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Why we should all stop talking and start listening

[Image courtesy of Ky at Flickr Creative Commons]

“You’re a very good listener,” said somebody to me once at a networking event. 

Not really, I thought mischievously. I’m just too polite to interrupt.

And without so much as a pause to let me agree or disagree – or even bask in the warm glow of the compliment – he resumed his flow and continued uninterrupted for another 10 minutes.

Which, I suppose, proved his point.

But to be fair to him, it was pretty interesting. He was talking about the psychology of marketing, and how choice has always been held to be a good thing.

In practice, however, most people can’t cope with lots of choice. Widen it too much and you reach a tipping point where they feel confused. More often than not, they make a random decision, or even no decision at all.

Dancing the conversational two-step

The paradox of choice is a whole other story, and one I’ve talked about before.

What was really interesting for me in this particular instance was watching people interact at the networking event from a conversational standpoint. The talkers, the listeners, the half-and-halfers. Some people looking engaged, others on the verge of boredom. Animation and frustration.

Conventional wisdom says that in these situations, it’s best to be a listener, as it gets the other person to open up and creates rapport. The problem with that approach is that if everybody listens, nobody talks. The opposite applies as well, of course.

The most successful participants were those who listened actively (i.e. not just nodding and saying ‘uh huh’ every so often). They asked relevant questions or sought out more detail. They got into the flow, and danced the conversational two-step without treading on their partner’s toes.

And that’s a pretty rare accomplishment.

Too loud and not so clear

Getting out of transmit mode is difficult for all of us, either personally or professionally. There’s nothing we like to talk about as much as ourselves or our business.

And if you pick apart just about any marketing mishap, and you’ll see that it was the result of too much talking and not enough listening. Or inside-out thinking, if you prefer.

Ryanair’s recent mega-SNAFU is a good example. They had a problem (a backlog of pilot leave) which they solved by creating another (widespread flight cancellations, inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of passengers). Inside out par excellence. 

Insult and injury were piled on top of each other, and it seemed at one point as if they’d never pull out of their PR spiral dive.

Take a wider look around, the talking-but-not-listening problem is everywhere.

Tesco launched a new grocery website recently that baffled regular shoppers like me who’d become accustomed to the user-friendliness of the old one.

On the new site, seeing your favourites on one page is no longer an option, so you have endless fun randomly clicking on page numbers at the bottom of the paged list (but not at the top, in another UI oversight) to find organic green beans or Marmite. Instead of using your browser’s search function to locate it in seconds.

Apple launched iOS 11 to much fanfare, but its Airplay 2 doesn’t work with much of the hardware out there – including the ubiquitous Sonos speakers that all serious music lovers seem to have nowadays. How could they have committed such a serious oversight?

There’s discontent in the Sonosphere at the moment, and it looks like they won’t get much satisfaction until sometime in the new year. Just as well I’m a late adopter. 

The bottom line is that the talking-not-listening problem results in processes that are designed around companies, not customers.

Not the best move.

The sound of silence

I’m sure you’ve heard the old line about having two ears and one mouth, and using them in proportion. The trouble is, most of us don’t.

My friend at the networking event may have thought I was a great listener, but really it depends on the circumstances.

A couple of months ago, I forgot the ears/mouth rule on a briefing conference call and found myself waxing lyrical about a client’s needs at excessive length.

When I ran out of steam, there was a pregnant pause. At which point I realised my mistake and quickly bounced the ball back into their court with an open question. By talking less and listening more, I discovered what their needs really were.

And so did they.

Why framing the message makes all the difference

Tell people what to see – and they’ll see it

User-generated content

I was chatting a few months back with a recruiter chum of mine.

He was complaining that an ex-colleague of his (they both subsequently set up on their own) has a much higher interview hit rate after sending a CV.

For him, it’s one in five. For her, it’s closer to one in two.

And yet they’re both operating in the same market, with mostly the same clients, and the same pool of candidates. So what’s the secret of her success?

It turns out that it’s something really simple: she’s framing the story and setting expectations.

So when she sells a job to a candidate, she highlights why it’s a good match and how it’ll advance them along their career path. Which she already knows because she’s quizzed them in depth, and taken lots of notes. 

And when she’s presenting candidates to clients, she does exactly the same. Not only does she write a short overview at the beginning of the CV, but she also includes a few lines in her covering email to reinforce the message.

That’s a crucial step, because she knows from experience that the CV will be forwarded internally to everybody involved in the hiring process.

So if she simply writes ‘CV as discussed’ or ‘here’s that candidate we talked about’, it only makes sense to the original recipient. The framing email makes sure that subsequent recipients are sufficiently interested to click on the attachment and check out the candidate in detail.

She continues this approach throughout the interview process, filtering feedback and handling queries quickly and efficiently, so neither side is left wondering what the other is thinking. 

What she’s doing is carefully managing the message to ensure that candidate and client share her vision. Because without that, they’d see things very differently.

In vino veritas

In an age of knee-jerk TLDR, those who get to the point fast get heard first. And when they’re talking about a complex subject – from the relative merits of job seekers to the intricacies of leaving the European Union – if they simplify the message and summarise the pitch, we pay attention.

The fact is, most of the time we don’t really know what to think, so we look for clues to help us out: usually something we can relate to a previous experience that’s comparable. And in that, we’re heavily influenced (and easily swayed) by what we think we see.

In a now-famous experiment back in 2001, Frédéric Brochet, a PhD candidate at the University of Bordeaux, organised an experiment among 54 oenologists (that’s wine experts to you and me). The 27 men and 27 women were asked to taste a white wine and a red wine and describe them. 

The white wine inspired words such as “floral”, “honey”, “peach” and “lemon” – much as you might expect. And the red wine tasted of “raspberry”, “cherry”, “cedar” and “chicory”.

A week later, he brought the group back and carried out a similar exercise. Except that this time, both wines were actually same white wine used the previous week, but one was dyed with red food colouring. 

The result was an eye-opener: the red was described in just the same terms as in the first experiment. Not one single wine expert realised they were actually drinking white wine. 

It’s not surprising, really. We see what we expect to see, and are influenced by visual cues. 

Other experiments have been carried out with very similar results.

People can’t tell a cheap wine from an expensive one when the bottles are switched. In one Dutch study, people were told they were going to watch a programme on an HD television, though it was actually SD.  They subsequently marvelled at the crisp, high-definition images.

And microwaved meals served in an upmarket restaurant on china plates with fancy cutlery had people thinking they were eating cordon bleu cuisine. 

Welcome to my world

So the message is clear: we humans are very easily influenced, and faced with complex situation, we fall back on simple indicators. We see what we think we’re seeing. We taste what we think we’re tasting. 

And we read what the writer wants us to.

Which is why it’s really important that you’re on top of the message, and guiding the reader gently to the point where you want them to be. 

So what could you frame better? Could you nudge people further along the sales cycle? Encourage more signups to your newsletter, blog or marketing programme by stressing the benefits? Rewrite that web page or email so it’s more on-message? 

My friend reluctantly admitted that his competitor (and occasional collaborator, as they swap candidates and share placements) was on to something with her at-a-glance emails and snappy summaries. So he’s taken a leaf out of her book, and has recently been polishing his prose and framing everything that moves. 

And already, it’s paying off – his hit rate is now one in three. 

His friend had better watch out. 

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for marketers

Getting inside your audience’s head (and your own)

[Image courtesy of Pawel Loj at Flickr Creative Commons]

My friend F, who’s almost completed a course in counselling, sent me a couple of her recent essays to read. A train journey to London was the perfect opportunity to get in touch with my inner self. 

One essay was on Freudian psychoanalysis, which has never really appealed to me. I think it’s too intent on raking over the past, and can keep you so focused on the problem, you can’t see a solution.

Also, there’s really only so much you can blame your parents for; somebody once told me that if anything goes wrong over the age of 25 it’s on you, not them. Ouch.

The second essay intrigued me, delving into the fascinating world of CBT. 

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy aims to change the way you think about yourself, other people and the world in general. It’s the old idea that nothing is bad, but thinking makes it so. So it’s not the event in itself that’s negative, but your reaction to it – and when you react, you have a choice.

As a self-help addict (a paradox in itself, I think you’ll agree) I was hooked. So as my train sped towards King’s Cross, I went online and found a book on Amazon called Change Your Thinking with CBT.

It had rave reviews, including several that said it changed their entire way of thinking in just a couple of days. 

Praise indeed. But did the book – and the therapy – live up to the expectations?

I have to say that, much to my surprise, it did.

Mind matters

There’s nothing in there that we don’t all know already, but sometimes, the obvious isn’t obvious until it’s pointed out by somebody else. Almost every page had a light-bulb moment for me, and it helped me think differently about common frustrations and niggles. 

By simply reframing how you perceive the things that happen around you, you can defuse situations and take power away from negative thoughts. And not just in your personal life, but in business too.

It’s easy to forget when you’re pushing out a marketing campaign, or tweeting, or writing a post on LinkedIn that you’re one person talking to a another person. And that you both fall into some of the cognitive traps highlighted in my wonder book. 

So what are they? Here are some of my favourites, together with how they affect the way we interact with colleagues, prospects, clients and readers. And everybody else.

  • The tyranny of the shoulds. This is the belief that things ‘should’ or ‘must’ be a certain way. It falls into the category of absolutist thinking that has a mental picture of the world that’s rigid and inflexible. (Customers should behave in a certain way. My LinkedIn post should have had more likes. My sales promotions should always work. Clients should like every idea I come up with.)
  • Awfulising (or ‘catastrophic thinking’), when we take a minor incident and react in a disproportionate way – or even a major one that’s serious, but not the end of the world. (One mistake means they’ll never buy from me again. Missing the deadline is a disaster there’s no coming back from. The product recall will damage our reputation irreparably. The website relaunch was a fiasco from beginning to end.)
  • Black and white thinking means you look at everything in a polarised way. It’s either good or bad, with no middle ground. Apparently this is a particular trap for perfectionists – and we know who we are. In reality, things are always a bit more nuanced, so a quick mental shift will allow you to focus on the positive. (The draft white paper came back with quite a few amendments, so I obviously got it completely wrong.)
  • Overgeneralising. This happens when you take an isolated event – or a small number of similar ones – and turn it into a rule of thumb. If you find yourself saying ‘always’, ‘everybody’ or ‘never’, you’re probably overgeneralising. (They always miss deadlines. I never win pitches against that competitor. Every time I deal with them, they beat me down on price.)
  • Mind-reading. We’ve all done it, and even though we’re often proved wrong, we continue to step into the trap with our size 9s. The conclusions we jump to about people are almost invariably negative, and cause lots of stress and anxiety. It’s closely linked to another trap – personalising – which is based on the premise that the world revolves around us, and that other people’s actions are aimed directly at us. (They didn’t buy from us, so they obviously don’t rate us. He didn’t return my call, so he must be angry with me for some reason.)

The last one is my favourite: comparing. It’s one that we all do personally or professionally virtually every day. There’s always somebody slimmer, richer, funnier or faster than you. And there’s always a company that has nicer offices, a better website, cleverer adverts or a slicker tagline than yours.

And you know what they say: compare and despair.

CBT may not change your life in two days, but it may just change how you think about yourself and your audience – and how you interact with them.

At least I think so.

Unless I’m overgeneralising again.

The big power of a little nudge

How to use behavioural science to improve your marketing

[Image courtesy of Mark Smith at Flickr Creative Commons]

“Too late – I took it to the bank,” said a friend of mine the other day on a WhatsApp chat.

I’d made what I thought was an ironic comment, but he’d taken it literally.

You know what they say about giving a thing and taking it back. By the time I tried to rope in my backhanded compliment, he was already basking in the warm glow of praise, unwilling to let it go.

We all ‘take it to the bank’ from time to time, often without realising it. We hear what we want to hear, project our thoughts and feelings onto the words of others, and often overrate our own abilities. It’s all part of being human – which is what makes us all endlessly fascinating.

Nudging your way to success

I was thinking again recently about why we do what we do when I revisited Nudge for a project I’m working on.

This was the book that took the world by storm back in 2008, becoming one of The Economist’s must-reads of the year. It was so influential that the British government set up its own ‘nudge unit’, otherwise known as the Behavioural Insights Team, and Barack Obama appointed one of the authors, Cass Sunstein, as administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

The idea is pretty simple: you can make small changes that have big consequences. You don’t need to spend billions or deploy an army of civil servants. You simply need to understand what ‘nudges’ people to behave differently.

‘Psychological interventions’ – in other words, nudges – are incredibly powerful, because they hit the sweet spot and spur people into action. Here are some examples: 

  • Asking voters about their motivations for voting the day before the election increases turnout by 11%. By contrast, $4bn in TV advertising in the recent US presidential election increased turnout by just 10%.
  • Writing to doctors at the beginning of the flu season telling them they’re high prescribers (among the top 20%) can reduce prescriptions by as much as 3.5%.
  • Telling taxpayers most people have already paid boosts tax take. Going one step further and saying most people in their neighbourhood have done so yields even more impressive results. 

To err is human

All of these nudges rely on the cognitive biases that most of us have.

Conformity bias is what’s driving the doctors and taxpayers: while everybody says they want to be different and individual, in practice they really just want to be like everybody else (which explains the irresistible pull of Facebook and other social media). 

These cognitive biases are so pervasive we hardly even notice them any more. See if you recognise any of them (as I certainly do): 

  • The path of least resistance, which you’ve probably experienced when you’re faced with endless choice on a shopping trip. You go for the easiest, most hassle-free one. If you’re planning any sort of campaign, sale or offer, remember that. Easy is good. 
  • Availability bias, where things that are top of mind tend to be the ones you reach for. This is a particular trap you should try to avoid if you’re carrying out a survey: you get the answers to the questions you ask, so make sure you’re not leading the witness. 
  • Loss aversion: if somebody tells you you’re going to lose £100 it’s twice as powerful as if they say you’re going to save £100. So choose your words carefully when you wave those numbers around. The same figure can yield different results depending on how you use it. 
  • Anchoring: where you start dictates where you end up, whether you’re negotiating a fee or buying an LBD (was £500 – now only £250!). All value is relative, so your perception of that value is inevitably linked to something else: a previous purchase/sale, a mental price tag, how many cups of coffee it would buy instead. 

These mental flaws that we all have are not only fascinating to behavioural scientists. They’re also a way for marketers to connect with clients and prospects.

The more you understand human nature, the more you can craft a message that’s relevant, targeted and successful. One in which what you say is what they hear, whether it’s a marketing campaign or a WhatsApp chat.

And maybe this time, you can take it to the bank. 

Find out more: 

Think you're a mind reader? Your readers, clients and prospects might not agree.

Chicken risotto and the elusive art of empathy

[Image courtesy of Dierk Schaefer at Flickr Creative Commons]

Last weekend, I went out for dinner with a friend. It being an Italian restaurant, and this being England, none of the waiters or waitresses were actually Italian.

Most of the accents I heard sounded Eastern European – including that of our waitress, a slip of a girl with pale skin and blond hair. She took our order swiftly and efficiently, explaining portion sizes and making recommendations.

But she didn’t smile, which made me feel just a little uncomfortable.

Now I don’t expect staff in restaurants to grin like the Cheshire Cat, and I do realise that they’re doing a hard job with long hours, but it does help if they look like they’re enjoying interacting with you. If nothing else, it encourages you to be more generous when it comes to tip time. 

“I reckon she’s Polish,” I said to my dinner companion. “I wonder if that’s what service is like there – efficient but impersonal. Maybe it’s the legacy of 40 years of communism, even for those people born after the fall of the wall.”

And then I stopped myself.

Not because the fritto misto had arrived, but because I realised I was doing something we all do, but should probably try to do a bit less: speculating and generalising.

And really, I should have known better. Especially in light of the book I’m currently reading.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? 

It’s called Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want by Nicholas Epley. It caught my attention precisely because I often wonder if I’m misreading people, or if they’re misreading me.

The answer is yes to both.

But then, that’s what we humans do. We see the world through the prism of our own experience, and project our thoughts, feelings and preconceptions onto others people. We even do it with inanimate objects, when we see natural disasters as retribution for our misdeeds, or cajole our car into starting on a frosty morning.

The book is packed full of interesting insights into just how unreliable we are when it comes to reading and understanding other people.

Epley is Professor of Behavioural Science at the Booth Business School at the University of Chicago, so at times, he does get a little too focused on experiments and studies he and his colleagues carried out. I suspect most people (oops – there I go again) will pick up or download this book in the hope of finding more about the solution and less about the problem. 

He does get there, in the end. And my criticism is a minor one – because even when discussing his experiments, he deploys humour, and doesn’t get to dry or theoretical. This is a mass-market paperback after all, not a psychology textbook.

And though it’s not a laugh-out-loud read, there was one line that made me do just that.

To highlight the personal perspective we bring to all our observations, he quotes stand-up comedian George Carlin: “Have you ever noticed that everyone driving slower than you is an idiot, and everyone driving faster than you is a maniac?”

From the woman who claimed she was disfigured by a knife-wielding attacker but forgot how mirrors distort reality, to the child who wondered why only dads go grey, the book full of fascinating findings and amusing anecdotes.

But one really caught my attention. 

For better or for worse

Epley and his colleagues got people to predict the answers their spouses would give to certain questions, splitting his participants into three groups.

The first group just went ahead and answered the questions without any analysis or reflection. The second group was asked to put themselves into their spouse’s shoes before they predicted, so they could see things from their perspective. The third group was allowed to ask their spouses each question, but not to write anything down.

Two things stood out for me: first, the last group did perform best overall, but didn’t get every question right, even though they already had the answers. Their personal perspective still coloured their perception, and affected their memories. 

The second thing is that the second group (the shoe-wearers, you remember) fared worst of all – underperforming the first group, who just answered without much thought.

And the reason?

The second group actually magnified their preconceptions about their spouse rather than empathising – much like Democrats do when they imagine Republicans, and vice versa. Or (to get topical for a moment) Leave and Remain campaigners in the upcoming UK referendum.

Because these people are ‘other’ than themselves, they magnify the otherness – and in doing so, widen the gap between them.

You, me and them

Think for a moment about your prospects, clients, readers and audience members. What assumptions are you making about them?

Are you going with your gut, or trying to put yourself in their shoes? Or are you engaging with them on social media and in person to see what they really want?

And if they are telling you what they want, are you taking it at face value, or reinterpreting it so it fits in with your message, marketing plan or timeline? 

Our personal point of view influences virtually every interaction we have, and we very often lazily reach for stereotypes and generalise. But it’s not until we step outside of ourselves that we can really see things from somebody else’s point of view.

That’s when we can really start connecting. 

Which brings us back to the dinner table. One fritto misto and a chicken risotto later, the waitress was back with the bill. 

“Are you Polish?” I asked her, as she punched the total into her handheld credit-card terminal.

“No, I’m Latvian,” she said, her mouth almost forming a smile. Ever the language geek, I asked how you say ‘thank you’ in Latvian, and she told me. 

Paldies!” I repeated, mimicking her accent and intonation. 

Now the smile broadened, and she actually laughed. And I realised once again just how important it is to shift your perspective and start speaking somebody else’s language. 

Even if that language is your own.