Customers don’t do what they say


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Much of the thinking in the world of customer experience has been developed by asking customers or employee questions. Yet behavioural science from Kahneman to Cialdini to Thaler tells us that, for the most part our unconscious is in charge. But it seems many organisations ignore this science and overly rely on surveys and self-report research as their primary version of the truth about customers. Asking people the what’s and why’s about an experience does not bring an understanding of customer behaviour.

If we are to gain more useful insight into the whole experience we need a different approach, one that understands both the conscious and unconscious behaviour. We need to use science. Whether that be understanding biometric response to an experience, or using advance neurological devices to understand brain activity or using game theory to discover the behaviour of large numbers of people online. Surveys are not dead but they are certainly less useful than their overuse implies. By their nature they help to understand conscious reflection on an experience, which is valuable but it is only a fraction of the truth of the experience.

Last year we carried out research in the form of an online experiment to understand how people might invest money. We created an investment game where participants were able to invest £100 between three different investors. One over promised but under delivered (OPUD), one delivered what they promised (Match) and one under promised and over delivered (UPOD). The game lasted 10 rounds and at the end we asked participants about their investment choices – who they would be most comfortable investing with and who they trust the most. As you can see form the charts below customers were most comfortable investing in the under promise over deliver investor and this was the same for who they trusted. The charlatan of over promise under deliver did not perform well.

CX Lab investement game
Source : CX Lab
CX Lab investment game - trust
Source: CX Lab

But where did they actually invest their money…

Well, as we say customers don’t do what they say. In the chart below you can see that ‘under promise and over deliver’, which was the most trusted, attracted the least investment. Whilst people didn’t trust ‘over promise and under deliver’ it certainly attracted a fair share of investment, just a little less than ‘match’ expectations. Perhaps we need to consider this next time we try to delight customers and go beyond expectations.

CX Lab investment game - invested
Source: CX Lab

Of course, no-one ever got fired for doing a customer survey and most people feel confident in presenting to the business based on the results of a survey. Conventional customer research is also fairly cheap, although if it leads you down a path of activity that’s in the opposite direction to customers’ real behaviour, I’d argue it will cost you an awful lot more in the long run. What we’re championing here is the use of science – and by that I mean the scientific method – to provide solid, substantiated and objective evidence for the business decisions you take. Don’t rely on what customers say, but build insight on understanding both their conscious and unconscious behaviour. Observe them, film them, capture their physiological and neurological reaction to the experience and then ask them what they remember (no priming the response though). But do not rely on a survey to tell you the whole truth and nothing but the truth!

This base of deep insights provides the platform for customer experience design. Interventions can be created using behavioural science to influence both the conscious and unconscious behaviour of customers. Build your improvement or transformation based on proven scientific method and experimentation and you are much more likely to see a significant return on your investment.

Tim Wade
Tim is the founder of CX Lab, a customer experience consultancy using behavioural science rather than rhetoric to deliver results from customer and employee experience. Tim has lead the transformation of businesses across multiple sectors including hospitality, retail, telecoms, financial services, B2B, energy and technology. Previously a marketing leader Tim turned to the 'dark side' of consulting, a path that has taken him around the world consulting and speaking on marketing and customer experience.


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