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Customers are not like you. Get over it.

#BuyerInsight, #CustomerExperience, #Segmentation

In an era of customer-centricity, we all understand that creating great customer experiences takes empathy. But, what we underappreciate is the need to fine-tune that empathy. When we think we are empathizing (imagining ourselves in another person’s shoes), the mental model we create—who is this person? What do they want? What do they need?—is heavily influenced by our current selves. We humans, it turns out, have a natural tendency to overestimate the prevalence of familiar traits in other people. If you’re a customer experience professional and those “other people” are customers, this poses a real problem: your subconscious is misguiding your empathy, thereby sabotaging your customer experiences.

Don’t let your subconscious sabotage your customer experiences. Customers are not like you. Get over it.

The truth of false-consensus bias

At the heart of this sabotage is a phenomenon that psychologists call “false-consensus bias.” In lay terms, it’s our subconscious predicting what a group of people—such as our customers—is like, using our own life experiences to “fill in the gaps” and tell us what traits are strongest.1

False-consensus bias has a long history of study and documentation. Way back in 1931, for example, a study found that students who admitted to cheating on an exam were more likely to expect that other students had cheated too.2 In a similar vein, it’s common to overestimate the similarities between us and our customers. By focusing on being empathetic, we dangerously omit the step of critically assessing our empathy.

Implications for customer experience design

When false-consensus bias clouds perception in this way, we end up designing for ourselves or our colleagues, instead of our customers. We assume that customers share our passion for our products. And, we jump to the conclusion that customers have (or want) a masterful command of our products’ features. This can then result in complicated interfaces, processes and highly technical content—all of which are intimidating for any customer who does not share this heightened desire for mastery. Conversely, taking a “simpler is better” approach is not failsafe either—too little nuance and information will frustrate customers. And, these are just two common repercussions of false-consensus bias.

Replacing your mental model

So, how do we find the “sweet spot?” It’s not enough to just empathize with customers. We need to replace tacit mental models with deliberate representations of customers. To create great customer experiences, we need to empathize with the right customers, or more precisely, the right version of them. This version can be represented by a napkin list of attributes, or a persona based on primary research, or many other options in between. The most important first step is to anchor your empathy, and your coworkers’ empathy, on a view of customers that can be shared—and is outside of your mind. Don’t let your subconscious sabotage your customer experiences. Customers are not like you. Get over it.

  • Petty, Richard E., Duane T. Wegener, and Leandre R. Fabrigar. “Attitudes and attitude change.” Annual review of psychology 48.1 (1997): 609-647.
  • Krueger, Joachim, and Russell W. Clement. “The truly false consensus effect: an ineradicable and egocentric bias in social perception.” Journal of personality and social psychology 67.4 (1994): 596.