Cognitive Bias and Customer Success: a quick guide

Critical thinking and a smarter approach to customer success

What’s the #1 trait you look for when hiring a CSM? To me, critical thinking represents the future of our industry, as well as a much needed skill for the current state of customer success.

A CSM must handle frequent context switching, be able to untangle complicated relationship issues, and clearly communicate technical nuance with clarity and persuasion both internally and externally, while creating value with customers. The ability to think critically underpins all of these activities.

But how do you instill critical thinking skills with your team?

To start, I think it’s important to think about thinking. Understanding how we make decisions is an excellent point of departure for more robust conversations about how critical thinking applies to customer success.

And one way to better understand decision making is to understand well-documented phenomena that impact our ability to think critically. These phenomena are known as cognitive biases.

Coaching your team on cognitive bias is just one aspect of critical thinking, but raising awareness of bias will better equip your team to understand customers and internal stakeholders, as well to creatively solve challenging problems.

I find myself referencing these ideas often, so I thought I’d write a brief primer on the key concepts for myself and for others in customer success. I hope you find this info helpful!

The basics of bias

Cognitive biases are well-defined and heavily studied patterns of thinking that detract or impair sound judgment and critical thinking.

Studied in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral economics, these ideas have been popularized in books like Daniel Kanehmans’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, and highlighted frequently by the likes of Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger.

Though the concepts may sound academic,

understanding their influence on rational thought enables a person to think more clearly, better relate to those around them, and ultimately make better decisions.

Sounds useful for a customer success team, right?

Understanding cognitive bias is important, but why have biases become part of the way humans think and operate?

Buster Benson , in his informative Medium Post , captures 4 “conundrums of the universe” that have created the context for cognitive bias to emerge:

  • Information overload — There is just too much information in the world, we have no choice but to filter almost all of it out.
  • Not enough meaning — The world is very confusing, and we end up only seeing a tiny sliver of it, but we need to make some sense of it in order to survive
  • The need to act fast — With every piece of new information, we need to do our best to assess our ability to affect the situation, apply it to decisions, simulate the future to predict what might happen next, and otherwise act on our new insight.
  • What parts should we remember? — We need to make constant bets and trade-offs around what we try to remember and what we forget.

In response, it is believed, our brains have developed tricks and shortcuts to deal with these overwhelming inputs, which we today call “cognitive bias.”

There are lots of cognitive biases documented by academics — and more than 175 listed in the Wikipedia article.

Why does it matter? Because your team members inherently possess these biases, and they act upon them. So do your customers, and so do you.

I bet you coach your team on tactical matters like email cadence and presentation prep, but how often do you talk to them about how they think?

As Carl Jung put it,

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

As you can tell, there’s a wide world of cognitive bias out there. If you’re interested in learning more, I’d suggest the bias articles on the Farnham Street blog, as well as reading Thinking, Fast and Slow.


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