May 2018.1 Why your brain needs training.


Why your brain needs training.

Putting yourself in the customer’s shoes is a frequently heard nugget of business advice. Putting yourself in your prospective customer’s shoes (prospect ) is also necessary but a little trickier to do, as the chances are you don’t know them so well.

It’s something I became aware of in my teenage years in retail when faced with the sometimes unpredictable nature of customer choices.

However research by Imperial College a few years ago suggested it was pointless advice as very few people can actually do this effectively. They found that even experienced marketing personnel made the mistake of projecting their own preferences into a product development challenge, rather than rely on marketing data. They were almost to a fault Ego-centric.

Becoming truly customer focused requires an advancement in your thinking processes that is a skill in itself and it’s a useful one to develop if you need your organisation to become customer-centric as well.

You’re a one-off.

The key is learning to understand how we think.

We are on a steep learning curve when it comes to understanding how our thought processes are organised. Over the past few decades various theories have been put forward to help us understand what is going on and recent advances in monitoring of brain activity is developing these. Fundamentally of course our brains control our every action – conscious and sub-conscious, and if you have ever found yourself saying ‘what were they thinking of’ in response to somebody else actions – the valuable lesson is that their brain at the time decided it was a perfectly valid course of action, i.e. nobody, nobody else thinks just like you.

It’s fairly well accepted that broadly speaking our brains run on two tracks, described variously as emotional, gut-feel or intuitive thinking and intellectual or rational thinking.  The emotional track is the source of most original thought, the rational track will do its best to validate the emotional side, often with varying degrees of success. Those who have acquired the discipline to rely heavily on their rational side may struggle with that suggestion, preferring to consider themselves highly rational individuals, however given enough interference (e.g. alcohol, music etc.) their rational track will begin to fail.

Lazy Thinking

This spectrum of emotional vs rational track has probably even brought you to where you are now, what job might you have had had you been more disciplined as a student and not given in to impulse actions? Might you be considerably thinner or fitter with a more rational approach to achieving those goals?

To illustrate how vulnerable we are to our intuitive brains, Daniel Kahneman in his excellent book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow, refers to the Bat and Ball puzzle.

  • A bat and ball costs £1.10, the bat costs one pound more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?

Most people’s brains suggest an intuitive answer of £0.10, which is of course wrong. The correct answer is £0.05. Kahneman notes that even though the rational track could have checked the intuitive answer fairly easily, most people struggle to make this happen.  In fact over 50% of Harvard, MIT and Princeton students went with the intuitive answer and at less selective universities it was over 80%.

His observation was that most people find the rational thinking process requires effort. We have to construct a challenge to our intuitive brains, requiring a little time and energy, so we correspondingly put too much faith in the intuitive thought process –a ‘feels right’ approach. Then we proceed to compound the ‘error’ by believing the conclusion or view of a particular issue to be ‘true’ and placing more credibility on the arguments that support it. Lazy thinking.

Effectively we construct a version of ‘reality’ that supports our ego-centric preferences.

To help counter these natural biases, it’s important to understand firstly how you process the world and then how others may process things differently. When it comes to winning and keeping business it is obviously even more important to see things through your customers eyes (read brain) for which you will need to be aware of your own ‘filters’ and develop the ability to ‘talk less, listen more’.

These different degrees  of reliance on intuitive vs rational thinking at an individual level are often behind how we interact with other people, why we feel to get on with some better than others, so it’s certainly a consideration when it comes to workplace issues such as team dynamics. They also are behind the ‘stereotyping’ of certain characteristics for different job roles, the studious accountant , the dynamic CEO and some of the negative aspects those characteristics can bring.

One of the more difficult roles in business, sales, tends to trip us into intuitive-thinking mode as we feel we need to appear confident and credible in front of customers and prospects, indeed it tends to appeal to individuals who can be intuitive-thinking to a fault. The stereotypical salesperson is notoriously adverse to anything that looks like a process and might restrict their uncanny ability to ‘wing-it’. Yet by developing a stronger, complimentary rational track to our thinking process and being less reliant on our intuition or ‘gut-feel’ we avoid falling into the common traps of reading ahead of our prospects, we will conduct more insightful conversations, build deeper relationships and enjoy more successful outcomes.

How do you know if you’re falling into the trap? You’ll do things like start thinking about solutions too soon, you’ll feel the urge to share something that you feel is relevant and in doing so you’ll be switching from being customer -centric to ego-centric. The first challenge for the strongly intuitive thinker is getting used to letting go of that ego-indulging, over-confident approach.

So consider how and your colleagues allow yourselves to think. Consider whether you are missing out on opportunities, maybe getting only so far in a competitive situation but not winning through, not securing repeat business or maybe stuggling to manage somebody in a sales or business development role who is not living up to expectations. Can you change your organisation into one that is truly customer–centric and differentiate yourself from your competition, or are you too concerned with protecting your ego to effect change?

If you have any questions or experiences relevant to the above that you would like to share, please get in touch.


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