If you are reading this post, chances are that you spend a good part of your working life thinking about your customers’ needs, experiences and feelings about your product. The nexus of customers and your company’s offerings is the air that you breathe and the water you swim in.
So if talented and insightful entrepreneurs, executives, marketers and UX professionals like you spend hours each day pondering the relationship between your organization and consumers, and focusing on the customer experience, how do so many companies lose touch with their needs and demands?
The simplest answer is limited resources. But before you email this post to your CEO, let’s clarify that in this case, we’re not talking about funding. The resources that are in short supply are mental energy, focus and perspective.
It’s not you. It’s your heuristics.
In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman’s enlightening presentation of 40 years of ground-breaking research and brilliant insight into the human mind, the author describes the heuristics, or shortcuts, that virtually all people use in order to interpret the world and decide how to act. These heuristics an important role: Even the most brilliant and energetic person has very finite resources of mental energy. To protect us from mental overload, our brains allocate energy –intensive effort to tasks that require remembering, concentration, and speed.
To save mental energy, people gravitate to the least effortful way to accomplish a task. In order to free up cognitive resources for unfamiliar challenges, they depend on habit and heuristics to manage familiar issues.
While these heuristics allow us to act quickly and decisively in many situations, they also lead us to ignore or misinterpret evidence in ways that impair our judgment and the decisions we make. The heuristics, fallacies, biases and effects that Kahneman enumerates go a long way toward explaining why, despite our real dedication and efforts, we just can’t imagine ourselves into our customers’ heads.
The part of our brains that we think of as the conscious, reasoning self that makes deliberate choices (Kahneman’s System 2) is, in truth, remarkably lazy. Once it has expended the effort to work through an issue, it is happy to fall back on the same processes and approaches, time after time.
When starting to work with a product or service, most of us expend considerable effort thinking about its features and benefits, how it serves its customers and how it fits into the competitive landscape. By the sixth month mark, we have left that effort behind and primarily depend on what we already know. And when a customer communicates how he or she sees the product, we lazily fit that comment into what we already know, even if what we “know” is incompatible with the customer insight.
Your job requires you to market, promote and vouch for your product or service. You may have had a hand in designing or tweaking it. And you identify as a loyal and dedicated member of the product team. In fact, it’s likely that you identify with the product.
And then you hear from some customer that the dashboard is all wrong.
While the rational part of your brain knows that the dashboard is far from perfect and that there is definitely room for improvement, the more emotional and impulsive part of your brain feels positively possessive or even protective towards it , even though you were not really happy with it just yesterday.
Maintaining two conflicting thoughts – “My dashboard needs an overhaul” and “I’m proud of my great product” — at one time causes cognitive dissonance that requires significant mental energy to manage. In order to minimize the dissonance, people tend to avoid or ignore evidence that conflicts with a core belief. So you chalk up that customer comment to a bad day, and continue fine-tuning the dashboard.
Sunk costs fallacy
Another common mental shortcut is commonly described as throwing good money after bad. Again, if you had a hand in developing or even promoting a product, you have invested time, effort and perhaps your reputation in that product. If that product is worthless, your decisions were just plain wrong.
Human beings are all biased against admitting failure. As a result, despite what we hear from customers, we are likely to continue investing in fixes and tweaks to show that it was just one small thing that was wrong, but really, our basic approach was sound.
Across the board, living creatures respond more strongly to possible loss than they do to upside potential. Just like our animal ancestors, for whom a one second delay before fleeing a predator could mean certain death, we are hard-wired to react definitively to threats. No parallel mechanism for reacting to good news has ever been found.
Loss aversion has significant impact on our receptivity to customer feedback, particularly for products that perform relatively well. For most people, the risk of failure looms much larger than the potential for improvement and leads to a general preference to “leave well enough alone.”
Overcoming our lizard brains
With our heuristics against us, how can we make sure that we truly hear what our customers say and give their feedback the weight it deserves? Here are a few of our recommendations:
- Awareness is the first step. Understand your impulses to bury the bearers of bad news, along with their messages.
- Ask the new guy. Capture unbiased feedback from new employees before they become part of the group. Let them know that it is honesty you need. Don’t fire them when they give it to you.
- Disseminate feedback throughout the organization. Get rid of silos. Integrate a solution that disseminates customer feedback to people and departments up and down the organization so they all know what your customers say. You can’t fool all of the people all of the time, so make sure that all (or at least many) of the people see what customers really think.
- Watch for indications of repeated failure. If a customer indicates that this is not his first disappointment, you may be inadvertently burying evidence.
- Integrate feedback analytics. It is easy to dismiss individual customers as complainers and cranks. But having objective data that shows that 40% of your customers hate your payment page is much harder to ignore.
Finally, get out of the water! Research indicates that we are much more creative and productive if we vary activity. Take a vacation. Fight the urge to check your emails over the weekend. Read a novel. And come back refreshed and ready to truly hear what your customers say.