Where we’ve gone wrong in influencing customer behaviour

“(Queen) Victoria had chosen to wear white mostly because it was the perfect colour to highlight the delicate lace — it was not then a conventional colour for brides” — Victoria, by Julia Baird

We can fall into the trap of assuming what was has always been. White for wedding dresses, diamonds for engagement rings, blue for boys, pink for girls.

But many of our long held assumptions are false. For instance:

• White was not a conventional colour for wedding dresses until popularised by Queen Victoria in 1840;

• Diamond engagement rings only became entrenched in the late 1930s after jeweller De Beers ran a marketing campaign based on the four C’s (cut, clarity, colour and carats), later proclaiming “diamonds are forever”; and

• As recently as when my grandfather was born, baby boys were swaddled in pink, and girls in blue. As Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department’s 1918 publication stated: “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger colour, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”

These examples remind us that assumptions — beliefs we’ve held true without question — can lead us astray.

False assumptions undermining behaviour change

Two assumptions in particular have been undermining the ability of many businesses to influence customer behaviour.

The first flawed assumption is that people will do what they say they’ll do. In fact, just because someone tells you they’ll behave in a certain way doesn’t mean they will. For instance, just because you can tell me what it takes to lead a healthy life doesn’t mean you lead such a life, and just because you tell me you will buy my product if it has a certain feature doesn’t mean you will.

This “say versus do” false assumption affects decision-makers in nearly every industry. According to one report for example, 48% of people said they wanted to switch their health insurance, but only 14% did; 39% of people said they’d switch their mortgage but only 18% bothered; and 36% said it was time to change phone providers, but only 24% took action.

What does this mean? Designing your attempts to change someone’s behaviour on the basis of what they tell you is setting yourself up to fail.

The second flawed assumption is that people are rational. If we were entirely rational beings, we would not need diets or superannuation; we wouldn’t make decisions differently when we were hungry or tired; we would never volunteer to a cause, smoke, drink or procrastinate.

What does this mean? Assuming your customer is a rational being means you will overplay facts and logic and underplay feelings and context. Again, you are setting yourself up to fail.

How to influence more effectively

To influence your customer’s behaviour more effectively, you need to get around the “say versus do” and rational-being assumptions. How? By applying behavioural economics.

Behavioural economics is a field based on observation and experimentation, thus avoiding the issues of “say versus do”, and is predicated on people being non-rational decision-makers. The starting assumption is that we are all flawed, “good enough”, expedient beings whose behaviour is governed by emotion and ease.

The good news is that there is only upside for you, your life and your business by applying behavioural economics. Whatever you are doing now can be improved without spending a fortune or requiring new products or services.

What does applying behavioural economics look like? It’s usually as simple as tweaking language, re-sequencing pricing, rethinking button colours and eliminating points of friction. Websites, pitches, proposals, presentations, letters, emails, store layouts, point of sale materials and phone scripts are just some of the touch points you can improve using behavioural science. Why wait?

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