By: Colin Shaw
Founder & CEO | Customer Experience Thought Leader | Consultancy & Training | Keynote Speaker | C-Suite Network Member
Economists hate surveys. They don’t trust them because people lie in surveys. Economists prefer to look at what people do instead, which, as we know, is what people are incented to do. Understanding these truths is critical to the work of an economist, and it is also vital to moving your Customer Experience to the next level.
Let’s say you accept this premise, that people lie in surveys. However, you need to ask customers which product they value the most or how likely they are to do something in particular. How then should you get information about what people really want?
According to Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, the answer lies in their online activity. Actions speak louder than words. It’s true in relationships, in customer interactions, and apparently in Google Searches.
The Social-Desirability Bias
Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is an economist, data scientist and an author. His book, Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, explores how big data reveals the biases we have and how we think. After analyzing an assortment of data sources from online activity, his insight was that when we are alone with the internet browser, we express our real interests more than we do in a survey. It is true because of the social-desirability bias.
The social-desirability bias describes how when we are taking a survey we answer the questions in a way we believe others will approve. Whether that means exaggerating the good, downplaying the bad or lying outright, we don’t want to share our undesirable behavior for fear of being judged, even on a survey. There is no incentive to be honest on the survey.
However, those fears are assuaged when the search engine is open before us, full of answers. It won’t judge us for our queries or our interests. Moreover, lying to the search engine is pointless; we must tell the truth to get the information we need. So, the search engine incents us to tell it our secrets, which we do—and it records them all.
The social desirability bias is the reason you can’t trust what your respondents say on a survey. In a recent Freakonomics podcast, Stephens-Davidowitz gave an excellent example of this concept. They asked people how they voted in the last election. Many who didn’t vote still responded with a candidate name because voting is socially desirable behavior. This behavior is why Stephens-Davidowitz says economists don’t like surveys. You can’t trust what people say; you have to look at what they do.
Google Knows the Truth—And They Will Tell You, Too
Google keeps track of what people search for and anyone can look at it. It’s called Google Trends. As they say on the Google Trends Page, “All our data is open source, so you can download and play with it for yourself.”
Click here to see what today’s Google Trends are.
As part of their advertising effort, you can also look at what the most common local and national searches are for specific subjects, including the number of searches for certain words or phrases. Google provides it to help you build an online campaign using keywords. However, it is also insightful about what information people search for online.
Click here to see how the general population is searching for your relevant keywords
What people say they will do and what they do are often different things. It’s all part of how our irrationality influences our behavior. As in the survey example, it’s irrational to lie on a survey, especially when it’s anonymous or at least private. In many cases, the respondent will never interact with the researcher again, so any judgment will not have lasting repercussions. Stephens-Davidowitz explains that lying is a habit for people, so much so that “these behaviors carry over in surveys.”
Embrace the Irrationality We All Share
In my latest book, my co-author Professor Ryan Hamilton of Emory University and I share seven imperatives for moving your Customer Experience to the next level. The second imperative is to embrace the all-encompassing nature of customers’ irrationality. Part of this concept is the idea that people can always tell you why they did something; but they can’t always tell you why they really did something.
I often refer to the story of how Disneyland guests told Disneyland researchers that they wanted the option of a salad at the park’s food venues. Disneyland added salads to the menu. However, when guests attend the park, they don’t order the salad; they order junk food. To me, this says that respondents don’t want the survey taker to know that they choose junk food over a healthier option. It is more socially acceptable to want a salad than junk, so that’s what respondents say.
If you were to ask those same customers why they didn’t order a salad at Disneyland, they might say any number of reasons. Some of them might even be the truth. The majority, however, will probably be yet another version of the “truth.” Moreover, the person telling you their version of the truth might not even be aware of the lie they are telling. Irrationality is a cunning mistress.
It seems like surveys are useless. But I wouldn’t go that far. Listening to what customers say is important. Surveys have their place and they do reveal a lot about customers, albeit mostly what customers want you to think of them. However, considering survey responses the whole truth, is a mistake.
Instead, survey responses are only part of the truth. It is equally important to compare what customers say to what customers do. This insight will give you the opportunity to anticipate their needs and surprise and delight them in the Customer Experience.