I was standing in line at the grocery store; nervous. I hadn’t intended to stop into this store, but as I was leaving the house my wife hit me with the “as long as you’re going out” request. She wanted me to return something she bought a few days earlier. We have a little game in our house. Neither of us likes returning things to stores, so we see who can most effectively dump the job on the other. It has gotten to the point where I don’t tell her if I am going to run errands anymore, for fear that my trip to one store will turn into a full day of driving throughout the entire metro area and standing in the Customer Service line. I am more afraid of hearing “As long as you’re going out” than I am “The IRS called for you.” As I stood in line, I wondered why the simple act of returning something was such a source of stress, especially since this store had a No Questions Asked return policy. I also wondered how far this stress could go in affecting the decisions of all customers, clients, and co-workers.
Later, as I dug into the issue further, everything pointed back to one fact about the brain. A fact that I believe affects the decision-making process in all business; our brains have not evolved one tiny bit from the hunter-gatherer stage of human evolution. Human propagation has advanced far too quickly for biology to keep pace, so the situations we force our brains to deal with don’t match its biological processes. Humans evolved in social groups—tribes. The tribe provided the most crucial element for survival; safety. Safety was assured by familiarity with everyone in your social group. Strangers threatened that safety. Oddly enough, safety was not often threatened by violence from other tribes; strangers brought with them germs and pathogens. More people have died on Earth from disease than war. In the simplest sense, anyone not like ourselves or our tribe is dangerous. Also, tribes usually consisted of about thirty people. This size made it easy to keep track of everyone in the tribe. Humans are hard-wired to value two things in other people, familiarity and similarity. These two qualities make trusting and working with each other easier. Even if there is conflict between you and the other person, the conflict will be resolved more easily in the presence of familiarity and similarity.
So, a brain that is wired to respond best when surrounded by and small group familiar people must now navigate in a world full of strangers. This is why, no matter how easy a store makes the return process, it is stressful. This is why people choose self-service options instead of working with a live human being, even if the self-service option is slower and more complicated. This is why online sales are outpacing brick-and-mortar retailers. This is why, when my wife and I suggested having a home help service visit her parents a few times a week to help with chores around the house, her parents’ main concern was, “Can we be sure to get the same person every day?” The American consumer is constantly trying to reduce the stress that comes from dealing with strangers. Sadly, the result is that people simply prefer to not deal with anyone else at all.
So, how can any business reasonably expect to overcome the neurological obstacle of the stranger-fearing brain? One answer might lie in emulating children. When you drop a six-year-old off at day care, the first thing he or she does is run up to the nearest child and ask, “What’s your name? Do you want to play?” I watched one child approach another and say, “Let’s be friends.” They ran off and spent hours together. The brain of a child has an entirely different focus than the brain of an adult; it is more intent on process than outcome. Essentially, “Am I enjoying this?” is more important than “Am I getting something done?” I am not suggesting that we adults abandon our outcome-based mentality. How else would the lawn get mowed? I am also not suggesting that we attempt to form close relationships with every person we meet. Frankly, our brains wouldn’t allow it. The human brain can only accept a handful of close relationships at a time, and about thirty acquaintances beyond that. Everyone else we meet must be relegated to the outer perimeter of our social circle. What I am suggesting is that, in order to compete with the ease and low-stress options of non-human contact, businesses must train employees to remove the obstacle of unfamiliarity.
A good example is the search for home services for my in-laws my wife and I just conducted. The first company I called was very professional and highly qualified. They were also entirely lacking in familiarity or similarity. The woman on the phone jumped right to her check-list. What was my name (with spelling)? The names of my in-laws (with spelling)? Any medical issues? Single-family home or apartment? I immediately felt stressed. I was searching for a service that involved intense human contact, but the conversation lacked any humanity whatsoever. It felt like I was refinancing a mortgage. In a very short period of time, I knew all about their services and pricing, and I didn’t want to buy them. Even after talking to the woman for ten minutes, I didn’t know her name. She didn’t make it into my tribe.
This company’s competitors might think, “This is good. We are so much better than that, and now we’ll stand out,” but the truth is, it only takes one experience like this for customers to assume that all companies that offer this service are the same. That first phone call made me want to skip the whole process and just have our in-laws move in with us. Then I made my second phone call. The next company on the list was a night-and-day difference from the first. When I started listing the services we were looking for, the man stopped me and said, “First, my name is Dave. What’s yours? Hi, Steve. Why don’t you start by just telling me a little bit about yourself, your in-laws, your wife, and what’s going on?” Dave’s approach took only a few minutes longer, but you can probably guess which company I recommended to my wife after I got off the phone.
Like it or not, people don’t make decisions about who to buy from, or who to work with, based on facts and statistics. We subconsciously choose associate with those who are familiar and similar to us; people in our tribe. And our tribe can easily extend beyond the outdated boundaries of race, ethnicity, dialect, region, or country. Humans have an amazing capacity to adapt to a changing environment, as long as we take steps to talk to each other like we are kids playing in the sandbox; to openly extend membership of our tribe. Train your staff to speak and behave toward customers, and each other, in ways that are more familiar, more human. Make people feel like they are part of the tribe.
Stevie Ray is a keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.