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What are heuristics? Mental shortcuts & client feedback

Heuristics are mental shortcuts; they are shortcuts created to help us make sense of the information that we receive and patterns that we perceive. They help free up processing power in the brain. They are assumptions that we make to speed up decision making and they allow us to make judgements quickly.

How can heuristics affect client feedback?

The problem with shortcuts is that they are not always accurate and because they happen subconsciously, we do not realise that we have made a mistake. They lead to cognitive biases. When we become aware of these shortcuts, we can reflect on their impact and we can treat them as hypotheses to be tested rather than assumptions of truth.

This article aims to hold a mirror up to some the shortcuts that you might be using when you gather and make sense of client feedback.

One of the peculiarities of gathering feedback in professional services firms is that the feedback tends to cover not only information that is subjective and external to the professionals (fees, technology, facilities) but also information that is personal to the professional delivering the service (understands my business, service delivery, relationship). Given this personal element to client feedback, understanding the psychology can help professionals get more from the insight sought and received.

Confirmation bias

This heuristic makes us seek out information that confirms our beliefs, expectations, or hypothesis. It is makes us more likely to focus on information that agrees with us and dismiss information which does not.

It does not take long to see how this type of bias could hamper the gathering of feedback or making sense of feedback when it is being reported back. If subconsciously we are focusing on the information that confirms our beliefs about the client relationship, we might not be giving adequate weight to information that does not, or we might probe further into one area at the expense of another.

This is not just about looking for the positives. Think of a scenario where we believe that a client is unhappy with our relationship because we are more expensive than the competition. We can think about how this might play out. We might ask: “how do you feel about our pricing?”. They might respond: “whilst you offer good value for money, you are more expensive than the competition.” Confirmation bias would lead us to focus on the second part of what the client has said and downplay the importance of the first part of the response. Rather than ask “and what do you think makes us good value?” we might ask “and how much more expensive are we?”. These follow-on questions would produce different feedback and could lead to two very different conversations.

Negativity bias

A different kind of bias that we can hold is negativity bias. Here we exhibit a preference to attend to bad news.

We might think of a time where we had an appraisal at work and 99% was positive, but it was the 1% negative that consumed our thoughts afterwards. This is negativity bias (and possibly rumination too, but that’s for another blog!).

If, when we gather client feedback, we don’t attend to all pieces of information equally, then we will not do all we can to gain the insight we need to grow from the feedback given. Whilst it is important to uncover the negatives and act on them, we equally need to learn from the positives and make sure that we continue to do them and build on what makes us strong. When reporting the feedback, this bias could impact on the way the whole tone of the meeting went and the nature of the response to it.

Fundamental attribution bias

This is the tendency to over attribute other people’s behaviour to personality-based factors, while over attributing one’s own behaviour to situational factors.

Think about this in the context of feedback. A partner seeking feedback about his team might hear that one of the partners lacked understanding of the deal. The same feedback might also have been received about him in relation to an understanding of the sector. This bias could lead the partner to attribute his colleague’s behaviour to the fact that he is lazy and likes to focus on what he knows. In contrast, he might attribute his behaviour to the fact that he was busy on numerous deals and did not have the time to demonstrate what he knows about the sector.

This bias is important when gathering client feedback because it might mask what the real issues are or prevent the team from truly uncovering what lies at the heart of any particular problem.

Projection bias

Rather than seek to understand what the other person might think or feel about something, we assume that others are like us and we project our thoughts or feelings on to them.

Again, it is easy to see how this might be a stumbling block to client feedback. Already those gathering feedback might be blind to their listening styles. Any of those listening preferences added to the impact of a projection bias could lead to differing feedback being gathered from the client.

There are many other biases that exist. Understanding that they exist and noticing when they might be at play can help you to be better able to hear what your client is telling you.

Client Talk was created to change the conversations that professionals are having with their clients. We do that by drawing on coaching psychology to create powerful conversations with clients. To find out how we can help work with you to gather more insightful feedback please contact us.




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