What Are My Customers Thinking? Know What Motivates and Drives Their Decisions.

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Sometimes the decisions that our customers and audience make can simply perplex us. Wouldn’t it be great to know what’s going on inside that head of theirs? Why do some customers reverse decision at the very last moment? Is it something you did or is it something you have zero control or influence over? Fortunately modern experiments and the use of Functional Magnetic Resonance Imagery (fMRI) give us some solid data to work from.

There are hundreds of influences that weigh on a person’s mind when making decisions. Incidentally, many of those factors are processed without an conscious thought. Here we have selected five that play a significant role, that you can implement quickly and inexpensively, and that should apply to a broad range of businesses and situations.

The 95/5  Rule

According to a Harvard marketing professor Gerald Zaltman’s 2003 study, ninety-five percent of our thoughts, emotions, learning, and decisions occur without our conscious input. There are many other noted neuroscientists that agree that there is a lot going on under the surface. Studies show that our brains reach a decision before we are even consciously aware of it. Customers generally cannot explain why they made the decisions they did and most surveys and yield less than stellar insight. The takeaway from all of the research, and the premise for the following five strategies, is to sell tot he 95 percent of the brain that is really driving the decision. Less focus on the slightly used rational, cognitive processes and more focus on the inner workings should yield better results.

1. Use discounts with caution

Consider the subjective nature of wine. This is a product that has seemingly endless variety as well as price points. We would tend to believe that what a wine drinker says about a wine would be based on what they know about the wine, or what they think they know.

Surprisingly, in studies at Standford and Caltech fMRI monitoring brain activity while subjects sipped wine showed a direct correlation between what the subjects reported and what their brain registered. Subjects were given two wine glasses and told one was from a $4 bottle, while the other from a $45 bottle. In truth they were the same cheap wine. Subjects reported the wine from the $45 bottle tasted better, and this wasn’t just an effort to look like a “smart” wine drinker. The fMRI scans showed that they were actually experiencing greater pleasure, that their brain actually thought the wine tasted better.

In another study 85% of subjects given a placebo for pain relief reported a reduction in pain when they were informed the pill cost $2.50 per dose, compared to 61%  who were told the pill cost 10 cents per dose. In both cases the important thing to note is that the pleasure boost occurred after consumption. No doubt in a real-life scenario where the subject went to the liquor store to buy a bottle of wine there would have a been many more factors at play and the balance of the pain of paying too much and perceived enjoyment would have taken hold.

What you can take away from this data, however, is that price is an important part of the experience, especially for luxury or premium products. The same $100 bottle of wine will no doubt taste better if received as a gift, however, if the recipient knew that the bottle was actually purchased for $10 from a big bin of bottles then skepticism would set in and that wine would suddenly not taste as good.

This applies to whatever you’re selling. Did you originally price your e-course at $197 and now  you are offering a limited-time offer of $19.97? If it is really worth $197, why would you essentially give it away? There is a better way. Add value. Is there something else that you can include as a limited-time gift? Bonuses can be just as rewarding, without depreciating the value of your original offering.

2. Help customers choose

Research shows that making choices actually tires the chooser’s brain and that can make subsequent decisions, like whether or not to purchase, more difficult. In one study shoppers presented with a selection of 24 choices caused 60% of those passing by to stop and look, compared to 40% who were expose to a selection of 4 choices. Amazingly, 30% of customers presented with the limited selection made a purchase compared to a mere 3% of those with the extended selection. The smaller selection generated 10 times the purchase volume of the bigger one.

In other real-world situations retailers have found the process of limiting selection increased profits. Walmart dropped two brands of peanut butter and found that category sales increased. The same scenario played out with skin-care products. The trick it seems, is in finding the optimal number of choices that provide customers with the ability to find a satisfying product without overloading them with choices. Help customers choose by guiding them through a purchase decision, either with an actual person or with a self-service engine. Amazon.com has millions of options, yet the search engine and recommendations make finding the product you want an easy affair.

3. Consistent brand association

Neuroscientist Carla Shatz is credited with compacting the phenomenon of neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to change with experience) into the simple statement: Neurons that fire together wire together.

Lab studies as well as real-world observation have shown that the brain can be trained to crate new associations very effectively. Evidence has shown that due to the consistency of the warning labels on cigarette packages, merely seeing the warning label has the effect of stimulating the pleasure centers of the brain associated with satisfying a tobacco craving. The warning labels intended to scare people away have become a invitation to partake.

Other studies have found that paring positive words and negative words with fictitious brands has had the subconscious effect of creating a preference. Even though the subject couldn’t recall a certain brand they had a preference for the positively matched brand, despite not being able to articulate why. Variations of this same experiment show that association can become so strong that even when subjects are highly motivated they are unable to overcome conditioning.

What you want to understand is that consistent experience with your brand or product will become inseparably connected to it. Your customers’ brains are consistently forming new associations (service, color, even scent) and you should be aware of this to ensure you are creating the kind of associations you want.

4. Keep it simple

You no doubt have heard of KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid. If you need to convince someone to take action your best bet is to keep the instructions simple, and the font easy to read.

Research published in a 2008 Pyschological Science journal shows that the way we perceive information is dramatically effected by how complex the font is. Keeping the type size easy to read and the sentence structure simple minimize the perceived effort to complete the task. Need someone to fill out a form online or sign up for your newsletter? Take steps to make sure the form looks easy to complete and that instructions are short and in a simple font.

5. Imagination leads to loyalty

Loyalty is paramount to a successful business. Loyal employees and loyal customers are generally earned over time. Recent research shows that feelings of loyalty can be increased in a fairly simply way. Using what-if scenarios can boost loyalty.

What if you hadn’t joined our company? For employees who have had largely positive experiences since joining your company (promotions, pay increases, buying a new home or car, vacationing) questioning their alternative could amplify their positive emotion towards the company.

What if you didn’t buy our product/service? Has the customer received real benefits or had a very positive experience as a result of doing business with your company? Has a customer reduced costs, improved efficiency, avoided costly mistakes or injury, experienced increased profits or reduced delivery time? Helping customers visualize their alternative realities could help cement their positive associations with your brand.

Of course you’ll need to be careful with the approach. Subtle introductions will serve much better than a blundering statement like “Imagine how many more angry customers you’d have if you were still using your old, inconsistent shipping company,” which will come across as unprofessional and may even threaten your future business together.


What insights into your customers have you been able to glean? Have you used any of the above ideas? Let us know in the comments.

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