In Search of Certainty

This article was originally published by Management Today

In hindsight, our waitress was excellent.

She smiled. She saw us to our table and introduced herself by name. The drinks arrived quickly. And as I placed the just-empty glass on the table, she was there immediately, ready to offer a top-up.

But when it came to ordering the food, she did that thing.

That thing where, rather than pulling out a notepad and diligently writing down the complex combination of fajitas, burritos, and guacamole-topped nachos we’d agonised over, she just stood and listened. Nodding as we spoke, staring intently, but steadfastly refusing to take notes.

As the six of us threw in our complicated extra cheese / no mushrooms / not-too-spicy requests, the tension was rising around the table, with nervous glances being exchanged. Our waitress maintained a fixed expression the whole time, presumably building a platter-picture in her head filled with chicken wings, mini-tacos, and several sides of patatas bravas.

Of course, when our food arrived, the order was perfect. We needn’t have worried – but we did.

As impressive as our waitress was, this was a great reminder of how much we crave certainty in our lives. And an interesting irony too that, if she’d been slightly less good and used a notepad, we’d have all been happier with the experience (even if she’d been using the notepad to doodle caricatures of us whilst committing the order to memory anyway).

In today’s world, change is more common than ever. People move jobs more, get married less, always seeking the next big thing. But really, as this post on Nir and Far brilliantly explains, ‘people don’t want something truly new, they want the familiar done differently.’ We’re driven by this search for certainty, and we struggle when we don’t have it.

When we’re lacking certainty, our imagination is left to fill in the blanks, and it usually goes one of two ways. We might imagine things positively, building huge excitement (like we do with Christmas presents). Or seemingly more commonly, we imagine things negatively, worrying about the things that might go wrong, and creating an awkward sense of unease (like we do with the Christmas turkey).

As Paul Dolan suggests in his book Happiness by Design, the only way to change that feeling is to replace the blanks with knowledge: ‘In situations where you face uncertainties, it will almost certainly be better to turn them into adapted realities. Do you have an unopened bill that’s bothering you? Then open it…’

The importance of creating certainty can be seen in customer experiences, big and small, across every industry, every day:

  • We’re comfortable when the ‘next train’ timing board is working, and enter a state of mild panic when it goes blank, even though the train might still be two minutes away;
  • We can’t relax on holiday until the bags are collected and we’re safely checked-in to the hotel, just in case something’s gone wrong with the booking;
  • We go back to the same hairdresser time after time, because we know what they’ve done before (and they ‘know our hair’, whatever that means);
  • We use Uber because it shows where the car is on a map, so we know whether the taxi really is ‘just around the corner’;
  • We’re nervous the first time we go on a rollercoaster, not knowing what to expect, and then more excited the next time, having replaced some of that imagination with knowledge.

So companies looking to provide a great customer experience need to find those potential points of uncertainty – those moments where doubt or worry may exist, where customers are experiencing something new, or don’t have knowledge of what’s going to happen next – and then communicate clearly, in what they say and what they do, freeing up their customers’ imaginations to replace any worry with excitement about what’s to come.

Only then might your customers start to love your company – and that’s something I’m certain of.

I really hope you enjoyed this article. If you did, I’d love you to subscribe to my blog at to get new thoughts sent to you on an infrequent basis, and find me on twitter @johnJsills.


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