You are not your customer

You are not your customer

A few years ago, psychologists at Stanford University ran an experiment.

They split participants into two groups: tappers and listeners.

Those in the first group were asked to tap out the rhythm to well-known songs, and those in the second were asked to guess the songs.

The tappers estimated the probability of their song being guessed at around 50%.

The true figure?

Of the 120 songs tested, only 2.5% were identified correctly.

Why the gap?

The tappers were experiencing a phenomenon common to most organisations – something Richard Shotton has termed the ‘curse of knowledge’ – the difficulty of imagining what it’s like for others not to know something we ourselves know.

It can be really hard to get into the heads of our customers. Just as the tappers struggled to empathise with those trying to guess their songs, we can find it all too easy to forget what’s going on inside the minds of those we’re targeting. We live and breathe the brands we work for, and that makes us very different from our customers.

Let’s take one example.

Think how much time and effort your business puts into refining its marketing communications. Whole teams will pore over the details of individual ads to ensure they are delivering on their objectives.

But out there in the world most ads are hardly noticed. Research by Lumens has shown that online ads are glanced at on average for only 0.9 seconds. This disconnect between how marketeers and consumers think can very often lead to communication that just doesn’t work.

So, what’s the answer?

Well, recognising the problem is the first step. The best marketeers have always understood the ‘curse of knowledge’ intuitively, accepting that gut instinct can only get them so far.

The next step is to ensure you have insight tools in place that enable you to keep close to your customers and check in with them regularly. Part of that could take the form of an ongoing closeness programme, helping everyone in the organisation develop a deeper sense of audience understanding. But it’s also about having access to agile solutions that allow you to get rapid feedback from consumers, so that research becomes part of everyday decision making.

At Insight Sherpas, we specialise in helping brands get closer to their customers, especially when speed of turnaround is a priority. If you would like to talk with us about our FastQual solution, or our customer closeness work more broadly, please don’t hesitate to drop us a line.

Shark Attacks

Shark Attacks

Do more words begin with “r” or have “r” as the third letter?

Think about it for a second – rat, rod, real, route, revolver…

If you’re like most people, you’ll say there are more that begin with “r”. But you’ll be wrong. More words in the English language have the letter in the third position than the first. It’s just that it’s much easier to think of those starting with “r”, whereas it takes concentration to summon up words with “r” in third place.

This is an example of how our intuition can be distorted by what’s easiest to bring to mind.

Psychologists call it the availability heuristic. The educated guesses we make about the world, the shortcuts that drive so much of our decision making, are shaped by what we see and hear most often – the associations that are most “mentally available”.

It’s why your parents are so convinced that the world is more dangerous now than it was 50 years ago, despite all the evidence to the contrary. While indicators like the crime rate may have been going down for decades, every now and then there’s a spike, and it’s the spikes that make the news. A sudden increase in burglaries is memorable; a gradual decline not so much.

Also, individual examples tend to stand out, especially when they’re emotionally charged. Statistics just don’t stick around in our heads in the same way. This helps explain why so many of us are disproportionately concerned about risks which, in reality, are vanishingly small – shark attacks, plane crashes, child abductions… Indeed, when it comes to the latter, it’s been calculated that you’d need to leave your child unattended for 750,000 years on average before they got kidnapped.

As with most psychological biases, the availability heuristic is a product of human prehistory. Our brains evolved at a time when most people lived in small social groups and everything they needed to know about the world was based on their everyday experiences. But, in the modern age, this hard-wiring can leave us vulnerable to misperception.

This vulnerability is particularly acute in the world of business. When the availability heuristic combines with corporate groupthink, the results can be sub-optimal decision making and damage to the bottom line.

Take customer insight. Employees within an organisation tend to think they have a pretty good understanding of their customers. But that understanding is shaped by the types of people they’re actually exposed to – and they will typically have similar backgrounds and values to themselves. Many will be friends, family members and colleagues. The bulk of real customers live outside of this bubble – but they’re less visible, and therefore less “available”.

Successful companies have long been aware of this problem, and increasingly they’re taking steps to address it. That’s partly why we’ve been hearing so much recently about the importance of customer closeness.

The objective of closeness is to encourage colleagues at all levels of an organisation to step into the shoes of their target consumers. It enables key insights to be experienced first hand, not just read about, so that they’re internalised and built into top-of-mind associations.

Done right, the effect can be transformational. An effective closeness programme leverages the power of the availability heuristic to help build and nurture a culture of audience empathy. It’s all about making customer truths more available than customer myths, driving better decision making, and ultimately revenue growth.

It can sound fluffy, but it’s not. Recent analysis by ESOMAR has shown that 87% of high-performing businesses take the voice of the customer into account in every key decision they make, compared with only 22% of under-performing businesses.

At Insight Sherpas we’ve helped set up customer closeness programmes for many clients over the years, using a range of creative techniques to deliver activities that are immersive, memorable and impactful. We start with client outcomes and work back from there. We’re all former in-house research leads ourselves, so we understand what it takes to avoid closeness falling into the ‘nice to do’ column.

Click here to learn more about the Insight Sherpas approach to customer closeness, or alternatively please don’t hesitate to give us a call.




Memory’s a funny old thing. Try the following test.

First, get a piece of paper and a pen. Next, read the words below aloud once:

bed / rest / awake / tired / dream / wake / snooze / blanket / doze / slumber / snore / nap / peace / yawn / drowsy

Now turn away from your screen and write down all the words you remember.

According to cognitive psychology, people tend to recall a word that is related to all the other words but absent from the list.

In this case, that word is sleep.

Did you write it down?

About half of those who take the test say afterwards that they’re sure they remember seeing the missing word (sleep) – and yet this is a false memory, a recollection of something that didn’t happen.

Academics refer to this as the Deese-Roediger-McDermott paradigm, and it’s surprisingly common.

Take these famous movie quotes:

  • “Play it again, Sam”
  • “Luke, I am your father”
  • “Mirror, mirror on the wall”

Most of us will remember at least one of them – or think we do. But, in fact, none is real, despite all having a firm foothold in popular memory.

This phenomenon of collective misremembering has been christened the ‘Mandela Effect’, named after the apparently large number of people who say they have a clear recollection of Nelson Mandela dying in prison in the 1980s. (Which, of course, he didn’t. But you knew that, right?)

You don’t have to look far to see examples of the Mandela Effect playing out in the world of business. Every organisation, it seems, has its folk myths about who its customers are, what they want, what they think of the brand, and so on.

Ask any in-house insight team and they’ll tell you that displacing false beliefs of this kind is one of their toughest challenges. Decision makers will often find it easier to fall back on cherished myths about their customers than to engage with the complex reality of what their research is actually saying to them.

The solution?

Successful businesses tend to maintain a clear focus on the two Cs of customer insight: Capability and Culture. Which is to say, they combine a strong, empowered insight capability with an organisation-wide culture of customer centricity.

Consumer closeness programmes are often at the heart of this cultural shift. The more that colleagues across an organisation get to actually experience the insight, not just hear about it – for instance, by interacting with real-life customers – the more likely they are to internalise and act on the learnings.

Of course, none of this is easy, but the effort pays back. Studies of business effectiveness have consistently shown that organisations built around customer insight outperform their market peers.

In the words of Nelson Mandela, “Empathy is the ultimate form of insight”. Or have I misremembered that…?

How good a driver would you say you are?

How good a driver would you say you are?

How good a driver would you say you are?

Pretty decent? Above average even?

Well, you’re not alone. A recent study has found that 93% of people consider their driving skills to be “above average”.

Meanwhile, research conducted with US college students has shown that 85% put themselves above the median when it comes to academic aptitude.

So, it turns out we’re pretty good at convincing ourselves we’re better than average!

Needless to say, there is a slight problem here, mathematically speaking. On average, after all, most of us are bound to be just that: average.

Social psychologists refer to this as ‘superiority bias’. We have a natural tendency to upweight our own abilities relative to those of others.

But there’s an extra twist. Research suggests that superiority bias has a tendency to increase the worse you are at something.

This phenomenon, known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, describes a kind of double-whammy. The less you know about a subject, the more ignorant you are of your ignorance, which means, paradoxically, the more likely you are to consider yourself knowledgeable.

You don’t have to wade far into the world of social media to see the Dunning-Kruger effect in action. It’s the reason why so many internet users think they know more about vaccinology and climate change than people who actually work in those fields.

But we see it in corporate life too.

We’ve probably all had the experience of listening to a senior leader talk with great authority on a topic we happen to know a lot about. It can feel uncomfortable. We’re aware of how much they don’t know, so can spot when they’re stretching the facts or just plain making stuff up. Their confidence may be compelling, but it derives as much from what they don’t know as what they do.

This can be a particular challenge in the realm of customer insight.

Most of us think we have a pretty good understanding of our organisation’s customers. But speak to any in-house research team and they’ll tell you that a lot of what we think we know is questionable at best. Myths and half-truths abound – especially those that feed into narratives the business wants to hear.

Indeed, much of the work of client-side researchers can feel like an endless game of whack-a-mole, hunting down and challenging the same customer fallacies, and trying to displace them with genuine insight.

So, what’s the solution?

It’s no longer enough, it seems, just to rely on reports and presentations to embed insight effectively. Even the best-told stories need a receptive audience – and part of the challenge here is that many decision makers already think they know the answer.

The solution is to get colleagues not just to hear the insight but to experience it.

In a nutshell: customer closeness.

By helping decision-makers to put themselves in the shoes of their target consumers, research teams can go a long way to building a genuine culture of customer centricity.

But how to do that in practice?

Like so many things which appear simple, closeness can be hard to execute well, and there’s no shortage of potential traps lying in wait for the uninitiated.

This is an area where expert guidance can be invaluable. As we’ve learnt from Dunning and Kruger: you don’t know how much you don’t know.

In our next few blogs, we will share our Insight Sherpas viewpoint on best practice for designing and landing an effective customer closeness programme.

Faster Horses

Faster Horses

It’s fair to say that the business world loves a good cliché.

Spend any time at a marketing conference and you’ll soon hear the same phrases coming round again and again: “outcomes not outputs”, “content is king”, “a logo isn’t a brand”…

On the whole this is harmless stuff. It might not be very interesting to be told for the umpteenth time to “begin with the customer”, but it’s a sentiment that has become a cliché for the good reason that it’s true.

More damaging are the stock ideas for which there’s no evidence at all, yet which plod on regardless year after year, invulnerable to facts.

One of the best known of these is a quote that will be familiar to anyone who’s worked in the market research field. It tends to be attributed to Henry Ford, though there’s no evidence he ever said it:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

This old chestnut has long been a favourite of speakers on the conference circuit. It’s usually trotted out (ha!) in panel discussions about innovation or creativity, delivered with the air of an important point having been made.

Needless to say, it’s not a maxim that stands up to a lot of scrutiny. Indeed, if it can be said to prove anything, it’s just how much misunderstanding seems to persist as to the way market research actually works.

It’s pretty clear, after all, what Ford’s customers were telling him: they wanted a faster way of getting around. Horses were too slow. His insight team, if he had one, would surely have told him that speedier transportation was the ‘job to do’.

As Theodore Levitt has written, “people don’t want a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole”. Identifying and addressing needs of this kind is the central task of market research.

This seems such an obvious point that it’s hard not to wonder at the continuing popularity of the fake Ford quote.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the people you’re most likely to hear it from are also those who have (shall we say) a vested interest in muddying the waters as to the value of insight.

To be fair, this will often come from a place of legitimate concern. If you’re in the business of advertising or innovation, then it’s understandable that customer feedback might come to seem like a challenge to be navigated.

But we also need to question the subtext here. The line that’s being pushed is, in effect: don’t bother with research. It doesn’t work. If you want to be a true visionary, like Henry Ford, then save yourself the hard yards of listening to your customers.

It’s important not to let this pass unchallenged. While no research is perfect, it almost always beats the alternative. If you’re looking to create a new campaign or proposition, then it should go without saying that there is merit in checking in with the people for whom you’re designing it. Almost always this leads to better work.

Factoring in time for insight can be a challenge. But thankfully advances in technology mean that this is becoming less and less of an issue. It’s never been quicker to turn around even relatively complex research projects.

So, next time you hear someone on a conference panel talking about “faster horses”, ask yourself what it is they’re really telling you, and why.

You might even feel moved to respond in kind, with your own Henry Ford quote:

“If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own”

That one has the benefit of actually coming from the man himself – straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak

Only connect

Only connect

It can come as a shock to realise just how little customers think or care about the brands we work for.

For all the effort that goes into developing new campaigns, products and propositions, very little registers, even with the most ardent of loyalists. You may live and breathe your brand, but your customers don’t. As Mark Ritson has written:

“Brands are small things. Enormously central to the marketers in charge of them. Tiny and inconsequential to the customers that pay for everything.”

We all know this, instinctively, if only because we are consumers ourselves. When was the last time you stopped and really thought about Uncle Ben’s, or Dulux, or Zurich Insurance, or any of the literally thousands of brands out there right now who consider you part of their addressable market and seek to engage you?

It’s an obvious point, but one that is always at risk of being forgotten. Not least because the world in which most of us work – with its language of brand positionings, identities and guidelines – has so little in common with the real world, the one where our customers live.

Indeed, it’s this mismatch between how brands see themselves and what consumers actually care about that probably accounts for more marketing missteps than any other.

Take advertising. Research by Lumens has shown that online ads are glanced at for an average of less than a second. Most are barely noticed. And yet this is at odds with how copy is actually signed off, with managers spending hours scrutinising each element of the creative to ensure it meets every objective. This disconnect can often lead to ads that don’t work.


So, what’s the answer?

Well, meeting some real-life customers can help. The most successful companies have known this for some time, which is why we’ve all been hearing so much recently about the importance of customer-centricity.

But how to do that in practice?

Part of the solution is to put in a place a customer closeness programme.

This is a set of practical techniques designed to help colleagues experience what it’s like to be a customer, not just hear about it, so that they start to develop an intuitive grasp of who their audiences are and what they want. Ultimately the aim is to drive better decision making throughout the organisation, and revenue growth.

There is an increasing body of evidence showing the link between closeness activity and bottom-line performance. However, it remains the case that work of this kind can be difficult to justify when budgets are under pressure.

At Insight Sherpas, we’ve found that three things are necessary to avoid customer closeness being put in the ‘nice to do’ column. Your programme needs to:

1. Change minds

  • Starting with customer truths, going big on human stories, engaging stakeholders with memorable, disruptive experiences

2. Drive action

  • Embedding processes which ensure that colleagues’ ‘light bulb’ moments are informing decision making and ultimately driving change

3. Maximise ROI

  • Using creative, lean methodologies to maximise the impact of limited budgets, and measuring the impact on growth

Done right, customer closeness is not fluffy and not a ‘nice to have’. It challenges stakeholders and drives better decisions at all levels of the organisation. Businesses who do it well have been shown to have a clear commercial advantage over those who don’t.

Click here to learn more about the Insight Sherpas approach to customer closeness, or alternatively please don’t hesitate to give us a call.