How emotion dictates decision-making, with Kyle M.K.



Kyle M.K. is the author of “The Economics of Emotion.” He believes that feelings dictate our every decision: what we eat, what we wear and, especially, what we consume. In this episode, he speaks with host Robin Trimingham about taking into consideration the aspects of emotion and just how much it impacts a customer’s likelihood of returning to a hotel.






Highlights from Today’s Episode

Episode Sponsors:

This episode was supported through the generosity of the following sponsors:

Groupe GM  (

For the last 50 years, Groupe GM, has been a leader in the luxury amenity industry. The Group proposes a 360 solution from manufacturing to distribution on cosmetics amenities and dry accessories.


Episode Transcript

Kyle: It really comes down to giving folks an opportunity to let go of their negative emotions. Someone may be sad. They may be staying at a hotel because they’re in town for the loss of a friend, or maybe they are in town for a business trip. And it’s an especially stressful trip in the hotel business. A majority of the work is really doing as much as you can to relieve that pressure. And then the nice cherry on top is what you can do to create a really great positive experience. But making it relieving I think is plenty enough for a majority of travelers.


Robin: Welcome to the Innovative Hotelier podcast by Hotels magazine with weekly thought provoking discussions with the world’s leading hotel and hospitality innovators. Welcome to the Innovative Hotelier Podcast brought to you by Hotels magazine. I’m your host, Robin Trimingham, and my guest today is attempting to change the way hoteliers pursue success. Instead of focusing on offering guests the best mattress or the fastest online reservation system. Kyle M.K., the best-selling author of The Economics of Emotion, believes that you should be focused on understanding your customers as people rather than regarding them simply as consumers of product. If you want to know how your brand can differentiate itself from the competitors in a way that’s sustainable and not capital-intensive, then this is going to be a great episode for you. Welcome, Kyle.


Kyle: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure being here.


Robin: Well, thank you very much for joining me today. You know, before we started chatting, I was talking about the fact that during the pandemic, I had the opportunity to work with somebody who’s really quite renowned in the field of emotional intelligence. And so when I learned about your work, I thought, oh, wouldn’t it be great to clue hoteliers into the amazing things that can be accomplished this way? But before we start chatting, I think we have to ask you to explain to everybody what’s your definition of emotional intelligence.


Kyle: I’m glad you asked, and I’m glad that you specified what’s my definition, Because I found that if you ask ten people about what it means to them, you get ten different answers. The way that I explain it is that how we understand emotions and how it affects us and our decision-making skills. And it also encompasses our role in recognizing emotion in others. And so that way we can help either provide relief for– end suffering in some form or fashion.


Robin: I think that it’s really insightful that you bring up the suffering aspect of all of this, because I used to tell people when I wasn’t happy with an experience, particularly something like a hotel, I would vote with my feet. In other words, I’d go out the door, I’d say, Wouldn’t say a word. I’m not a person who likes to cause a fuss. And I think there’s a lot of me out there, but we never, ever come back. So why do you maintain that? The number one untapped aspect of the hospitality market is what people feel when they participate in experience with your company and in this case, a hotel?


Kyle: Yeah, the reason why I’m so attached to emotion and how they work is because I think just on a basic level, human beings like to be around things that make us feel good and we don’t like to be around things that don’t make us feel good. And so the more that we design our experiences and our services around creating more positive environment or subtracting some negative emotions, then I think the more people will want to be around you.


Robin: Now, I’m going to ask you to take that one step further, because I have worked with brands that talked about the importance of creating an authentic experience, but there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what is authentic, because one person might say, Oh, well, you really need to fall all over the customer and make a really big fuss over them. But that might not necessarily be what the customer is seeking at all. Can you talk about that a little?


Kyle: Yeah, I think people, especially since the birth of the Internet, can kind of see through the, for lack of a better term, the BS of customer service. So they can tell if you’re trying to kill them with kindness. I always like to say if you ever try to kill someone with kindness, the only thing you’re really killing is the relationship there. Authenticity speaks to acknowledging any sort of pitfalls that you might have, whether it be in your experience or in your personnel or whatever it may be, and speaking to it directly. So that way those expectations are properly set because I’m a big proponent of setting the proper expectations before guiding someone through an experience and making sure that they are emotionally, physically prepared to go through this is the number one thing. And if you say that it’s going to be the most amazing experience, we have the best beds with the greatest spas and all that, and then people just find out that it’s just mediocre. That delta between what the expectation that you set and their true experience, that’s called disappointment, they’re going to be very disappointed that they were that it was talked up so much. So I agree. I think authenticity is definitely the key. But is it is often misunderstood.


Robin: Let’s talk about that. What one person wants to feel when they go into an experience. Can be completely different than what somebody else wants to feel. How in the world do you begin to crack the code on this? So I guess maybe more specifically to our conversation today, if you’re going to go about training staff and creating a company ethos around awareness of emotion, how do you teach that?


Kyle: Yeah. It’s like asking how do you teach people to write a book if they don’t know the alphabet yet? I personally subscribe to the teachings of a psychologist named Dr. Paul Ekman out of University of Southern California, and he is the one who’s behind the old television show Lie to Me, as well as he was the consulting psychologist of the movie, the Pixar movie Inside Out. And he believes that universally human beings have five core emotions joy, sadness, anger, fear and disgust. And so I like to start any conversation around emotional intelligence or becoming more emotionally intelligent by covering those five core emotions. So that way everyone knows, here’s what goes into sadness. Here’s what it looks like, not just on the face, but also on the body. Here’s how it affects decision making skills of others. And once folks recognize that, it’s hard to forget because it’s something that you kind of intrinsically know as a person, when you see someone frown, you intrinsically know that they must be sad, they must be suffering in some way. And you know what anger looks like and you know what joy looks like. It always is accompanied by a smile. So I think that’s always the first step. It’s just teaching folks about those core emotions. And honestly, it’s not too difficult. It’s just not something that we talk about very often.


Robin: I think that’s fascinating that you would be able to bring it down to the base level of five, because what I hear when you list them off is only one of those is a truly positive experience. So, yeah, I can see how it would be really important to understand that. So how do you had people down the path of isolating that joy experience, which is the positive one?


Kyle: Yeah, actually the way that I look at Joy, it’s not just an injection of positivity at all times, right? It’s also the subtraction of negativity. So you may not be trying to make someone happy by offering them a free snack or a coupon for a spa or whatever it may be. You may actually be providing relief from anger or frustration that they may feel. And so that’s kind of the piece is that when you think about travel just in general, especially post COVID, people are anxious. They get frustrated with traveling much more often than they did back in the day, especially with today’s airline industry. If you fly any time after noon, you’re most likely going to have a delayed flight. So when you receive a guest, they’re already wound up. And the thing is that if you just attack them with positivity and you’re like, Hi, how are you? Welcome. They may not react because that’s not what they need right now. They can’t focus on happiness until their frustration has subsided. And so doing what you can to relieve that pressure is actually more helpful in those situations than trying to inject positivity. But you’ve got to get them to that neutral zone, if you will, by removing that negativity first.


Robin: So just to make sure I’m understanding this correctly, if we thought of these people as being in an elevator, then what you would want to achieve then is helping the elevator raisee towards an upper floor as opposed to going down to a lower floor.


Kyle: Sure. Yeah. It really comes down to giving folks an opportunity to let go of their negative emotions. Someone may be sad. They may be staying at a hotel because they’re in town for the loss of a friend. Or maybe they are in town for a business trip and it’s an especially stressful trip. And so I would imagine that in the hotel business, a majority of the work is really doing as much as you can to relieve that pressure. And then the nice cherry on top is what you can do to create a really great positive experience. But making it relieving I think is plenty enough for a majority of travelers.


Robin: For the last 50 years, GroupeGM has been a leader in the luxury cosmetic amenities industry. The group proposes a 360 solution from manufacturing to distribution. With over 40 international brands in its worldwide distribution network, GroupeGM offers different shapes and sizes of eco friendly products in hotels all over the world. Discover more on


Robin: That’s an interesting point. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody express it that way. I know in your work you’ve talked a lot about eliciting an emotional response from the customer that makes your product, or in this case, a hotel infinitely more defensible than, for example, being 5% cheaper than the competition or having 5% better amenities. Can you talk to us about this concept and why that’s the case?


Kyle: Yeah. For this, I might pull on Apple because that’s a company that everybody is familiar with. Apple doesn’t have the cheapest products out there. Yet they are considered, at least in the marketing world, a cult brand, meaning that they engender a lot of loyalty, not just from customers, but also from employees. And the thing is that they could charge $3,000 for a phone or $300 for a phone. But what they’re really selling is a frictionless experience. And I think that’s what people are really going for, is they’re looking for a frictionless experience and they will find the money to have that experience. We see that with Disney as well, also considered a cult brand. They’re willing to pay a premium as long as you are removing the friction between them and their best time. So if you can focus more on that and rather than focus on the extrinsic motivation of here’s a few dollars here and there, that’s I think the mistake that a lot of businesses make is that they focus more on extrinsic value, giving discounts and all that. And by doing that, I think they discount their brand. The brand value really comes out of how people feel about you when they think about you. And if you focus all of your energy on creating a good experience, it doesn’t really matter how much you charge or how much you give away because people will, as you said at the beginning, vote with their feet. They’ll keep coming back because they want to continue to experience this wonderful space where they feel at home, even though they’re not. So I think that’s the piece there.


Robin: It’s interesting to talk about this in terms of the quality of the experience. So what we’re really talking about is the quality of the emotional experience. That’s quite a new concept, I think, for a lot of our listeners. So I imagine, though, that many of the hoteliers who are listening to this would say that they already have a goal of eliciting joy or a wonderful night’s sleep or a relaxing stay or something like that. But I suppose though, that the disconnect here is what the hotelier is intending isn’t necessarily translating into the same kind of experience, the same kind of feeling for the guest. So what kind of tips do you have on getting a real sense regarding how your guests are experiencing your hotel or your product?


Kyle: I think the short term quantification, I guess, of people’s emotions, you can do surveys. Lots of folks do surveys. A lot of them use net Promoter. How likely are you to recommend? However, I don’t think recommendations really show how people feel. It shows their likelihood to recommend, which I think is a different thing. So when you ask more pointed questions towards someone’s emotional experience, did you feel relaxed at the end of your stay with us or even assuming that you have ways to improve? Right. Nobody’s perfect. Then asking them, What could we have done to make your stay.


Robin: More–


Kyle: More relaxing or more joyous? Whatever it may be? And as you start to gather that data, you’ll start to see some big patterns, right? Like the check-in process is complicated. Or I was really hoping to get into my room sooner and they wouldn’t let me, you know? So I’m just stuck in a city that I don’t live in with my luggage. And even if they kept their luggage stuck in the city and I have to go walk around and figure out what to do and I have work to do. There’s a lot of things that you can do to help relieve some of that pressure, but it’s hard to tell on a macro level unless you’re starting to ask those more pointed questions about the emotional experience. But then long term, you’re looking for loyalty, you’re looking for returning customers, and they may be returning to that exact same location or they may be returning to another Emily Hotel or Marriott or whatever it may be in a different city.


Robin: So really, it’s about the quality of the questions that you’re asking in terms of coming to understand how your guest is really feeling. If that’s the case, then what I think you’re telling me is that it’s really worth the time to make sure that you’re asking very carefully crafted, insightful questions.


Kyle: Yeah, if you think about any time I’ve checked out of a hotel, or at least before, you know, it was kind of a touchless experience, when you would go to the desk, they would always ask, Did you enjoy your stay? It’d be a yes or no question. And like you, I don’t like to make waves. I’ll say yes even if it’s a no and I’ll walk away and I’ll never come back. So if you ask something that’s a little bit more open ended or a little bit more pointed towards an emotional response, I think you’ll get more authentic responses from these customers because that’s the thing is they’re looking for authenticity in you and you’re looking for authenticity in them because you want them to tell you the truth about what their experience was. So that way you can make it better or improve upon the already great experience that they’re already having.


Robin: To what extent do you feel that building trust is important to getting them to tell you the truth about how they’re feeling.


Kyle: Oh, that trust is the gold nugget, if you will. The core to all great loyalty and transparency in your experience– this is the authenticity piece, right? That’s really what builds trust. When guests feel like you’re holding back good service because maybe they’re frustrated or something and you’re like, Well, I don’t want to help you. You’re kind of being, you know, you’re being mean to me. Then they get more angry and it just adds and adds and adds. But whenever you’re transparent, I’d be like, I recognize that you’re very frustrated and I really want to help you. It’s just difficult to do. So when you’re yelling at me, people calm down like that. And that’s actually my favorite thing to do is talk to angry people, because that is, I think when people are most vulnerable and it’s so easy to make them more angry and it takes a lot of heart to reduce that anger.


Robin: Yeah, you have to actually care about them and the outcome of the discussion, I completely agree with you. So some of our listeners who might be a little bit skeptical about all of this because it’s new to them, they’re going to be I’m going to call it old school thinking where it’s much more fear-based prioritization. Oh, the competing hotel business, travel, hotel down the street just lowered their rates $20 a night. If we don’t match that, we’re going to be out of the game as an example. Why is this fear based decision-making so detrimental in the long run from your perspective?


Kyle: I think you hit the nail on the head by calling it old school. If you are unwilling to make change, you will be left behind. And a lot of folks are fearful of trying new things because it’s a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. But the thing is, if it isn’t broken now, eventually it will be. And hotels need to move at the speed of culture. And if you’re unwilling to move along with that, let’s say make your guest experience more tech-forward, for example, giving them the opportunity to walk straight to their door. That solves a lot of problems for a lot of people. And the hotels that are kind of a stick in the mud unwilling to do that, maybe they don’t even have the resources. And that’s a fair reason on why they couldn’t do certain things, but. People are creative and I think people are afraid to be creative if it hurts their pockets. But if you put people first and you put the experience of people first, the profit will come. It is a result of hard work and effort. It should not be the focus of your hard work and effort.


Robin: We’ve got a few minutes left here in the reading that I did about you. The expression that I came across that I loved the most was you were talking about the ultimate purpose of a successful enterprise being to nurture the human spirit. To what extent do you feel that’s true of the hotel industry, and why do you say that?


Kyle: I love that phrase, nurturing the human spirit, because Starbucks actually their mission statement is to nurture the human spirit, one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time. And one thing that I think most people can agree on is that the Starbucks experience is a consistent one. If you’re in New York Times versus a small town in Texas, any which store that mission statement drives everything that they do, including the employees. And it really shows. And I think if folks were a little bit more purpose-driven, if they had a North Star that everyone in the organization could point to and say, this is why I do what I do, you find that you’re going to have a lot more passionate people working for you because right now, let’s say if you have a mission statements, it’s like to be the best hotelier in the Tri-State area or something. That’s an extrinsic thing. Once you beat that, once you get that your job is done, your purpose is is no more. And the companies that spend a lot more time on focusing on the impact that their service has on the people that they serve, as well as the people who create the service, there’s a lot more passion in that.


Kyle: People get behind it much more quickly and with a lot more fervor. So having a purpose driven organization is truly the key to creating a brand that everybody would love. Because you have. I like to say that businesses often forget that they are nothing more than a community of people who’ve come together and work towards providing the common service to their community, whatever that community may mean. It could be a global community or a local one. That is what a business is. It’s just a community of people who are working together to provide the same experience. But if none of those people in your community can point to why they’re doing what they’re doing, and especially if they can’t connect it to their own intrinsic values and what their own goals are in their own life, then you’re not going to have a very passionate group of people who are willing to bend over backwards and put their all into it. They’re not going to be doing their best work right? They’re just going to be skating by waiting for their next opportunity, one that maybe they feel more connected to. So that’s why I think purpose is the most important thing.


Robin: I think that’s an excellent place to leave it. I’m going to ask you one final question here. Can you give us one piece of advice that hoteliers can start and accomplish basically today that would help them improve their brand and the way their customers are feeling?


Kyle: This is my favorite question. Yes. Listen to your people. That is the most important thing that you can do for your brand, for your bottom line. Anything that is connected to your organization starts with the people who represent you. And if you’re not listening to them on a regular basis and getting to understand what the true experience is, because there’s a designed experience and then there’s a true experience. If you don’t really understand what the true experience is, not just of an employee but also of a guest through the employees eyes, and you have no leg to stand on. So start with your people. I like to talk about or suggest doing like stay interviews rather than exit interviews, talk to people before they decide that they’re going to leave and ask them what they need in order to do their best work and give them an hour. And they will fill that hour. They’ll tell you everything that they think that they need in order to do their best work. And they’ll talk about the guest experience. We’ll talk about their experience. But either way, you’ve got lots and lots of information there to start off with.


Robin: Thank you. Kyle, this has been a fascinating conversation. I hope that our listeners have gotten a tremendous amount out of this. You’ve been listening to the Innovative Hotelier podcast brought to you by Hotels magazine. Join us again soon for more up to the minute insights and information specifically for the hotel and hospitality industry.


You’ve been listening to the Innovative Hotelier podcast brought to you by Hotels magazine. Join us again soon for more up-to-the-minute insights and information specifically for the hotel and hospitality industry. You’ve been listening to the Innovative Hoteliers podcast by Hotels Magazine. Join us again soon for more conversations with hospitality industry thought leaders.

Subscribe to get notifications of new episodes.