How to look into your customers’ brains

Mike Garner
Feb 25 · 7 min read

Human beings are by nature self-centred egomaniacs.

The words they use are powerful elixirs that bolster their sense of self and their sense of place.

Rudyard Kipling said

Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

People love to talk about themselves

So it should surprise no-one that research by the Harvard University Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab has found that we love talking about ourselves.

In fact, it triggers the same chemical reaction as people experience during sex (no tittering at the back please). So the more they share personal information, the more they want to.

But audiences aren’t always listening

People are very bad at listening — but don’t like to admit it.

We evaluate our listening skills rather like our driving, all thinking we’re average or slightly better than average.

But we’re not.

In a study carried out in 1999, “Unskilled and Unaware of It, How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”, Cornell psychologists Justin Kruger and David Dunning said:

“people hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains….this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do … [they] reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it”.

We have our own problems, thank you very much

What’s more, we’re not naturally wired for listening because we come into conversations with our prejudices and pre-conceived ideas. Couple that with a low attention span and an intolerance for the views of others and things are going to get complicated.

Photo by Rob Schreckhise on Unsplash

Most people are wrapped up in their own day-to-day.

  1. Meeting their targets and goals
  2. What’s on TV tonight?
  3. Does my partner still love me?
  4. Am I a good parent?
  5. Will I make it to the end of the month?
  6. Do I eat the right things?
  7. What’s my future going to be like?
  8. Who slept with whom in the office last week
  9. Things that happened 10 years ago
  10. Have I got cancer? (This happened to a friend of mine recently).
  11. Does my bum look big in this (.sic)?
  12. Why am I not happy?
  13. Am I ageing too fast?
  14. Do people like me?
  15. Are my kids OK?
  16. What’s for dinner tonight?

The ability of the human brain to find things to worry about knows no bounds.

So there is the dilemma. Your audience may be desperate to hear from you because it has a problem, but isn’t interested in what you have to say. Superficially at least, it’s more often than not concerned about other things.

Everyone is talking but no-one is listening. That’s a bugger.

And why should marketers care?

Photo by Pedro Kümmel on Unsplash

We live in a world where people are paying attention less and less. They are constantly distracted by this shiny object or that.

When I were a lad, things are simpler. Yes, there was interruption marketing but it was limited mainly to television and radio. If you weren’t sitting in front of it or listening to it, you were largely unaffected by it.

These days, any Tom, Dick or Harry can call themselves a marketer, advertiser or dare I say, copywriter. They have opportunities to get in front of you all the time. The noise can get unbearable.

Estimates of how many ads we see each day vary greatly but seem to be somewhere between 4,000 and 10,000.

It probably depends on where we are and what media we’re consuming. London commuters that listen to commercial radio in the morning and watch commercial TV in the evening are exposed to far more than countryside farmers who listen to Radio 4 in the morning for Farming Today and watch prime time BBC in the evening.

However many it is, it’s a lot. Today’s world is full of push marketing.

What’s the way through the noise?

Start with listening better.

So what is listening?

You can build better relationships and get ahead in business if you learn how to actively listen

Cash Nickerson, author of The Samurai Listener.

Listening is not just the art of shutting up and letting other people talk. It’s much more than that. It requires the listener to actively take part in the conversation and act upon what the speaker has to say.

In Managing Group Process (Praeger, 2003), author Marvin Gottlieb identifies four elements of good listening:

Attention — the focused perception of both visual and verbal stimuli

Hearing — the physiological act of ‘opening the gates to your ears’

Understanding — assigning meaning to the messages received

Remembering — the storing of meaningful information”

Marketers aren’t very good at this because they get blinded by all the stats that say they have 5, 10 or however many seconds it is to grab your attention.

How to be a better listener

I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.
Ernest Hemingway

Nature gave us one tongue and two ears so we could hear twice as much as we speak.

Marketers, especially those with a script, have trouble sometimes differentiating between hearing and listening. Next time you’re talking to a customer, you could try:

  1. Listening is learning, not just being polite
  2. Repeat back what you heard
  3. Calm the noise down in your head
  4. Don’t interrupt, wait till the other person has finished
  5. Summarise what the other person said
  6. Ask more questions

Questions? Did you say questions? What is this sorcery?

Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash

It seems obvious really. The way to find out what your customers want doesn’t lie in a complex computer algorithm or in some magic sauce in an ivory tower far, far away.

The best way to find out what your customers want is to ask them.

Who knew?

How do I ask better questions of my customers?

Feedback is one of the most powerful gifts you can give your business. In the right circumstances, people will tell you exactly what they think, whether it’s negative or positive.

Your feedback is as good as the questions you ask. It’s never a bad thing to ask questions of course and you will get information whatever you ask, but if you want to get real value, a little thought is required.

“Be a good listener”, said Dale Carnegie in 1936, “Ask people questions they will enjoy answering”.

We know that people love talking about themselves, now’s the time to harness that.

1. Ask more questions

Research going back the 1970s shows that conversations have two major goals: to exchange information and getting people to like us. More recently, we’ve learnt we can achieve both.

The Harvard Business School ran an exercise where they instructed groups of students to strike up a conversation. Some were asked to pose as few questions as possible and others as many as possible. The results were surprising.

Our research suggests several approaches that can enhance the power and efficacy of queries. The best approach for a given situation depends on the goals of the conversationalists — specifically, whether the discussion is cooperative (for example, the duo is trying to build a relationship or accomplish a task together) or competitive (the parties seek to uncover sensitive information from each other or serve their own interests), or some combination of both.

Questions build trust and likeability and must be an essential part of any marketing exercise.

2. Be specific in those questions

If you ask a generic question, you’ll get a generic answer.

How was your experience today?

Fine…it was good….I liked it

What problems do you have with this service?

I don’t like it…it’s a bit annoying….

See what it looks like when we get a bit more specific

What was your favourite experience today?

I liked the welcome I had

Tell me about a bad experience you had with this service today

I felt that I was being ignored and my opinion didn’t matter.

3. Tap into your customer’s emotional needs

If you've done your customer avatar exercise properly, you’ll know about their emotional needs and the strings you need to pull to make them buy from you.

In 2015, the Harvard Business Review published a study by Magids, Zorfas and Leemon of customer emotional drivers that gave customers an emotional attachment to any product or service.

  1. To stand out from the crowd.
  2. Have confidence in the future
  3. Enjoy a sense of well-being
  4. Feel a sense of freedom
  5. Feel a sense of thrill
  6. Feel a sense of belonging
  7. Protect the environment
  8. Be the person I want to be
  9. Feel secure
  10. Succeed in life

And so we come full circle. Human beings are self-centred egomaniacs. They love talking about themselves. They’ll ignore what marketers and advertisers have to say all day long.

Until you talk to them about them. It will inflate their sense of ego and they will open up like a book.

So let them talk about themselves for they will do so. As long as you are asking the questions, it will be on your terms.

Mike Garner

Written by

Copywriter, London exile interested in human communication and targeting your ideal client. Lived in France 20 years. Get emails at

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