questions and troubled by the unnaturalness of it all.
  • Depression: they felt lifeless, weak, defeated, and demeaned by what they perceived as the evil encountered in the buying-selling process.
  • Anger: the unproductive nature of having to lose to win  bred resentfulness, rebelliousness, and resistance.

Some insights

A number of insights into customers' needs emerged from these analyses, notes Fahey. First, engaging with the firm's sales force caused a deep and persistent negative emotional impact on both those who bought and those who had not. Unless the sales force can be trained and educated to understand and detect these emotions, the firm could not expect any dramatic upturn in sales force productivity.

Second, the customers who did make a purchase met their (functional) need for insurance, but it was clear their emotional aspirations were not met. Emotions around insecurity, depression, and anger that persist long after insurance is purchased strongly indicate that these customers are not likely to generate pleasant viral promotion of the product, the experience, or the brand, warns Fahey.

Third, in unraveling the customer experience, the unpleasant emotions were directed not so much at the insurance offering, but at the buying-selling process. The emotions spoke to the context of the buyer-selling engagement. The unspoken and unrecognized feelings of powerlessness, stupidity, frustration and distrust were evoked by the selling process, says Fahey. Clearly, the buying process had to be reengineered if customers were to feel involved and empowered and trusted.

Fourth, the deeply felt unpleasant emotions highlighted the need for a total redesign of the buying-selling process. Customers needed to feel (and be) empowered, so that they would be a real contributor to the process, and so that they would experience a relationship built on trust and sharing, adds Fahey. In short, they would feel that they were managing their own affairs and not having their choices managed for them.

Finally, the emotional differences between those who did and did not purchase strongly indicated that each customer could and should be treated as a unit of one, as a customer with unique emotional aspirations. The implication here was also dramatic: each sales person has to be skilled in quickly reading and attending to the emotions of the person sitting across the table, says Fahey.

The action program

Based on these findings, Fahey's firm recommended an action program for the insurance company client. According to Fahey, an emotional competency program was designed to educate and train the entire sales force in the skills required to recognize and respond to a range of issues and challenges likely to be raised by customers, to specific sets of questions typically posed by customers, and to behaviors often exhibited by customers who feel powerless, frustrated and antagonized. A set of new training tools was developed that enabled the sales force to manage the analysis side of selling insurance so that customers could participate in the process in ways that allowed them to feel and to be real contributors to the process.

The results were startling, adds Fahey. Average sales per salesperson increased by 15% over a two-year period. Customer satisfaction scores improved significantly and sales force training and development savings proved substantial due to a reduction in turnover.

Once again this illustrates the power that can be tapped when the customer experience is deconstructed and emotions are examined, notes Fahey.

Fahey's lecture is just one of the many offering of the Emory Marketing Institute (EMI). EMI is an Emory University research group that focuses on the advancement of brand-driven business performance. Visit the EMI webpage to learn more and to access free managerial articles.

Story updated December 20, 2009.