For Smart Businesses, Understanding Habits is, Well, Habit-Forming

Author Charles Duhigg talks habits at the PR News Platinum PR Awards on Friday, Sept. 14.

We all have habits, some bad but mostly good, says Charles Duhigg, investigative reporter with The New York Times and author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (Random House, 2012). But what many people don’t realize is that based on neurological studies within the last decade, unwanted habits can be broken.

Duhigg’s keynote speech at the PR News Platinum PR Awards Luncheon on Friday, Sept. 14 in New York City offered insights on how habits affect people personally and within businesses—and how bad habits can be broken.

Duhigg’s interest in habits started while on assignment in Iraq, where he met a U.S. Army general who had stopped riots in an Iraqi town by removing kabob sellers out of the town plaza. “People would get hungry and go into the plazas to get food,” says Duhigg. “If there were no kabobs there they would go home and there would be no riots.”

Further investigation led Duhigg to a basic model for what causes habits: the cue (the trigger that makes habit happen); the routine (the behavior itself); and the reward (which drives the habits going forward).

Companies are spending millions of dollars on developing training structures around this model, says Duhigg, who offered Starbucks as one example. With a business model based on superior customer service, the company was finding that its mostly young employees were “blowing up” at customers late in their eight-hour shifts.

Starbucks developed a training curriculum cleverly called the LATTE method (listen, acknowledge, take action, thank the customer and explain why the problem occurred) that uses the principle of cue, routine and reward to help employees work through customer problems. “They are trained in how to respond to particular cues, like a screaming customer or a long line at the cash register,” says Duhigg. Rewards are a grateful customer or praise from a manager. This program has resulted in a dramatic increase in customer and employee satisfaction.

Both individuals and organizations can benefit from studying the cue, routine and reward loop. “To grow more good habits, you must know what triggers them and what rewards they are providing,” says Duhigg.

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