Customer incentives are a big part of any business, but the trick is to understand what people want rather than what they say they want

One of the major differences between airports and supermarkets is that if queues develop at security checkpoints airports do not do much about it, whereas supermarkets tend to open more tills. It is all about incentive and motivation.

Incentives play a big part in business. Three-for-two and bogof offers are as much a staple of the supermarket as bread and milk. Of course, knowing which incentives work best in any situation is the real key to success.

Imagine you are stopped in the street by a researcher and invited to answer five questions on general knowledge.

You are told there is a choice of reward for doing so but you must choose your preference before the questions are put to you. The choice is a free bar of chocolate or simply to learn the correct answers.

Like most people, you would probably plump for the chocolate.

After all, it has a real value, tastes nice, and seems like an appropriate reward. But, more importantly, without knowing the questions you have no idea how much you really want to know the answers.

In a recent study, the majority of people chose the chocolate when they were asked to choose the reward in advance.

But when they were given the choice again after hearing the questions a great many of them declined the chocolate bar and wanted to know the true answers.

They now had an interest in knowing the answers, and wanted to find out how well they had done.

Also, many had worked out that the frail octogenarian interviewer had a quota of respondents to get through and was highly unlikely to give chase if you snatched a bar or two from her frozen fingers and did a runner.

Or maybe that was just me.

To get the incentives right you have to understand what people really want rather than what they say they want. It also helps if you can control the whole customer experience.

Going back to the airports and supermarkets scenarios, if lines lengthen at security checkpoints, airports do not rush to open another one to alleviate congestion because there is no reward or incentive for doing that.

By contrast, most supermarkets open more tills if they get a whiff of a build-up in an aisle because their managers understand the need to keep customers happy.

In airports, it is all about keeping costs down and planes in the air. If that means keeping you waiting and enduring a miserable customer experience, then so be it.

Then again, you are probably going on holiday and they are not. Which is your incentive to put up with it.n

Philip Hesketh is a professional speaker on the psychology of persuasion and author of Life's A Game So Fix The Odds