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Motivation can be a mysterious thing. Why is it that sometimes we procrastinate tasks for as long as possible when other times we can’t wait to get started? Some days we put the “ease” in seize the day, while other days we can barely find the drive to get out of bed.

When we turn our attention to customers, understanding how motivation works becomes even more important. How can brands effectively encourage customers to take value driving actions? How can businesses fight the apathy that often accompanies purchase decisions? Human psychology just might have the answer.

expectancy theory motivate actions

You see, while customer motivation may sometimes confuse us, the subtleties of motivation are not lost on psychologists. Victor Vroom, a professor from the Yale School of Management, constructed a theory of motivation called the Expectancy Theory which has shaped the study of how individuals behave within organizations.

expectancy theory 3 components

I know what you’re thinking… How complex can motivation really be? Give customers rewards that they want and the rest is history. Interestingly enough, as the Expectancy Theory will teach us, desirable rewards are only part of the equation. Motivation is composed of three distinct components: Expectancy, Instrumentality, and Valence.  When these factors work together, motivation is a force to be reckoned with.

Expectancy: Make Customers Believe That They Can Achieve

The first component of motivation is actually what gives the Expectancy Theory its name: expectancy. At it’s core, expectancy is all about establishing a clear and causal relationship between effort and performance.

expectancy theory expectancy definition

Words like effort and performance are easy to understand in the context of a workplace but how do they apply to customers? Customer effort should be understood to mean any action that a customer takes in the process of interacting with your brand. This definition allows us to view things like trying to find your brand, attempting to register for an account, and even starting the purchase process as instances of customer effort.

Performance is what happens when a customer achieves the desired result of their applied effort. To use the previous examples, if effort is a customer trying to find your brand, performance would be actually finding it. If a customer put effort into starting the purchase process, performance would be a successful buy.

expectancy theory performance quote

Now that we understand effort and performance, we can examine how expectancy contributes to motivation. Expectancy assesses the strength of the tie between effort and performance. The clearer that link is, the more motivated an individual will be. This is because expectancy encourages individuals to put in the effort that leads to performance. When effort and performance are clearly connected we are inspired to increase our effort because we know it won’t be wasted.

To illustrate, think about a sales rep trying to close more deals. If there is a clear and causal link between their effort (the number of calls they make) and performance (the number of deals they close) then they will be motivated to increase their effort in order to drive performance. On the other hand, if effort and performance seem unrelated (ex. the sales rep doubles their calls but closes half as many deals) it’s easy to see how that experience would be demotivating.

expectancy theory strengthen expectancy

Businesses can strengthen expectancy by giving customers the skills, resources, and information needed to guide their effort and drive performance. Customers spend time and energy when interacting with brands but not all of this effort leads to success.

I’ve experienced the effect of expectancy in my own life when trying to make online purchases. Some commerce websites are such a maze that it actually felt like they were trying to prevent me from completing my purchase. These experiences demotivated me because the effort I was applying didn’t result in performance. On the other hand, when I shop with brands like Amazon who have implemented one click ordering I know that if I apply effort to make a purchase it will be rewarded immediately and consistently. This connection is one of the reasons I’m motivated to shop with Amazon so frequently.

expectancy theory amazon one click

A good place to examine expectancy in action is through a brand’s rewards program. If a customer wants to become a member of a brand’s rewards program, it’s up to the brand to make that process as seamless as possible. Brands that understand this are able to guide customer effort in a way that will achieve performance and boost motivation to actually engage with the program.

expectancy theory easy to find

Advertising the program prominently in store and on their site ensures that a customer’s search effort leads directly to successfully finding the program. Brands should also strive to offer support services in their rewards programs so that when a customer puts in the effort to reach out, someone is able to guide that effort to accomplishing their goals.

Instrumentality: Show Customers That When They Achieve, They Will Receive

The second component of the Expectancy Theory is instrumentality, which is concerned with the relationship between performance and outcomes. The stronger the correlation between these two, the more instrumentality will drive motivation.

expectancy theory instrumentality definition

We’ve already discussed what performance means in the context of customer motivation but what do we mean when we talk about outcomes? Outcomes are the events or results that a customer experiences at the end of a given interaction with a brand. Where customer effort starts an interaction, outcomes finish them. An example of an outcome would be a customer feeling satisfied after a purchase.

After expectancy, instrumentality is the logical “next step” in developing motivation. Expectancy is concerned with “can my efforts achieve performance”  but instrumentality focuses on what happens after that performance is achieved. For the example of a purchase decision, instrumentality asks the question “will completing this purchase lead to satisfaction”? The stronger the association, the stronger the customer’s motivation will be.

expectancy theory bridge effort

Returning to the earlier example of our sales rep, once they establish that their effort will in fact lead to increased performance (more calls = more deals) they may start to wonder what their performance will earn them. If the desired outcome is a promotion, then instrumentality is the likelihood that increased performance will lead to a promotion.

If the requirements for a promotion are clearly communicated and reps who meet these requirements are consistently promoted then the promotion system shows strong instrumentality because there is no doubt that performance is the path to the desired outcome. It’s not a stretch to see how a promotion system with strong instrumentality encourages employees to aim for high levels of performance.

expectancy theory perceived instrumentality

However, if the requirements for a promotion are unclear or promotions are handed out on an arbitrary basis, employees will quickly become demotivated. In these cases, doing all the right things has no real benefit because who knows if it will lead to a reward.

A brand’s rewards program provides an excellent illustration of the effects of instrumentality. Rewards programs are designed to motivate customers through rewards. However, this motivational effect is only as strong as the belief that completing purchases will actually lead to rewards. Brands can strengthen the instrumentality of their rewards programs through the effective design of their explainer page.

expectancy theory ritual earn

In the past we’ve discussed what goes into creating an awesome explainer page and even provided examples of some of our favorite pages, so we’ll focus on instrumentality here. A good explainer page makes it crystal clear that completing actions leads to earning rewards. As you can see above, Ritual Rewards opens their explainer page with the simple statement “Collect points. Earn free eats.” In just five words they’ve made customers a promise that boosts instrumentality and in turn, motivation.

expectancy theory ritual rewards earn and redeem

Another feature of a strong explainer page is, of course, the explanation of the program. A clear and detailed explanation lets customers know exactly when and how they will be able to earn rewards. Ritual Rewards’ page does this in excellent form by providing customers with the explicit point values at which rewards can be expected and even going as far as to provide an example of a typical customer journey to their first reward.

expectancy theory brand belief

There’s only one more piece to ensuring instrumentality and that is actually following through on your promises. If you say you’ll reward customers after a purchase make sure you do it. If a customer expects to be satisfied after engaging with your brand, then do everything in your power to make it happen. Customers have a long memory and nothing kills motivation faster than failing to deliver on a brand promise.

Valence: Give Customers the Rewards They Want

The last component of Expectancy Theory is valence and it is by far the simplest piece of the customer motivation puzzle. While expectancy and instrumentality work to establish a causal relationship between two variables, valence asks a much simpler question: how much does a customer value the outcome?


If a customer purchases a product to satisfy a particular need, valence assesses the degree to which that need is important to the customer. Some customer needs are naturally much stronger than others. At a restaurant, a hungry customer will experience high levels of valence from their meal while a customer who has eaten recently will perceive much lower levels.

Returning one last time to our sales rep, valence analyzes how much the rep actually wants a promotion. If a promotion comes with a significant increase in financial compensation and internal recognition, then the desirability of these results will drive motivation at each of the previous steps we’ve discussed.

expectancy theory habits rewards

That being said, if the promotion carries an increase in workload with no increase in compensation then the unattractiveness of the reward saps the motivation from the other steps in the chain. It doesn’t matter if the rep is confident that their effort will lead to performance and that performance will lead to the outcome. Without valence motivation dies because the reward isn’t worth pursuing in the first place.

Brands can create valent outcomes for their customers by listening to them. Investing resources in researching and understanding your customers is a key way to provide them with experiences they will value. Different customers want different things and if you’re not paying attention, your brand could end up offering customers something they’re just not interested in.

expectancy theory listen to customers

There is no better place to examine valence than inside a brand’s rewards program. Rewards by definition are intended to be valuable to the customers that receive them. Otherwise, the program is pointless.

Sephora does a great job of providing their customers with rewards that they adore, and the brand gets a return on that investment through loyal customers and engaged fans. As you can see below, Sephora customers don’t just love the brand’s rewards – they crave and celebrate them.

expectancy theory sephora need

These customers are driven by the rewards that matter to them and carry out many valuable behaviours as they work to earn them. These behaviors include repeat purchasing, referrals, social sharing, and many other profitable actions that create value for Sephora.

expectancy theory sephora renew

The moral of the story is simple: when a brand is able to combine the effects of expectancy and instrumentality for a reward their customers value, customer motivation is a home run.

Customer Motivation is Much More Than A Theory

When motivation is broken down into the sum of its parts it’s easy to see how each of the three components helps to encourage customers to take the actions that create value for a business. The most important lesson that Expectancy Theory can teach us however, is that motivation is only as strong as its weakest link.

expectancy theory 3 compontents conclusion

To motivate their customers, brands must ensure that the connections between effort and performance (expectancy) and performance and outcomes (instrumentality) are both clear and causal. They must also make sure that the outcomes are rewards that matter to their customers (valence). When a brand combines all three components of Expectancy Theory, the results can be tremendous.

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