The AI train is barreling down the tracks, scaring us, exciting us, and making a heck of a din. It can write poems, detect climate-changing weather patterns, and quasi-translate whale songs. Pew has predicted that nearly one in five U.S. workers is in a job highly likely to be transformed by AI. It is a game-changer.
But AI is not the most powerful force in business — not by a long shot. When it comes to speedily generating patterns, AI is unparalleled. When it comes to driving the behaviors of customers and employees, AI is barren. And always will be.
I’ve spent my career studying excellence, beginning, back in 1990, with a Gallup study of the very best housekeepers in Walt Disney World. I’ve looked to uncover what the world’s best managers, leaders, teachers, and salespeople have in common, and I’ve researched what drives the most engaged teams and the most loyal customers. Throughout thousands of these qualitative focus groups and interviews, there’s been one force that most powerfully drives customer and employee behavior.
This force is love.
We shy away from this word, relying instead on more corporately palatable phrases, such as “employee engagement” or “customer loyalty.” We feel quite comfortable talking about a “caring culture” or “passionate service” or “customer satisfaction.” But we steer clear of love.
Today, with much of the corporate world besotted and distracted by the promise of AI, is the right time to examine love, that most human of all feelings.
At some point in my conversations with hundreds of thousands of high performers, they all talk about specific moments or activities in their work that they love. They don’t say “like” or “enjoy.” They say “love.” And when they say “love,” it means they want to keep coming back to this activity and seek out opportunities to do more of it. When they’re doing this activity they love, they work more fluidly and feel less stress. My research has shown that workers who find the love in what they do are much more likely to stay in their job and to advocate their company as a great place.
The same applies to customers. I know a film studio executive who says that when he’s screen-testing his latest movie, what he’s listening for isn’t “I really enjoyed that” or “I thought it was great.” He pays attention only to how many times he hears someone spontaneously say, “I loved it!” Because only then can he be sure that this person will tell others to go see the movie — and even go back themselves to see it multiple times.
This is true for all customers of all products. It’s only when you’ve managed to do something so compelling, so profound, so genuine, so moving that the customer says, “I loved this experience!” that you’re able to predict their subsequent behavior. In direct contrast, “liking” or “really enjoying” or being “satisfied” tells us virtually nothing about a person’s future behavior.
Love by the Numbers
We can see this quantitatively, in the data. Ask customers or employees or moviegoers to rate some aspect of their experience on a scale of 1–5, with 5 being extremely positive. The conventional wisdom is that these feelings drive people’s behaviors, such as loyalty, advocacy, and spend for customers, or productivity, quality, and retention for employees.
Conventional wisdom also suggests that experiences rated as a 3 drive slightly less of these desired behaviors than the 4’s, who, in turn, drive slightly less than the 5’s. It’s this kind of thinking that leads us to lump 4’s with 5’s into a “top-two box” rating, or a “percent favorable” score, and then to focus our team on trying to move as many people as possible into this category — in effect, to move the 2’s to 3’s, and the 3’s into the 4/5 category.
Unfortunately, this thinking is not backed by the data. Moving 2’s to 3’s and 3’s to 4’s drives very little in terms of desired customer or employee behaviors — the line from 2’s to 3’s to 4’s might as well be flat.
It’s only when employees or customers rate their experience as an extreme positive — the 5’s — that we see a link between people’s feelings about an experience and their subsequent behaviors. In this sense, 4’s are far more like 3’s than they are like 5’s.
Two implications follow from this data. First, no effective leader should ever “top-two box” employee or customer survey scores. This is lumping apples with oranges, thereby obscuring the picture of what’s truly happening with your employees or customers.
It also means that the 5’s — those people who rated their experience extremely positively — are not just one step up from the 4’s. They are something else entirely. When someone spontaneously uses the word “love” to describe their experience, this isn’t just “lots and lots of liking,” or “caring turned up to 11,” or “uber passion.” The feeling that causes someone to say “I love that” is simply in a different category altogether.
And so, leaders who want to drive productive behaviors in their employees and customers must deeply examine this “love” category. Only by taking “love” seriously as a separate and distinct experience will leaders be able to define what happens to make people feel it. And once they define it, they will be able to deliberately design it into every single aspect of the employee and customer experience.
What Makes a Person Say, “I Loved That!”
Over the last quarter-century, I’ve conducted hundreds of thousands of interviews and surveys on the 5’s. If you were to ask me today: What do people truly mean when they report that they “love” something? I would offer you this definition:
Love is the deep and unwavering commitment to the flourishing of a human.
This is a profound feeling, yet you can find it in people’s description of even seemingly superficial experiences. When you say, “I loved that movie!” your use of the word “love” isn’t a careless exaggeration for something you found entertaining. My interviews have shown you choose the word “love” because something about the movie moved you such that you felt bigger, more connected to others, more you, more seen, even wiser. You loved it because it touched you. In some recognizable way, the movie helped you flourish.
When you say you “love” doing a certain activity, my research has found you commit to this word because when you’re doing the activity, you feel at one with yourself, at ease, in control, deeply absorbed in what you’re doing. You are flourishing.
When you say you love this teacher, or this doctor, or this team, or this manager, it’s because, through explicit and implicit signals, you’ve drawn the conclusion that they are deeply and unwaveringly committed to helping you flourish. They don’t see you as “head count.” They see you. When you feel this, you feel love. And you call it as you feel it.
This definition reveals why AI solutions will always be unloving. Regardless of how much data they crunch, or how large their large language models are, we know that this algorithm doesn’t genuinely want us to flourish. It doesn’t even know what flourishing is. It never can and never will.
How to Design Love In
In the age of AI, the very best talent will want to work for organizations that commit to being loving in all they do. This doesn’t mean these organizations will be soft or lackadaisical — tough love is still love. It means simply that the best talent will be acutely sensitive to whether the organization is doing things lovingly, rather than merely efficiently or cost-effectively.
In the same way, the most discerning customers will become loyal to only those companies that have intentionally designed love into every touchpoint.
To design love in, we can start by drawing a keen and clear distinction between what “loving” and “unloving” looks like. Note: In the examples below, I’m singling out specific touchpoints to help you distinguish loving from unloving. My referring to these touchpoints does not necessarily imply that the entire company is loving or unloving. A loving company is built one touchpoint at a time.
The loving company tells its employees and customers what it stands for and is not afraid to take action to reinforce its moral stance. Chick-Fil-A refusing to open on Sundays is a clear signal of its values — it wants its workers to be home with their families in their community for at least one day a week for no good business reason other than they think it’s the right thing to do.
Another example is In-n-Out Burger’s commitment to only serving the freshest food to its customers. When I asked company executives a few years back why they don’t serve breakfast, they told me that they knew they couldn’t keep their ingredients fresh enough to meet their promise to their customers. So, no breakfast. This commitment to freshness is also why In-n-Out Burger’s drive-thru windows open up right into the kitchen. Customers can see the shelves of fresh potatoes, tomatoes, and lettuce, as compared to other fast-food restaurants that hide how the “sausage” is made. The company has designed their customer offerings and experience in a loving way that shows its commitment to its values and its customers’ flourishing.
The unloving company, by contrast, is amoral and transactional, always and only assessing how to maximize profits or revenue. For example, Delta’s recent changes to its frequent flyer program are unloving. Delta used to reward its most loyal customers with cheaper tickets and upgrades. Under its new rules, a passenger’s standing with Delta depends less on how often they fly and more on how much they spend on Delta’s credit card — it’s now a frequent spender program. This change makes sense in a purely transactional world. But it confuses who Delta is for its passengers, leaving them disoriented — which is an unloving thing to do to those you serve. Perhaps sensing this, Delta’s CEO recently announced plans to roll back some of these changes.
The loving company is thoughtful about its language. For example, Home Depot calls its headquarters its “Store Support Center” to reinforce its commitment to the locations where customers are served every day. Capital One agents introduce themselves with their name, their actual location, and a promise that “I’ll be your advisor today.” In so doing, they not only personalize themselves to you, the customer, but they also remind you of how they intend to serve you on the call.
Contrast this with those companies that refer to their employees by the transactional moniker “Full Time Equivalents” or FTEs.
The loving company designs its work around small teams, since humans thrive only when they are paid attention to frequently by their team leader and team members.
The unloving company designs work around what makes sense on a balance sheet. Call centers with manager-to-direct report ratios of 1 to 70 are unloving. As are, sadly and ironically, hospitals. As the CHRO of a large health care system shared with me, their nurse supervisor to nurse ratio is also 1 to 70. With those ratios, it’s little wonder that we have such a burnout crisis and a nursing shortage. It’s almost as if hospitals have turned a blind eye to what their nurses need to feel nourished at work.
The loving company has a strong alumni program. After all, if to treat your people lovingly is to have an unwavering commitment to their flourishing, it follows that this commitment persists even after the person leaves. The unloving company sees each person as merely a means to an end, and so, once an employee leaves, it’s as though they never existed. Their names are rarely brought up in meetings, and their contributions, whatever they may have been, are quickly subsumed beneath the broader company’s efforts.
The loving company doesn’t use performance ratings, because they see each employee as so much more than a number. Nor do they have a high-potential program, because they believe every single worker has room to learn and grow, and that, as such, opportunities and advantages should not be reserved for the precious few with “potential.”
The loving company is super attentive to transitions. For example, a recent loving move by a few forward-thinking hospitals is the creation of the hospitalist role. This is a doctor assigned to you when you’re admitted, and whose job is twofold: First to explain what every other medical specialist is doing to you and for you and why, and second, to explain your needs, fears, and routines to the specialists.
The unloving hospital is one where you’re handed off from one nurse to another, to a doctor, to a different doctor, to an administrator, and are tasked with having to explain yourself anew to each one. In the unloving hospital you feel reduced to merely your symptoms — you are the gallbladder in room 302.
. . .
Love is the force that most powerfully drives customer and employee behaviors — and strangely, businesses today don’t value it. They don’t study it. They don’t even have a strategy for unleashing it. What a miss for the conventional majority — and what a massive opportunity for the wise minority of business leaders who do.
Who doesn’t want to be recruited lovingly? Or checked into a hotel lovingly? Or offered financial services lovingly? Who wouldn’t want a loving meal out, a loving flying experience as a passenger, an insurance claim processed lovingly? We all would. And as the data show, we’d behave so much more productively if we were given a more loving set of experiences — employees show higher performance, customers show more loyalty, and both become advocates for your brand.
The AI locomotive is almost guaranteed to shunt love from our lives. AI can mimic at great scale, but it will never be committed to helping any one human flourish. AI can, we hope, be deployed efficiently and harmlessly. But since its stance toward us is amoral, it can never be deployed lovingly.