In a world where everybody is preaching to the data-driven choir, it’s easy to forget what truly drives great decision making: Data and context.
We're all very familiar with the temptation to immerse ourselves in the depths of Google Analytics and Mixpanel for hours on end, or that sweet feeling of excitement behind waiting to see your A/B test results. We know very well the small happy dance that plays in our heads when we find out that we’ve improved our drip campaign’s open rate by 5% this month. Those are the moments of joy we experience when we get serious about our data-driven efforts. And that’s how it should be. However, if we are not very careful, we can become addicted to the next data set and we soon forget that customers are not a pile of IDs in Intercom or a long list of items in a spreadsheet.
Much is talked about customer centricity and how the entire business needs to find its focus on what the customer really wants. We read and write about customer development and user research, but we keep placing the act of talking to customers at the bottom of the list.
In talking to many marketers and founders, and in my own experience, I’ve found that there are a few things that stop us from talking more often to customers. Probably the most common barrier between us and getting that context we desperately need to make better decisions is our brain.
I have some news for you.
You have a nasty amygdala (amyg·da·la)
You know what sucks? Failure. Those who celebrate failure may have found a way of converting fear into a strength, but even if you achieve that kind of nirvana you still know that failure sucks. It sucks because we feel stupid and are not sure if we can make it work. That nagging feeling of fear is all caused by a nasty little thing smaller than a golf ball called the amygdala.
The amygdala is a structure in the limbic system that is linked to emotions and aggression. The amygdala functions to control fear responses, the secretion of hormones, arousal and the formation of emotional memories.
![Nasty Amygdala](/content/images/Nasty Amygdala.png)
Let’s get real here. You and I have fears. Lots of them. Whether we're killing it in business or not, we're always in fear. Are we going to get funding in time? Will this feature work? Are customers going to get pissed off with this test? Will everybody on Twitter trash this campaign?
The nasty amygdala prevents you from scheduling calls with customers, it prevents you from asking the right questions and from looking at the right data. The amygdala doesn’t want you to do those things because it wants to protect you from rejection. It wants to prevent you from hearing 'We switched to your competitor because your UX sucks' or 'You don’t have the features we want and X company has better customer support'. Your amygdala doesn’t want you to feel any kind of distress so it keeps you entertained with numbers and other ‘important’ tasks.
How to get your Amygdala in check
You can not trust the amygdala. Remember, it is nasty. But you can train it. There are plenty of studies that provide practical exercises on how to train your amygdala but probably the best one I can recommend is the stoic approach.
Stoicism as a philosophy is well-known for its fatalistic visualisations and for promoting self inflicted hardship in order to build appreciation for what one already has. Think about the worst conversation you can have with a customer. Imagine all your customers think exactly the same awful things about you. Imagine you're about to lose your business and be unemployed forever. What's the worst thing that can happen to you if you talk to a customers today? Nothing. If anything, it'll give you an enormous opportunity to learn something that may stop your worst nightmare from happening.
Gary Vaynerchuk has mentioned a couple of times how he brings perspective into his business life. One of the exercises he practices is to think that one of his family members just died. It sounds grueling but when you think about it, whatever he is enduring at work will never compare to the pain of losing a loved one. That brings perspective. It is the same when it comes to having potentially uncomfortable conversations with customers. What's the worst thing that could happen?
'It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself for difficult times;while fortune is bestowing favors on it is then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs.' Seneca
In the journey of helping our businesses become more data-driven we go to great lengths. We mobilise our dev teams to build tracking and measurement infrastructure, we sell the benefits of making data accessible for everybody, we fight little battles to get the organisation thinking of customers first, but even right after we have put our shiny dashboards on the wall we can easily forget that this is just the beginning of the search. We must seek better context around the numbers we so proudly collect.
After all you're selling to humans
Get the numbers right, share them with those who will benefit from them and keep seeking context. After all, we're all selling to humans and without their stories that data you worked so hard to get will be just a partial picture of what you can actually achieve. Don’t be afraid to hear the bad stories, those are the juicy ones, the stories that will finally make you go: Aha!
Head of Growth at Geckoboard
Data marketing 101: five ways for startups to put their data to work