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The Emotional State-Transition Diagram

~ David Straker ~


What happens when a customer calls direct into your organisation? They might get through to you, or have their call redirected through an operator or perhaps drop into voicemail where they can leave you a message. Or perhaps they may go through an automated system where they can press various buttons for other assorted options, such as recorded messages about your products.
If you are interested in improving your customer satisfaction, then you might want to understand exactly what is happening. A classic tool for doing this comes from the realms of computer programming, and is called the State-Transition Diagram. Let's look at how this impressively-named, simple, yet useful diagram works.
Like many diagramming methods, it is based on boxes and arrows, with specific meanings given to each. In the State-Transition Diagram, boxes represent stable states and arrows represent the routes that can be taken in transitioning from one state to another. The transition that is taken depends on a defined event, such as someone picking up the phone or the customer pressing a specific button. The diagram, if reasonably well done is self-explanatory (See Fig.1).

Fig. 1. Customer State-Transition Diagram

This will let you track what the customer might have done and find missing states, such as what happens if someone else picks up the phone and they then want to allow the caller to leave a message. But what is happening in the customer's head? If we add this detail, we start to see a different picture. Figure 2 shows some of the thinking about the system that could be going through the customer's mind.

Fig. 2. Self-talk in State-Transition

Beyond this, we can use the State-Transition Diagram to map out the customer's mental states and how triggers in the conversation can lead to their changing states from positive to negative and back again. For example if we explore just the box where they are talking to the operator, it could look something like Figure 3.

Fig. 3. Emotional State-Transition

A skilful operator will manage the tonality and languaging, empathising and otherwise pacing and leading the customer to create and maintain a state of confidence that the customer's problem will be resolved. On the other hand, a single slip can send the customer into a state of irritation, anger or betrayal.
A key in this is in the identification of the triggers that cause transition from one state to another, both in general cases and in specific customer personalities. People who spend much time in a state will have many doors into that state, each with well-oiled hinges. Those who are quick to anger may have it as a large and deep state with wide sloping corridors leading down to it from surrounding states. This could be portrayed as in Figure 4, with major routes and states enlarged to show their primacy.


Fig. 4. Emotional State-Transition with emphasised common states and transitions

In a business situation, this can be used to help highlight special cases and critical risk points, so that contingency processes such as specialist defusing and customer recovery actions can be introduced to trigger the customers back into a calmer, more co-operative state.

In a therapeutic situation, the State-Transition Diagram can be used with clients to help identify their mental states, the things that trigger them into (and out of) the states, how frequently they fall into the state and by which major routes. For example, the following conversation could take place (C=Client, T=Therapist):

C: I keep getting upset about things.
T: Shall we draw a picture of this? (with discussion/assent, draws box containing 'upset' in middle of page).
T: Think of a time you were upset, how were you feeling before you got upset?
C: I was at a restaurant with my boyfriend and uncertain of which meal to choose.
T: (draws box with 'uncertain about choice' in it) and what happened next.
C: He got cross because I was …. etc.

The resultant diagram then might look like Figure 5, which could then be used to find common themes to work on, such as the way that it seems to be the actions of other people that are the identified triggers.



Fig. 5. Client emotion State-Transition

The physical diagram can be discussed and changed, an action which is implicitly meta-level in action as the states can be discussed from a higher objective level. Meta-states and self-talk, particularly if they occur at the time of the situation can also be added to the diagram, as in Figure 6.



Fig. 6. Adding Meta-states

State-Transition Diagrams, then, can be used either directly with clients or off-line for understanding the emotional as well as physical-logical states within a situation, how they transition to other states and consequently how the situation can be improved.

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