by Dr. Martín Azar, Psycholinguist & Communication Consultant
Let me begin with a little anecdote
Some days ago, I ordered online a couple of burgers from my favorite place. Before clicking “order,” I noticed that little text box that says: “Add a comment.” I live in Berlin, and here burgers are usually served with mayonnaise and ketchup, instead of mustard –which is my favorite dressing. After ordering food for years, my general feeling is that nobody pays particular attention to these online messages, but I still found myself one more time automatically writing “MUSTARD” out of pure bureaucratic inertia. However, this time I stopped myself at this point.
I’m a psycholinguist, I study how our minds respond to linguistic stimuli… “I should know better,” I said to myself. So I tried this little experiment. Instead of taking that text box as a bureaucratic form – which has led me to write so many impersonal, dry or plainly rude messages –, I decided to take it as an opportunity. I wrote instead:
“It’d be great if you could please add mustard to my burgers – and, if possible, sth spicy as well ;). Thank you very much! Btw, you make the best burgers in the city! Cheers, Martin.”
Psychology of persuasion 101: If you make a request more personal (using not only “I,” but also “you,” including your first name), politer (with “it’d be great,” “please,” “thank you,” “cheers”), more casual (“sth,” “;)” “btw”), and especially complimentary (“best burgers!”), you’re likely to elicit greater empathy. So as to test the efficacy of these elementary rhetoric upgrades, I also increased my request (not only “mustard,” but also “sth spicy”).
I imagined that probably nobody would even read this message. And if anybody would, it’d probably be a random and indifferent clerk with no actual incentive to customize orders. Still, it was possible that the message would reach someone who felt responsible for the company or the food, someone who could take the compliment as personal, enjoy the humane treatment, and put special care in my order.
My girlfriend laughed at this long-shot speculation while we waited for the burgers. But to our surprise, the experiment worked even better than expected: The order arrived faster and warmer than usual, and we received not only the two burgers dressed with mustard (judging from past experiences, that was already a success), but also accompanied by two additional plastic boxes: one with fresh spicy jalapeños and another one with a spicy dipping sauce!
I felt very happy and proud of my little successful experiment – consider that, in fact, there were “cheeseburgers with jalapeños” listed in the menu, but priced 25% more than the plain cheeseburgers I had actually paid for. “Hence, another little sample of the value of words,” I said to myself.
In any case, the most interesting thing is what happened next. After dining, I noticed I had received an email on behalf of the burger shop asking for my opinion about their service.
I always receive those automatic emails after ordering food… And, I must confess, I never take the trouble of answering (“Internet has no shortage of reviewers” I’d say to myself, “Who would read it anyway?”). But I’m not cynical either. I had just had a concrete proof that somebody on the other side had actually paid attention to the message I had sent. So, since they had responded to my request by taking the trouble of giving me an extra attention, this time I felt obliged to respond to their request by taking the trouble of giving them an extra positive review.
I felt thankful and their review-request email gave me the opportunity of thanking. Their responsiveness incentivized my responsiveness, and this little exchange felt almost like a conversation. A clear win-win situation: I got a better service; they got a more loyal customer and better advertisement – if they were smart to broadcast my review.
Why am I telling you this story? I’m not trying to recommend you a particular burger shop, of course. I just want to share a very simple but fundamental lesson I learnt from this seemingly banal anecdote: the value that is created by seeking, nurturing and harnessing personal communication between organizations and its participants – be these companies and customers or institutions and citizens.
WARMTH & COMPETENCE: How we judge and are judged by others
When you think about a person (your partner, your friend or anyone else) you get activation in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) of your brain. This part of the brain is responsible for a cognitive mechanism called mindreading: your capacity to imagine the mental states of others, to imagine what they are thinking, what they feel, what they want. And you use this skill each time you engage in any social activity: from chatting and playing games to dancing and working together. It’s the cognitive basis of empathy and human communication.
Social-cognition scientist Susan Fiske has done a great research about this mental skill and how it intervenes in our social relationships. One of the things Fiske has shown is that some people activate our mindreading instinct more than others, with some people we spontaneously feel like empathizing more or less (Fiske & Harris, 2007). How come?
According to Fiske’s research, when we encounter a new person, our mind performs two very fast and automatic judgments: first, a judgment of WARMTH (how well-intentioned you think they are: good or bad?) and, second, a judgment of COMPETENCE (how capable of enacting their intentions you think they are: smart or dumb, powerful or weak?). And the levels of W&C we perceive in others greatly influence our feelings and behavior towards them – in case you wonder: the stereotypical -W-C person elicits contempt, +W-C elicits pity, -W+C elicits envy, and +W+C elicits pride (Fiske et al., 2007).
But the effect is even deeper: people that are perceived as -W-C (that is, as cold and incompetent) don’t only make us feel contempt, but they also activate the least our mindreading instinct – you can even see lesser activation of the mPFC. Our brain literally dehumanizes people that we see this way. And this effect can also be observed in psychological experiments: When people are shown images of stereotypes they’ve categorized in this way (e.g. drug addicts and convicts) and are asked “What do you think he/she’s thinking?” they tend to give evasive answers like “I can’t get into his mind” “I have no idea, it’s gross.”
But there’s also hope: people’s perception can be altered by making them communicate and imagine others’ minds (Fiske, 2009). The more you talk to someone, the more the two of you will become likely to perceive each other as +W+C (warm and competent). And this stereotype makes us feel the opposite: pride and admiration. We identify with so-perceived people, we feel they are part of us, we want them around, and we want to be like them. Also, these people activate our mindreading instinct the most. This is how we perceive our beloved relatives, friends, in-group mates, and our heroes. We like to connect with these people, and our mPFC lights up in joy and excitement when we do.
In a further research with Chris Malone, Susan Fiske discovered that not only people activate our mindreading instinct, but also organizations: companies, brands, institutions, and teams (Fiske & Malone, 2012). Even if we’re aware that a country, a football team, or a clothing brand is made of many individuals, we seem to think of groups of people by recruiting some of the same neural circuitry and cognitive mechanisms that we use for thinking of particular individuals.
And, indeed, when perception of W&C in brands was measured through cross-cultural surveys and correlated with customer behaviour, it was discovered that it is one of the highest predictors of purchase intent and brand loyalty – It seems to be deeply true that a happy customer, one that actually likes your brand identity and mission, is really the best marketer you can ever find.
+W+C is certainly the sweet spot of social perception, not only for individuals, but also for any kind of organization. Whenever you feel a brand as very popular and likeable, you’re in front of a brand that succeeded in being perceived as high in warmth and high in competence, as good and smart: from the foods and drinks everyone likes to the software and devices everyone enjoys using and the institutions that enjoy the best reputation and people voluntarily praise and defend.
How can you reach the sweet spot of being perceived as WARM and COMPETENT? You have to interact with others, you have to communicate and be responsive to what others think and say, so as to generate a feeling of mutual awareness, responsiveness, and trust. As a person, you can start by following Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People. But how can your organization strive to become the person you want it to be in others’ lives – a warm friend to be loved and a competent hero to be proud of?
CUSTOMER FEEDBACK: 6 keys to use it to humanize your brand
How can my organization really communicate personally with all its customers, members, and other organizations? I only have one mouth and two ears… Some decades ago, you would’ve been right. However, lucky for us, we’re living in the Information Age. The fact that we’re much more communicated than ever has allowed our organizations to grow in number, complexity and efficiency more than ever. And one of the best simple examples of this has become a core of online markets: the invention of online customer feedback services. In particular, I’m talking about reviews systems, which allow us to communicate our opinions or experiences regarding different products & service providers at an unprecedented massive scale.
When online shopping sites appeared, the first reaction of both users and sellers was naturally mistrust – selling or buying something from a person you don’t know, you can’t see, mediated only by the screen…? it felt imprudent for both ends of the exchange. In a market, we don’t only trade with money, services and products, but also with trust, pertinent personal information without which no human organization can work. In online markets, people lacked information to think of others as people they can trust – to mindread them and feel warmth. And this communicational deficiency kept the whole system frozen: sellers wouldn’t sell and buyers wouldn’t buy.
Once sites started to implement reviews systems, people could finally start exchanging market-pertinent information about each other, information about how good a service, the provider, or the customer was. In this simple way, review systems have given online markets an opportunity to generate trust, and this has fueled the explosion of ecommerce to the amazing level of development and complexity we know today.
So as to get the dimension of the impact of online review systems in our lives, consider that nowadays 97% of people google a company before making a purchase (Conductor), and 84% trust online reviews as much as opinions from family and friends (Inc.). Your online strategy is nowadays your most important strategy.
But how does your organization look in Google My Business, by the way?
All these upgrades have brought, of course, new complexities. Managing your online reputation is hard work. It requires different skills than the ones you use in your everyday life. If you lead an organization of any kind (either an institution or a business), here are the six most fundamental steps you must follow to successfully leverage reviews systems:
One: SEEK. you can’t just wait for reviews to arrive, you need to proactively provide people the opportunity to review you. In principle, anyone can open Google, search for a site, and write a review about you. But the truth is that, by default, most people do that when they’re deeply upset rather than when they are deeply happy – we have a well known negative bias. Most people troll publically about what they hate, but when they receive good service they usually only tell their friends about it. In consequence, businesses must reach out reviewers – e.g. Sending a user-friendly customer-satisfaction survey via email – if they don’t want to be associated with a misleading proportion of negativity.
Two: PROCESS. You have to work on your reviews dataset. Remember we’re talking about internet: Once your channel of communication is open you’ll receive also ads about anything you can think of, competitors making up false reviews to sabotage your reputation, people offering you false reviews for money, etc. You have to take care of verifying the authenticity of the reviews you receive, of cleaning up spam and also of not being extorted by sites that threaten to censor your good reviews and broadcast only the bad ones if you don’t pay them. There’s not much you can do to stop offenders, but there are international regulations for ensuring authenticity and ethical behavior that you must carefully abide to and demand (s. General Data Protection Regulation).
Three: SHOWCASE. You need to syndicate and broadcast your reviews smartly. Think of your Google appearance as your actual CV – the one most people will actually ever see. One thing is to achieve your goals, another thing is to display them in your CV, and yet another is to distribute your CV. The way an organization appears on the first page of a Google search constitutes its face in the online market. The way you humanize it is by showcasing your reviews strategically, by displaying what people think and feel of you, as if they were the facial traits and gestures of your brand.
Four: RESPOND. You have to try to answer as many reviews as possible. You don’t have to only look responsive but also be responsive. And you have to take care that the responses are as personal and humane as you want your company to be. Thank positive reviews and give an answer to negative ones. And if you change your service as a consequence of these exchanges, let people know what you’ve learnt.
Five: ANALYSE & LEARN. You need to study in detail the reviews you get and learn from them as much as you can. Compare the amount of information sellers collect nowadays – 5k comments about a dentist, 2M about a book, 10B about a video. No company in the past century had access to so much data about human behavior and preferences as we do. Treasure both good and bad reviews, and analyze them as thoroughly as you can, because they’re the best thermometer of what people think about you, which is crucial for assessing in which direction you can better serve them.
Six: IMPROVE & TELL. Once you’ve learnt through your customer feedback, use this as an advantage to improve your business: Implement the necessary changes to serve your clients better, now that you know better what they like. After doing so, let your clients know that you’ve heard them and made the necessary adjustments. That’s what will keep your communication with your clients flowing in a virtuous circle. A customer whose negative review has been positively answered is 70% more likely to come back, and reading that story makes new customers trust you more.
This is, of course, a lot of work. That’s why companies like eKomi have created the service of online reputation management. eKomi is a Google Partner that uses a fully integrated software & human system to solve these five steps: efficiently collect, process, syndicate, showcase, analyze, and learn from authentic reviews. Making it easier than ever for organizations and customers to engage in mutually sensible interactions that humanize and enrich their relationships. As it’s slogan states: it’s the feedback company.
Book your free consultation with eKomi feedback specialists to connect with your customers and start discovering right now how they see you:
Here you can read a great testimony of how eKomi’s review management solution has helped increase trust, responsiveness and the overall quality of the customer experience in the insurance industry, an industry that has traditionally struggled with lack of transparency, skepticism, and disconformity. In collaboration with eKomi, an exemplar insurance company has managed to establish a fluent – and constantly improving – dialogue with its customers that fuels their programs for customer experience optimization.
Recently, I have started collaborating with eKomi as Communication Consultant, to help them keep improving the online environment, by making it more informative, trustworthy, responsive, and ultimately more humane.
Write me to tell me about the communicational challenges of your organization!