Removing Unconscious Bias From Customer Conversations

You can learn about unconscious bias through reading and training, but exposure to them is your responsibility.

Removing Unconscious Bias from Customer Conversations

As salespeople, we bring who we are, the seen and the hidden, to every customer conversation. It can be a competitive advantage, however, it can also sometimes get in the way of our objectives. Unconscious bias can derail a sales conversation in several ways. Being aware of your own biases and understanding how they influence your customer’s journey can improve your relationships and increase your close rate.

Biases are shortcuts or habits that are inherent in everyone. They are a design feature of our brains that helped us evolve. We are constantly inundated with information. One study found that we are exposed to about 11 million pieces of information every minute, however, we can only process about forty pieces in any given minute. . Biases, preferences, and habits are all cognitive shortcuts that help us deal with the difference. They assist us in recognizing where we are likely to find food or shelter, or where we might expect danger to be. These behaviors and reactions are automatic and can easily hijack the more rational regions of our brain. They are neither good nor bad. There are as many as 180 identified types of bias, and they are most likely to get in our way when we are unaware of them.

Biases that get in the way of great customer conversations

Any assumptions you make about your customer is a bias and will affect your behavior during a conversation whether you’re aware of it or not. What assumptions do you make about their buying motivation based on factors like their gender, age, size, race, or religion? Do you adjust your questions or recommendations based on those cues?. If the answer to any of those questions does affect your conversation strategy, your unconscious bias could be hijacking your sale. This is the essence of our challenge with unconscious biases: the shortcut of assumptions based on experience is dangerous unless you check those biases and are open to new information.

The first biases that can get in our way and one of the most common categories of bias is called heuristic bias. Although there are several types of heuristic biases, they all come from our experience: ‘I did that before, and it worked, so I’ll do it again.’ It could manifest in our thinking as “The last five cars I sold to women were because they like how they looked in the car, ” or “I’ve been doing this for twenty years, and I can tell when a person is not serious about buying.” Confirmation bias, validity bias, familiarity bias, and affinity bias are all versions of heuristic biases.

The anchoring bias tells us to hold tight to the first impression or piece of information we receive. Sales and discounts are based on this principle, and you may unconsciously rely on it to estimate how long it takes to go somewhere or predict how a brand performs, or gauge how reliable someone might be based on their ethnicity. Yes, racism, sexism, misogyny are biased.

The halo effect bias can alter our perception of a person. We might feel that because a person dresses in expensive clothes, they must be an important person at this organization. It’s why a company can charge more for a product marked “organic,” independent of the actual source, impact on the environment, or cost structure. It’s why CEOs are taller than average, and why the best-looking candidate usually gets elected.

Validity Bias tendency to be overconfident in the accuracy of our judgments, specifically in our interpretations and predictions regarding a given situation
Confirmation Bias our underlying tendency to notice, focus on and give greater credence to evidence that fits with our existing beliefs.
Familiarity Bias the preference of the individuals to remain confined to what is familiar to them
Affinity Bias tendency to get along with others who are like us
Anchoring Bias our first impression is usually correct
Halo Effect positive impressions of people, brands, and products in one area positively influence our feelings in another area.


How to avoid your biases getting in the way

The challenge of unconscious bias is just that: they are unconscious, and based deep in our individual behavioral psychology. They are therefore difficult to uncover ourselves. The will to change combined with an openness to exploring your own unconscious bias is the first step to understanding. Situational self-awareness is the key. Prepare for your next customer conversation by challenging the assumptions you’ve made about the situation and people; make a list if it helps. During the conversation, ask open-ended questions that allow your customer to tell you who they are. Be very careful not to let your unconscious biases drive your questions. Post-meeting, review the assumptions that you were able to overturn. If possible, have someone you trust to listen to the conversation and challenge your assumptions.

Curiosity and empathy are the conversation skills that have the most impact in establishing a great rapport with your customer and helping to break your unconscious biases. Are you in such a hurry that you can’t put aside your assumptions and get to know more about your client? We track data on the quality of customer conversations, and year over year, we find that salespeople, both B2B and B2C, do not ask enough curious open-ended questions. When they hit an objection, they respond with a solution; they assume they know what product or feature or specification is required for the fix (an example of the previously mentioned heuristic bias) and jump to the solution immediately. Afterward, they wonder why the customer continued with objections or did not move forward with the buying cycle.

Your unconscious biases are your own. You can learn about them through reading and training, but their exposure is your responsibility. Evaluate your assumptions, listen to the customer, challenge yourself to be more curious and empathetic during your next customer conversation. Biases, like habits, are hard to change but your brain is designed to change no matter your age. You may even find that not making assumptions, consciously or not, might just help you see your world a little differently.

Randy Sabourin is the Co-President of Practica Learning and Co-founder of Anderson Sabourin Consulting Inc (ASCI). He assists organizations to grow and develop individuals and teams using a combination of deliberate practice programs and business improvisation. His focus is on how individuals and teams perform under pressure. He combines a unique style of facilitation, executive coaching, and deliberate practice to help reveal individual behavioral style and its effects on important client facing, diversity equity & inclusion, change, and leadership conversations. Randy has published several articles on Deliberate Practicing, Learning & Development, Change & Diversity, Business Improvisation and Sustainment Strategies; his Leadership Blog is widely read. Randy has worked with companies such as BMO Harris, Bank of America, The Hershey Company, HP, Biogen, Teradata, A.T. Kearney, American Airlines, Manulife, and Morgan Stanley.