Behavioural science offers insight how customer experience can be improved – Interview with Prof. Nick Chater

Insight eye

Today’s interview is with Nick Chater, who is Professor of Behavioural Science, Warwick Business School and co-founder of the research consultancy Decision Technology. Nick joins me today to talk about behavioural science, how our brains are hot-wired to make us all storytellers and how we can apply lessons from behavioural science to help us deliver better customer service and a better customer experience.

This interview follows on from my recent interview: It’s not about the channels in your support, it’s about the support in your channels – Interview with Girish Mathrubootham of Freshdesk – and is number ninety-three in the series of interviews with authors and business leaders that are doing great things, helping businesses innovate, become more social and deliver better service.

Here are the highlights of my interview with Nick:

  • Nick’s work focuses on looking at the political and economic world through the lens of natural sciences.
  • The brain is a pattern finding machine.
  • The kind of patterns that underlie human behaviour are all about intentional agency, ie. we have aims and objectives, and we are all trying to detect those and figure those out.
  • This lies at the core of all stories.
  • Stories are sequences of beliefs, objectives and actions.
  • Another characteristic of human brains is that we aim to identify the ‘storyline’ in someone else’s behaviour.
  • However, we are not just storytellers about other people, we are also storytellers about ourselves too, and many of the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves are illusions.
  • This has a lot to do with us wanting to be right and trying to find patterns to make what we see and feel fit our experience.
  • Applied to business, some businesses assume that customers know what they want when, in fact, they don’t.
  • Therefore, businesses should focus on trying to identify the clues or the stories that their customers are telling themselves, unpicking them and then providing them with what they really need.
  • Self-service could therefore be really dangerous unless the experience is really well designed.
  • Perhaps a better way would be to design an experience where the customer is helped to make the right decision for them rather than leaving that to chance.
  • The danger if you don’t do that is that the customer leaves with nothing or something that is sub-optimal and that has implications for retention, loyalty, repeat business and advocacy.
  • Through Decision Technology’s work, Nick has found that people view companies very much like they view people.
  • Given that, companies should treat people as if they would like to build a long term friendship with them.
  • Therefore, anything that has short term payoff and long term damage is very unlikely to be effective.
  • When you are inside an organisation it can be quite hard for people to believe or understand how strongly people can feel, positively or negatively, about a certain interaction.
  • Customers don’t see the complexity and juggling that goes on within a business. They just see the successes or failings.
  • Similarly, businesses only see the complexity and often think that the customer has nothing to worry about.
  • Both sides suffer from a social psychological phenomenon called the Attribution Error.
  • Often there is an ‘Empathy Gap’ between a business and it’s customers and vice versa.
  • In a service failure situation, it is almost always better for a business to be as open as possible.
  • Also, when things go wrong….other than acknowledging it, saying sorry and then fixing it, don’t underestimate the power of doing a nice thing.
  • Like in friendships, when something goes wrong our naturally tendency is to apologise and then make it up to that person in a symbolic way.
  • But, it has to be perceived as genuine.
  • And, one size fits all is unlikely to work. We are all individuals after all.
  • The options that firms give their customers will drive what their customers do, whether they like it or not. Therefore, if firms want to keep and take care of their customers and make sure they optimise what they get, they should think very carefully about the choices they give them.
  • Nick’s research, in future, is going to be focusing on how opinions get formed and how people decide what’s in and what’s out etc etc.
  • Do checkout the BBC Radio 4 programme called The Human Zoo that Nick contributes to. It’s all about applying behavioural science to the world around us to help us better understand why we do the things that we do. Also, many of the experiments that he mentions on the show you can find here.
  • Finally, if you want to learn more about behavioural science then check out Nick’s MOOC: The mind is flat: the shocking shallowness of human psychology (Explore how to make better personal and professional decisions, and consider the psychological dimension to some key ethical and political choices facing the world.)

About Nick (taken from his Warwick Business School bio page)

Prof. Nick ChaterNick Chater joined Warwick Business School (WBS) in 2010, after holding chairs in psychology at Warwick and UCL. He has over 200 publications, has won four national awards for psychological research, and has served as Associate Editor for the journals Cognitive Science, Psychological Review, and Psychological Science. He was elected a Fellow of the Cognitive Science Society in 2010 and a Fellow of the British Academy in 2012. Nick is co-founder of the research consultancy Decision Technology; and is on the advisory board of the Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insight Team (BIT), popularly know as the ‘Nudge Unit’.



Photo Credit: artist in doing nothing via Compfight cc

14 comments On Behavioural science offers insight how customer experience can be improved – Interview with Prof. Nick Chater

  • Fascinating podcast Adrian, thank you

    The way we run our organisations is fundamentally driven by the stories we tell ourselves about us and others. That is what drives our behaviour.

    I found the point about how we deceive ourselves particularly interesting. I wonder how self deception can be a positive thing.


    • James,
      Glad you liked it. And, I’m pretty sure that self-deception isn’t a good thing. However, I think the key is to try and be aware of it and, in doing so, with can try and minimise its effects. Always trying to be conscious is hard but, I guess, that is part of what it will take to succeed.


    • Dear James

      Good question – the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers has argued that self-deception can be advantageous (sometimes), because it makes us more convincing to others.

      So a leader who really believes his or her own rhetoric may be a more compelling leader.

      My own view is a bit different—that we have to figure out what we really think, from our behaviour; so acting the role of a convinced leader makes one feel that one really believes it. ​This is the tradition in social psychology (cognitive dissonance theory, self-perception theory).

      Glad you enjoyed the interview.

      with best wishes,


  • Very interesting. I wonder to what extent the lessons, such as the ’empathy gap’ and ‘attribution error’ also apply to the other relationships of the business – staff, suppliers, partners and stakeholders.

    • That’s a good question, Guy.

      I’m pretty sure the effects are pervasive as they are human. Therefore, taking a 360degree of our relationships and our business would be very healthy.


  • Hello Adrian,

    Thanks for sharing this. Whilst there is some value in this cognitivist approach to human beings, I also find it limiting. It occurs to me that we are not just storytellers we are story-livers. And for the most part we live stories that are lived through the cultural practices of the worlds in which we finds ourselves thrown into.

    What makes it so hard for people in companies and customers to connect is that the rules are made by those who are completely disconnected from customers in just about every way: the executive suite.

    All the best

    • Too true, Maz.
      Your comment reminds me of a line from the Bad Religion song “1,000 more fools” that goes: ‘The masses are obsequious, contented in their sleep.’

      Whilst many people would suggest that that is the way that things are. I hope that more people, firms and exec suites would ‘wake up’.


    • Dear Maz

      quite agree – the story-telling about ourselves is absolutely crucial to determining how we will act. From this point of view, we’re quite like improvisational actors—inventing our own story as we go along. And when human relations work well, we share an understanding of the situation and (fairly) common objectives; but things go horribly wrong when we think we are improvising, as it were, in entirely different plays. Not unknown in business, or many organizations, of course!


  • Loved the interview Adrian. There is a great new book by Chris Malone called The Human Brand that takes a similar view the we view brands the same way we view people. Over 80 percent of our judgements come down to two basic factors: warmth and competence. The Golden Rule is more important today than ever.

    • Thank you, Stan, and thank you for the book reference. I know it but have not read it.

      It’s encouraging to see that the wisdom of The Golden Rule is becoming increasingly important.


  • Pingback: Behavioural science shows how customer experience can be … | Fred Zimny's Serve4impact ()

  • There’s some fascinating points in this interview Adrian – the key challenge for organisations is being able to scale the insights from behavioural science so that they can deliver an effective, but efficient service to their customers. To do this we’re seeing more and more companies using another scientific discipline, linguistics, to get to the heart of what customers are actually saying so that service can be personalised to their needs. More in the Eptica blog at

    • Hi Lloyd,
      Thanks for sharing that. Indeed, it seems that smart companies are using insights from all sorts of disciplines to help them build value for them and their customers.


  • Pingback: The changing world of B2B customer experience and what the future looks like | Adrian Swinscoe ()

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