Sunday, 28 October 2012

Mmegi - The truth

The truth, as a character in a play by Oscar Wilde says, is rarely pure and never simple.

Actually, and here’s a lesson for us all, just because someone clever like Wilde said something that sounded amusing and smart, that doesn’t mean it’s true.

In fact many truths are remarkably simple, in particular many scientific theories are actually incredibly easy to understand. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection can be summarised in very few words. Random genetic variations in function that give an animal a greater chance of reproducing are more likely to be passed onto that animal’s offspring and eventually contribute to a gradual change in the overall appearance and function of the entire species. That’s all there is to it.

Newton’s theory of gravitation is just as simple. It says that all objects are attracted to each other and the strength of that attraction diminishes in proportion to the square of the separation between them. That’s all there is to it.

Einstein’s theories of relativity are also superficially simple, just like the basic concepts in quantum theory. Of course the maths can be horribly complicated but that doesn’t affect the simplicity of the basic ideas.

But it’s not always this simple.

The challenge is that not all sciences are like physics, a science of simple things. Biology, geology and psychology are all sciences of much more complex things. My own background is in psychology and despite what some people might think that doesn’t mean I can predict human behaviour in any way. In fact the greatest thing it gives me is a better understanding of how illogical, unpredictable and irrational human beings can be.

Why do you think people smoke tobacco? Everyone in the world knows that around half of the people who smoke will die as a direct result of doing so. Meanwhile it’s safe to assume that every smoker wants to live as long a life as possible. How can these two things coexist? Psychologists call it “cognitive dissonance”, simultaneously having two conflicting opinions. Human beings stumble through life doing their best to reduce their cognitive dissonance, usually failing miserably.

It’s perhaps one reason why consumers fall, again and again, into the same old traps. We all know that saving to buy things is the cheapest way to acquire possessions but we still sign scandalous store credit agreements that we know will cripple us. We go back to the very same stores that abused us last time, knowing they’ll just do it again. We can’t be bothered to change cellphone network providers, banks or insurance companies even when they treat us with contempt. Consumers are in a constant state of cognitive dissonance.

This is a very good example of how illogical and counter-intuitive human behaviour can be. It’s not like sub-atomic particles crashing into each other which is fairly predictable, human beings are a million times more complicated. The way they behave is not always what you would predict.

Here’s an example of that complexity. Imagine you work in a bank, insurance company or a technology store and you’ve just spent some time and effort explaining your product to a potential customer. Should you now ask the customer “Do you have any questions?”

Everyone I’ve asked this has said that yes, of course you should. You need to confirm that your potential customer has all the information they need, that they feel confident enough to ask questions and that it builds a rapport and relationship between you and your company and the prospect.

They’re all wrong.

A research paper published earlier this year in the Journal of Consumer Psychology called “Inviting questions” by Uzma Khan and Zakary Tormala from Stanford University, looked at exactly this question. Does inviting questions do any good to your product and sales-pitch?

The results were counter-intuitive. The researchers concluded that “merely inviting questions has a positive effect, but that this effect reverses when consumers actually ask questions.” In other words, yes, you SHOULD invite your prospective customers to ask questions but ONLY if you’re confident that they won’t actually ask any. Allowing customer to ask questions only undermines their confidence in the product you’re selling and in you.

The solution is give the prospective customer enough information about the product that they don’t need to ask any questions. Your job as a salesperson (and everyone is a salesperson even if you job description doesn’t say so) is to judge what knowledge the customer needs and give it to them before they have an opportunity to ask. Your aim is to invite them to ask questions but for them to say thanks, you’ve answered them all for me already.

This is a very good illustration of how psychology can be used to understand the complicated way people behave and in particular how they behave in the marketplace. Smart businesses should be keeping up with research like this to help give them an advantage against their competitors as well as the simple reward of having happier customers.

But none of this matters. What does matter is my original point. If we, as consumers, are so deeply dissonant, sales techniques don’t matter. If we’re prepared to sacrifice our money, efforts and sanity in order to buy things recklessly and without thought we may as well let abusive companies do as they like. Only when we have sufficient self-worth will the science of consumer behaviour be relevant.

Maybe what the psychologists of Botswana should be doing is boosting our self-esteem to a level where we think we deserve better service?

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