Customer relationships and the primacy and recency effect

Customer relationships and the primacy and recency effectThere is a concept in psychology called the serial position effect (also called the primacy and recency effect) that was first coined by Hermann Ebbinghaus. What the concept implies is that when people are asked to recall a list of items that are presented to them, they tend to be able to best recall those at the end of the list (the recency effect) and those at the beginning of the list (the primacy effect) better than those in the middle of the list.

If we apply this concept to our relationships we can see that this concept applies to our social interactions too. For example, think back to a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship that you had growing up. I would wager that you are most likely to remember the beginning of the relationship (butterflies in your stomach and the excitement of falling in love) and the end of the relationship (the break up, the arguments, the heartache).


Why does this work?

Well, it seems that the reasons that this works is that it is at those times that our emotions are at their height and most intense and that is why we remember the beginining and the end more readily.

Thinking about how this applies to the relationships with our customers can provide an insight to the quality of the relationships that we have with them.

For example, if my relationship with my customer has not started well or there is no excitement then there is a danger that that will be how it will be defined or remembered in the mind of my customer and it is very difficult to change that (first impressions and all that). Further, if it has been a while since you were in contact with your customer then this lack of communication or the quality of communication that you have with them could be the thing that sticks in their mind and makes them think you don’t care or don’t value their business (perceived indifference).

The lesson for me here is to be mindful of how we start relationships with our customers and also how we continue or maintain them. This could be the difference between customer loyalty, retention or not.

Are you thinking about the relationships that you have with your customers? Do you think the primacy or recency effect is having an impact on your customer retention?

28 comments On Customer relationships and the primacy and recency effect

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  • Great point and article Adrian.

    I just want to add a thought.
    When discussing the sales process we tend to focus on the beginning and the end of it. Getting in the door and getting the contract signed.

    The steps in between often get forgotten. Both by us and the customer, once the sales is made. But they are intricate parts of the process. But because of the primacy recency effect, we forget to talk about them.


    • Hi Daniel,
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.
      I think that you are right and what we need to remember as well is that all of our relationships are not made up of one big ‘U’ shape but lots of little ‘U’s’. This means that we are always faced with a serious of primacy and recency effects. Something to keep us on our toes!


  • RT @adrianswinscoe: Customer relationships and the primacy and recency effect

  • Great post. And agree that this is true. Also have noted this happening in interview process – both as myself being the interviewer and the interviewee.
    It is therefore best to either be first person interviewed or last person interviewed. We cannot always know our place in the interview line, however.
    As an interviewer, I was aware of this being possible to happen, so to be fair to all interviewees took careful notes of each – and if could not recall, did a follow-up refresher.
    In customer service – if I had a bad moment with a customer, I tried to recover as quickly as possible to wipe that moment away 🙂

    • Hi Darleen,
      That’s a great point you make about interviews and dealing with customers. I think this effect is something that can be useful in all areas and types of conversations that we have throughout our personal and business life.

      Thanks for commenting and adding a great dimension to the post,


  • Thanks for the insightful article Adrian. We see a lot of this in areas where businesses need to manage ongoing relationships with high value key accounts, especially in the B2B space. I am thinking of PR and marketing agencies, outsourcing companies, recruitment firms. All of these guys rely on major accounts as their big streams of revenue, but it’s hard to stay top of mind through the dip in your graph if you’ve not got active projects going on, especially with the more remote stakeholders.

    Our solution has been to create a very “light touch” mood indicator email that these companies can send very regularly to ascertain client satisfaction and feedback, without overly burdening their customers. It seems to carry them very nicely between the peaks at primacy and recency (and can also allow companies to effect a very rapid service recovery effort if anything does go wrong.) The perceived indifference issue is a huge one in B2B – it’s amazing what customers think if you don’t actively have an ongoing programme of communication.

    • Hi Sarah,
      That sounds like you have developed a great tool to manage the dips in communication, particularly for companies that are more project based.

      Thanks for your comment. I’ll head over to your site to check it out 🙂

      Best wishes,


  • Interesting article Adrian. I get a lot of my interim work via agencies. What never ceases to surprise me is that whenever I speak with them I generally get a call within 24-48 hours with an opportunity. I think this is a prime example of no matter how sophisticated your customer, they are more likely to remember you if you have regular contact even if it’s just keeping in touch and saying hello.

    The message here is to speak to your customers and prospects regularly but to not hawk your products. Instead you should have the objective of striking up a meaningful relationship with your customers and prospects.

    • Hi Matthew,
      Great example of how this works in real life.

      You are right that it is as simple as keeping in touch with a view to building a relationship with your prospect, customer, supplier etc. Technology can help us to do this and remind us when we should be calling but the focus is on catching up and the relationship not selling.

      Thanks for your comment and dropping by. You are spot on!


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