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.