What People Say vs What They Really Think


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If you are like most organizations, you have done a lot of research on the rational side of your customer experience. You may use surveys so your customers can tell you what they would like you to do in the future. But a new study by Young and Rubicam (Y&R) shows that what people say they want and what they actually want are two very different things.

The Secrets and Lies study used a survey that asked consumers to rank their values in a list followed by an Implicit Association Test (IAT) that measured what they really value in another list. The study revealed that the two lists are quite different.

At Beyond Philosophy, we have long-believed that the emotional and subconscious parts of the experience are driving at least half of the decisions your customers make. But the thing about subconscious is that customers are not necessarily aware of it and thus won’t tell you about it in a typical survey.  It is, after all, subconscious.

In the Y&R study, researchers studied the responses of consumers in the US, China and Brazil. Most respondents in the US said that helping people was most important to them, but the truth was maintaining their safety was most important, followed closely by sexual satisfaction.  In both China and Brazil, however, sex took the subconscious top spot.

The implications of these findings for marketers are twofold. First, consumers can’t tell you exactly what they want in a survey, because they don’t know. The second is that it is absolutely essential that you incorporate the subconscious drivers of value in the design of your experience.

My Real World Examples

I like this study by Y&R because it is yet another confirmation of something we’ve been preaching for a long time here at Beyond Philosophy, but also because I can support it with real world stories of my experiences with clients. Here are two examples that I have encountered in my work recently:

Example #1: A Global Charge Card Organization

A part of a customer experience project we did for a Global Charge Card included conducting customer focus groups. I was in the room and at the beginning the customers of our client introduced themselves. Most of them have had their charge card for 15, 17 and even 20 years. Yet, when we asked them, what the client should improve on they said that they want the card to be accepted by more merchants across the globe. But the reality was that the card has never been more widely accepted then it is now. If this was the most important for them, why have they been customers for 20 years?!  We also conducted Emotional Signature® – a customer research that uses advanced statistics (Structural Equation Modelling) to model the various aspects of the customer experience the company provides, the emotions those evoke and their combined effect on the bottom line – i.e. likelihood to recommend to a friend, to renew their annual membership, share if wallet etc. We learned through that research that the real reason they had the card was the prestige they felt for having it. The problem was that prestigious feeling wasn’t as strong as it had once been. Occasionally a customer would slip a comment like “it used to be that I take my card out and say “I’ll take the dinner check, have you guys seen one of these” but now I take my card out and everyone else has one. In short, customers said they wanted the card accepted at more places, but what would really drive value for the company was to elevate again the feeling of prestige of having the card.

Example #2: A Middle East Telecom

The customers said “network coverage” and “network problem resolution” was most important. And this is what executives were used to hear. As a relatively new telecom (5 years since market launch), network coverage was something executives had been focusing on for years. However, five years down the line the network was already there. What we learned was that the customers really wanted the company to keep their promises. For example, if they say that they’d fix their issue or say that they’ll turn up at 4pm to install their TV, Broadband and phone that they should really do it.  Typically, in their first years in business, most companies focus on acquisition, getting to the market fast and worry about problems later. That had created a big back-log of complaints and issues and a less customer centric culture. The customers said “network coverage” because that was the easiest thing to say. After all without network the phone is useless. But things like “keeps its promises”, builds relationship etc. were not on top of customers mouth but nevertheless would provide the biggest return on investment.

Wal-Mart’s $1.85 Billion Mistake

Wal-Mart are one of the most notorious victims of this deception. Wal-Mart believed that they needed to “de-clutter” their stores. They wanted to clear the aisles and lower the top shelves so as to not overwhelm their customers. They conducted a survey asking customers if that is what they want and customers said yes. Wal-Mart then spent a fortune overhauling their stores to meet this expectation. However, their sales went down, and some experts say they ended up losing $1.85 Billion in sales alone.

Wal-Mart’s $1.85 Billion Mistake is a classic example of what happens when you just listen to what customers say instead of digging deeper to find out what they really want. What Wal-Mart discovered is that customers say they want less cluttered stores, but what they really want even more is a wide-selection of discount products. Much like respondents to Y&R’s survey said they wanted to help other people, but really they wanted to maintain their safety …or their love life.

What We Would Do Differently:

One of the reasons it took so long for customers experience to take off was that classic customer satisfaction programs have long been focusing on what customers say they want and that led to wasting a lot of resources without improving customer satisfaction at all. To avoid this problem and take into account the customers emotions and the subconscious drivers we use the following customer research methods:

  • Emotional Signature  – Based on our extensive research, we believe most emotions can be boiled down to 20 that either drive or destroy value. Every company has an emotional signature, which measures the amount of emotional engagement their experience creates with their customers. We would discover exactly what emotions are driving the most value for the organization and what aspects of the companies experience (conscious or subconscious) are the biggest drivers of emotional engagement and value for the company as a whole.
  • Implicit Attitude Test –We believe strongly that customers cannot always tell you what is most important to them because they don’t know themselves. So we like to measure customers’ attitudes towards brands and their instinctive reaction to stimuli using this method. It may be controversial, but we find it effective. Incidentally, so did Young and Rubicam. The method was first used at Harvard. If you would like read more, check out: Project Implicit.
  • Customer Mirrors – In this program, we walk the experience in the customers’ shoes and use our experience psychology checklist to capture the subconscious clues and psychology principles that may be in play. When we can’t be the customer (as is the case with big B2B organizations), we conduct interviews again using our experience checklist and try to “peel the onion” to get to what’s not in the top of customer’s mind.

If you rely on your surveys to get some insight to what your customers are thinking you are only getting part of the story. Instead of getting real insight into what is driving your customers buying decisions and what they want from you going forward, you are only getting what’s easy to verbalize. What is easy to verbalize isn’t necessarily what drives customer’s behaviour. Wal-Mart learned this by losing almost $2 Billion.

How much are you willing to lose to learn this for your organization?


“Sex, Lies, and Our Secret Motivators.” www.neurosciencemarketing.com. 4 October 2013.  Web. 11 November 2013. http://www.neurosciencemarketing.com/blog/articles/sex-lies.htm

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Zhecho Dobrev
Zhecho Dobrev is a Senior Consultant at Beyond Philosophy with 7 years of management consultancy experience and more than10,000 hours devoted to becoming an expert in customer experience management. He has worked with a wide range of sectors and countries. Some of his clients includeCaterpillar, FedEx, American Express, Heineken, Michelin etc. Zhecho's expertise includes conducting customer research on what drives customer behavior, journey mapping, customer complaints, measurement, training and more. He holds an MBA and Master's degree in International Relations.


  1. This is important, and deserves a great deal of attention by all b2b and b2c companies. The emotional underpinnings of customer attitude and behavior can tell marketers a great deal about what to do, what to say, and what not to say or do. Until application of the three advanced techniques Zhecho has described, there hasn’t been much new on the neuroscience research scene in the past decade, since Gerald Zaltman’s pathfinding work, presented in his 2003 book, “How Customers Think.”

  2. Thanks Michael. I am glad that there are more people who think this way. This is good for all CX Professionals because wasting resources on things that will not improve the customer loyalty will only make executives more skeptical of customer experience.


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