Maslow, Emotion, and a Hierarchy of Service


[This post is our first guest post at Neuromarketing, and is written by branding expert Denise Lee Yohn. Feel free to leave a comment, either to welcome Denise or to add your thoughts to her provocative hypothesis!]

At the heart of the intersection of brain science and marketing lie customers’ needs and motivations, right? After all, the customer experience is essentially the laboratory where companies’ theories about consumer psychology are tested. If a company understands what motivates customer behavior, it has a better shot at influencing that behavior by meeting their customers’ needs.

This became clear to me as I navigated through three different reads about customer service in the past few weeks.

Simple Promises, Strong Delivery

The first tidbit appeared in last month’s Harvard Business Review. Some Corporate Executive Board researchers issued a provocative point of view based on results from a study they conducted. Their research shows that “Loyalty has a lot more to do with how well companies deliver on their basic, even plain-vanilla promises than on how dazzling the service experience might be… When it comes to service, companies create loyal customers primarily by helping them solve their problems quickly and easily.” (emphasis mine) This is a distinct departure from the “surprise and delight” aspiration which many companies hold when it comes serving their customers.

Getting Emotional

In the same HBR issue, there was another article that seemed to counter the point. Tony Hsieh the CEO of Zappos and the author of the recently released book, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose, described his company’s customer service philosophy:

We don’t have scripts, because we want our reps to let their true personalities shine during every phone call, so that they can develop a personal emotional connection with each customer, which we refer to as PEC. When one of our reps found out that because of a death in the family, a loyal customer had forgotten to mail back a pair of shoes she’d planned to return, the rep sent her flowers; now she’s a customer for life.” (emphasis mine)


What helped me understand the juxtaposition of these two points of view was this quote from Susan Reilly Salgado, managing director of Danny Meyer’s learning business, Hospitality Quotient: “What many people refer to as ‘great service’, we call hospitality. Service is all about the technical delivery of the product, while hospitality is about how guests feel during that transaction. Hospitality happens when guests believe you are on their side. For people to rave about their experience and become repeat customers, you need to have both – but what surprises customers and makes them feel genuinely cared for is the hospitality.
(The quote appeared in a release from American Express, announcing their new Global Customer Service Barometer, a survey conducted in the U.S. and 11 other countries exploring attitudes and preferences toward customer service.)

Maslow, and a New Hierarchy of Service

It helped to distinguish between service as “technical delivery” and service as “fantastic experience.” And the distinction reminded me of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs which suggests that people have different levels of needs which need to be met — and needs at the bottom of the hierarchy must be fulfilled before needs higher up can truly be met.

The points of view I had been reading suggested that a similar hierarchy exists when it comes to meeting consumer needs and motivations with customer service. There are different levels of service which companies may provide, but the ones at the bottom of the service hierarchy need to be delivered before the ones higher up can be meaningful and have impact.

Here’s what I’m thinking:

If Maslow’s level 1 = physiological needs — literal requirements for human survival
Then Service level 1 = basic delivery – simply delivering the requirements. For a fast food restaurant, this would mean the food is hot, the drinks are cold, the service is fast and accurate.

If Maslow’s level 2 = safety needs – needs that express a yearning for a predictable orderly world in which perceived unfairness and inconsistency are under control, the familiar frequent and the unfamiliar rare.
Then Service level 2 = commitment and consistency – This is about doing what you say you do (no brand promise:reality gap) and doing it consistently.

If Maslow’s level 3 = love and belonging — emotionally based relationships – friendship, intimacy, family
Then Service level 3 = personal and personable service – Calling people by name, showing appreciation for their patronage, attending to their personal needs are some examples.

If Maslow’s level 4 = esteem – needing to be accepted and valued by others
Then Service level 4 = making customers feel accepted and valued – By rewarding high value customers, offering ways to connect with others in the brand community, and being transparent, companies deliver this service level.

If Maslow’s level 5 = self-actualization – needs to realize a person’s full potential — to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming
Then Service level 5 = helping people feel good about who they are
This last area is a little of a stretch but I do think this is where the right kind of service can make the most difference. This is about making people feel smart rather than stupid because they had to ask for help; helping them feel like they’ve made a good choice by supporting their purchase decision with added-value services; making them feel like they’re important, not only to you, but to others in their lives or in the brand community.

With Maslow’s theory as a model, the Service Hierarchy explains why a company can’t expect to truly fulfill its customers’ service needs if it skips over the fundamentals at the bottom of the hierarchy and only focuses at the top – e.g., giving me a special “thank-you” gift is pretty meaningless if my order was incorrect in the first place.

Resolving Problems – The Hierarchy

This is particularly true when it comes to resolving problems, which was the topic of the Conference Board’s HBR article. Their findings make a lot of sense when viewed through the lens of the Service Hierarchy: you can’t compensate for the lack of basic service resolution by “wow-ing” the customer.

So in regards to resolving problems, I’d suggest the Service Hierarchy looks something like this:

Level 1 (basic delivery) – delivering a sincere “I’m sorry” (yes, that’s a basic) and a quick and easy resolution to the problem

Level 2 (commitment and consistency) – honoring the promises you made (e.g., “satisfaction guaranteed or your money back” means just that – it doesn’t mean your money back less a service fee, nor only if you jump through hoops, nor let me try to fix it first.)

Level 3 (personal and personable service) – tailoring the problem resolution and the way in which it’s executed to the customer and what’s convenient to him/her

Level 4 (making customers feel accepted and valued) – showing your regret for the problem by doing something extra

Level 5 (helping people feel good about who they are) — demonstrating your appreciation for them bringing the problem to your attention and your commitment to addressing that which caused the problem in the first place

Levels 4 and 5 are truly satisfying and fulfilling to customers when Levels 1 through 3 are being delivered. The reason why Zappos can concern itself with making a personal emotional connection when people contact their serve reps is because they’ve got the basics down – they offer free and easy returns, and they pay the shipping costs. The basics may not be exciting, but they’re the basics nonetheless – so companies should deliver on them brilliantly before moving on.

An understanding of the Service Hierarchy is important now more than ever. According to the aforementioned American Express study, a majority of Americans report that quality customer service is more important to them in today’s economic environment (61%).

Or to quote Maslow: “Man is a perpetually wanting animal.
Images via Shutterstock

  1. Paul Ward says

    This is the generally correct approach, but I would take two exceptions.

    1. The company should not have a “theory about consumer psychology.” Companies are not in the business of inventing such theories. They should STUDY theories and choose frameworks from such theories that are actionable within the competitive, customer, and corporate environment – essentially activating theories in the context of Porter, customer-defined value, and resource-based strategy.

    2. Maslow is old news. First, his hierarchy of needs was just a good start, but thousands of studies have supplanted it. Second, the hierarchy of “needs” (what I prefer to call “hierarchy of values”) varies from culture to culture. For example, different cultures want companies to respond to service failures in different ways, depending on how they define “justice”.

    I think Ms. Yohn has done a TREMENDOUS service, however, by essentially making the point that a core competence of companies is to make strategic decisions with operational consequences using customer psychology as a key input. The implication is that a closed-loop management system will force the company to be, in effect, “emotionally intelligent”. Or, more accurately, authentic and psychometrically organized. Or, to put it in more human terms, real and responsive.

    The next level ought to be “branded and differentiated”, of course. I agree with Ms. Yohn that the “wow” factor is overrated. You can “wow” a customer on a regular basis and succeed only in changing the customer’s baseline assessment standard. And succeed at the same time in setting the same standard that competitors use. The key to a sustainable application of customer insight and psychology at all touchpoints? Design the touchpoints so they deliver great experiences that are defensibly on-brand.

  2. denise lee yohn says

    thanks, paul, for the reactions and insights! your point about the hierarchy of needs (or values) varies from culture to culture is really important — as companies try to deliver customer service at the various levels of the hierarchy, they need to understand the cultural variances e.g., how you “make customers feel accepted and valued” would be very different in the heartland of America from how you would in more urban ethnic areas or in different countries.

  3. Silvio says

    excelente articulo..!

  4. Darren Gunton says

    Coming from retail marketing, I agree with the above article and discussion, but I would take it one step further.

    The terminology I use is slightly different. I term “customer service”, the basic “services” that are delivered, and agree that this needs to be delivered exceptionally and a prime concern.

    However, I use the terminology “customer care” for what Ms. Salgado “hospitality”. Interestingly, I conducted a recent customer survey and found “friendliness” the most important satisfaction attribute in our retail store group.

    I believe there is a third area that needs to be addressed, “customer entertainment”. Whilst this may not be applicable to all business, in retail and hospitality, entertaining customers is a great way to enhance the customer experience and drive sales. A great example of this is the “fish” philosophy that is modeled on “Pikes Place Co.” at the Seattle Fish Markets. See

  5. denise lee yohn says

    darren — thanks for the comment — entertainment is definitely a critical factor, particularly in this post-recessionary environment where people are even more likely to value experiences!

    paul — thanks to you as well — i left a comment in response here yesterday but i see it didn’t post, so here is what i said: your point about the hierarchy of needs/values varying culture to culture is so important — what would be viewed as “making customers feel accepted and valued” in the heartland of america might be very different from what would be appropriate in more urban ethnic areas and even different countries.

  6. Susan Weinschenk says

    Great job thinking creatively and matching Maslow to customer service. I love the idea. For the last one, self-actualization, do you think the service level might also be helping the customer be the best they can be? Reach even higher than what they thought their goals were?

  7. Linda Yelvington says

    I used Maslow’s hierarchy in Customer Service seminars for the tourism industry in the 80’s. About time it caught on.

  8. Simon says

    I think this article is spot on. I’d never before connected Maslow’s hierarchy with meeting / exceeding customer needs in this context, but as you so eloquently show, it fits extremely well.

    You say that level 5 is a bit of a stretch, but it reminds me of something I learnt years ago at a focus group. Having reached the point in the proceedings where the identity of the vendor had been revealed to the subjects, we probed their feelings on which needs might not have been adequately satisfied. Interestingly, many long-standing customers complained that low brand awareness (of the vendor and products) was still an issue for them. This was a surprise for me at the time, since I had only ever considered brand awareness to help with acquisition of new customers. After further investigation, what emerged was that the subjects (IT Managers/Directors) had invested a certain amount of their professional reputation in their purchase decision and our lack of brand awareness made it harder for them to sell this great decision to their executives.
    My lesson was that, in addition to solving its customers’ needs, a vendor can also help advance the professional standing and career of its chief advocates. I now realise that this revelation fits exactly with your level 5.

  9. Paul Ward says

    Keep in mind that the way people actually behave – and cognitively/affectively/conatively interact with the world – in many cases is counterintuitive and contrary to Maslow.

    This does not mean that a “hierarchy of values” does not exist. It just means that following Maslow may lead you into a mess where:

    1. You respond incorrectly
    2. You design incorrectly
    3. You globalize/internationalize disastrously.



  10. denise lee yohn says

    susan — i do think you’re on to something — i love road runner sports, a store at which they fit you for the perfect running shoe for you — through this level of personal service, they actually enable me to be a better runner — and set (and sometimes achieve) greater goals!

    simon — thanks for your comment — really interesting level 5 dynamic — i hope b2b leaders are paying attention because they often think that emotion and higher order needs and values only matter in b2c — your example proves otherwise.

  11. Michelle Eder says

    Thanks for the excellent article.
    For many years in the aviation Industry i adopted the Maslow Theory
    in the Customer Care training.

    People needs don’t really change and the Maslow Theory is current more than ever.

  12. Tim Choong says

    Great article. Well written. Thanks, Denise.


  13. Keith Landsborough says

    enjoyable article – but I have to say that Maslow shouldn’t be playing a part in this article, blog, or serious discussion. Tme to kill him off. I hate Maslow’s drivel – there’s just no evidence, pretty shocking really in 2010 (this should have been picked up years ago, there’s a lot out there now highlighting this nonsense – one recent interesting blog post is

    Be wary of any theory with someone’s name attached – especially if they’re alive! Way too many do it for the ‘fame’ – they’re just charlatons.

  14. denise lee yohn says

    hi kevin — i think we’ll have to agree to disagree on usefulness of maslow (and other eponymous theories!) but i appreciate your comment nonetheless. denise

  15. Roger Dooley says

    Speaking of eponymous theories, we should make this the Yohn Hierarchy. Posthumously, of course. 😉

  16. Paul Ward says

    Keith is right that Maslow has been supplanted. However, I would not throw out any framework just because it has a name attached to it. Halley’s Comet is called that because he predicted the comet would return on a certain date at a certain time. Without his name on it, the theory is equally valid, but we’d be calling it, “Uh, that comet thing that comes around every seventy five years or so.” 🙂

    Porter’s Five Forces: another example. Porter’s point of view is not “outdated”, but it is one filter on examining the dynamics of markets, sectors, and competition. Useful, not enough. Probably right most of the time – but again, not enough. (For example, it doesn’t really have any room in its classic presentation for crowdsourcing or customer psychology as a driver of value.)

    We always have to take these things with a grain of salt, and test, test, test.

  17. Keith Landsborough says

    Good thread developing.

    I think my issue (esp. being a scientist at heart) is the lack of empirical evidence, and that even Maslow saw it as some philosophical musing; why not read Maslow’s own journal (from 1962):

    ‘My motivation theory was published 20 years ago, and in all that time nobody repeated it, or tested it, or really analyzed it or criticized it. They just used it, swallowed it whole with only the most minor modifications’.

    There’s a lot of mumbo jumbo I’ve seen over the years being in the learning business, and there are just so many theories and ideas that have gained traction as fact (often scientic fact) that have no real substance. A lot of the time it’s not even the person credited with a theory that’s twisted it and led to it being abused. One case in point being poor old Albert Mehrabian who actually came up with data on one idea and had it twisted to mean something else – thanks to being alive he now speaks out about how misinterpreted this is.

    Have a look here:

    I could cite a lot of these things but there’s just too many – my advice is to treat all things like this with a healthy pinch (not just a grain @Paul) of salt.

    Anyhow, keep up the great blog – it’s one of the best I know.

  18. Paul Ward says

    Thanks, Keith! Great stuff. Keeping the salt shaker handy.

    Some of the research relevant to the discussion might include:

    Sproles & Kendall, Consumer Style Inventory (varies across cultures, see follow-on research regarding Germany, Korea, and China)

    Research by Steven Reiss, of OSU, on fundamental desires and values (which I think is flawed as it omits storytelling as a way of creating value from non-desirable aspects of our lives – see logotherapy).

    N.T. Feather, et al., Values, expectations, and the prediction of social action: An expectancy-valence analysis.

    M.A. Morganosky, et al., Complaint Behavior: Analysis by Demographics, Lifestyle, and Consumer Values

    M.E.W. Varnum, et al., The Origin of Cultural Differences in Cognition: The Social Orientation Hypothesis

    Shalom Schwartz, et al., Value Hierarchies Across Cultures: Taking a Similarities Perspective

    Pamela Odih, The Women’s Market: Marketing Fact or Apparition?

    Daniora Grundey, Delineating values, emotions, and motives in consumer behavior: An interdisciplinary approach. Another nice compendium of research.

    Cathal Brugha, Trust and Commitment in Relationship marketing: The Perspective from Decision Science. Nice analysis of how market research is flawed, where her key assertion is that factors showing some level of independence in statistical analysis are imputed to be “dimensions” (which in math are absolutely independent). The article is probably not sufficiently independent for our work, but it does reference Maslow and Jung’s personality types (which later evolved into Myers-Brigg).

  19. denise lee yohn says

    paul — you are a font of knowledge on the subject — i nominate you for a follow-up guest post! thanks to you and keith for the healthy dialogue — i enjoy hearing your perspectives! denise

  20. Paul Ward says

    Hey, Denise, thanks! I just posted something on my own blog that summarizes a bit of the conversation here, just to make sure I keep the references list available. That’s only about 1/3 of the research I have on the topic handy on my computer – if you’re interested, don’t ever hesitate to ping me.

  21. Verilliance says

    How did I miss this post? Oh yeah, I was moving.

    Late to the party but I think this is an excellent theory.

  22. Rick Falls says

    Hi Denise,

    The interesting thing about Maslow is that the theory applies to both parties. The person giving a service and the receiver. We need to meet people where they are.

    Having an internet marketing background where pitch is strong but delivery is often weak, I transitioned over to using what I know and continue to learn to help real businesses (those with a physical location) get better customer attraction and retention results.

    Initially I was responding to help requests from friends and people who knew I had knowledge of the internet, but looking back at my path it may have also been an attempt to salvage the time and effort that I had invested in learning the systems that “are” useful, by offering them to local businesses.

    By applying the things I knew to the types of smaller local businesses who needed help I’ve managed to secure more of the levels of the triangle for me (which is cool) as I guide businesses through the process of solidify their Maslow levels.

    The difficulty that I often see is getting the actions lined up with ones current position in the levels. Often we try and operate from a higher place than we are and it leads to frustration due to the lack of foundation.

    Thanks Denise for an unexpected illustration of using a familiar tool to help and empower others.

    It’s all about meeting needs where they are, isn’t it?

  23. denise lee yohn says

    yes, rick! “We need to meet people where they are.”

  24. […]  Maslow, Emotion and a Hierarchy of Service – a guest post on Roger Dooley’s fantastic Neuromarketing blog about the Maslow-like […]

  25. John says

    Hello Denise,

    i have just come across this paper as a result of the work i have been doing regarding customer experience, specifically wrapping an integrated operations story around a companies customer touch points. Very interested to see how much further you have taken this concept as i believe it is the route to overall improvement.

    many thanks john morris

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