Your affiliate relationship is on the rocks. Your customers are screaming about your bad service. Your relationship with a key partner is going south. What's happening?

As marketers, we are trained to focus on customers and learn what makes them tick. We help our organizations respond to the needs of customers. And we do all we can to make them loyal to our products and services.

But our own brains are hardwired in ways that sometimes cause us to miss the mark. To connect and deepen relationships with our best customers, we must recognize that in two fundamental ways our own natural instincts throw us off course:

  1. The first error we make is to believe that it's our customers' fault when things go wrong. We have a strong impulse to believe that we are right and our customers are wrong. Of course, that's not always the case.

  2. The second error we make is caused by our drive to satisfy customers. We want to always say "yes" to their needs and what we think are their needs. But good marketing and business requires the ability to say "no."

Let's consider the potential consequences of these errors, which are the result of two biases.

Bias 1. The Fundamental Attribution Error

As I said before, you might find yourself being the recipient of harsh reactions by customers, partners and even co-workers.

Well, if they are like most people, they have a tendency to believe that the fault lies with you. Of course, that's not always true. But why do they sometimes think they are right and someone else is wrong?

To answer this, and better diagnose what's really going on, we offer you a handy idea called the Fundamental Attribution Error, or FAE for short.

Social psychologists and researchers in consumer behavior have long known FAE. It is essentially a bias in assigning responsibility for behavior. It goes something like this:

If something bad happens to me, it's due to somebody or something else; if something good happens to me, well, it's because of me!

Now, you might think of this as a cute scientific finding that has little relevance to marketing or anything else. But you'd be wrong. It has everything to do with marketing, sales, service, alliances and marketing relationships. We'll go even further: it has an effect on your own personal relationships as well.

Bad service, or why you're always at fault

Take, for example, service encounters. I'm sure you've had customers yell at you for things they in fact did. Maybe they didn't read the instructions carefully on a product you sold them, or didn't see the links on your Web site they were supposed to click. Maybe you were at fault or maybe you weren't. It doesn't make any difference, since it's something bad that happens to customers, and they will typically say it's due to somebody else—namely, you. That's the FAE at work.

Of course, the easiest way out of this is to make sure that your customers always have good things happen to them—it makes them feel good, empowered—and they are likely to take responsibility for all of this good stuff. Let them.

Not convinced that the FAE is that powerful? Consider the following actual statements of responsibility for car accidents, and notice the power of the FAE:

It wasn't my fault!

  • No one was to blame for the accident, but it never would have happened if the other driver had been alert.
  • A pedestrian hit me and went under my car.
  • The telephone pole was approaching fast. I was attempting to swerve out of its path when it struck my front end.

It was my fault, but only partially so

  • In my attempt to kill a fly, I drove into a telephone pole.
  • The pedestrian had no idea which way to go, so I ran over him.
  • The accident occurred when I was attempting to bring my car out of a skid by steering it into the other vehicle.
  • A guy was all over the road. I had to swerve a number of times before I hit him.

(Abstracted from information submitted to the FTC project on consumer life insurance information disclosure; reflects actual policyholder reports.)

Breaking up alliances and relationships

Any time you have an alliance between two companies (such as an affiliate program or any inter-company relationship), you have a rich context for the fundamental attribution error. Not sure about this?

Think about the relationships you have with other companies, and think about one that isn't going well (or maybe one that broke up recently). If you're like most people, you probably think that the problems rest with your partner (and your partner thinks the problems are all with you). That, again, is perfectly consistent with the FAE: if something's wrong, it's due to somebody else.

Satisfaction and other things

Often, marketing is concerned with measuring customer reactions. For example, you might be interested in the satisfaction your customers experience. The FAE can also play havoc with these measures, typically making you look worse than you really are. The same thing happens in all evaluative situations, such as performance evaluations.

The point of all of this is that to truly understand what's going on, you have to understand the biases that people use to judge situations and ascribe responsibility. No, you're not always right and the customer is not always wrong—you're just hardwired to think that way.

If you understand you're own biases, you can take responsibility and improve your customer relations and partnerships. If you understand your partners' biases, you can better work with them by having a more sympathetic ear.

After all, just like you, they're only acting as humans tend to do.

Bias 2. Inability to Say "no" to Customers

A few years ago, I was asked by a senior executive at Texas Instruments to give a talk to his marketing department and sales force. I was asked to explain the fundamentals of good marketing, but, more importantly, this senior exec wanted me to teach his people to say no.

No? No to whom? Well, it turns out that the sales force was spending its time trying to sell chips to the wrong customers, so I was asked to teach his people to say no to customers who were not in their target market. This wasn't easy to do, since the sales force's compensation wasn't set to reward selling to the right customers; but the lesson was important.

Good marketing and business require the ability to say no. In fact, lots of failed Internet companies would likely be around today if they had learned to say no to entering various dense markets, taking too much venture capital and then putting together business structures with lavish burn rates.

Why do people often say yes to things they shouldn't? One reason is known as the "optimistic bias." That is, we tend to be more optimistic about our own outcomes than those of others. So, you might look at the fortunes of some failed Internet companies and say: well, what happened to them couldn't happen to me. In fact, it can.

So, one way to cope with this bias is to start learning to say no to various things. Here's a short list to get you going:

  • Features: Say no to features that customers don't care about. Palm and Handspring do a great job of eliminating features that Microsoft always has to include. For features that most customers don't really use or want, say no. In fact, get rid of features that don't map into R&D's capabilities, unless customers are demanding them.
  • Customers: Say no to customers who are not your target customers. OK, this is hard to do because you don't want to turn anyone away. But by not focusing on a target segment of customers and by spreading yourself to other segments, you'll soon find yourself adding features (see above), and before you know it you'll be alienating the customers you really want.
  • Ad campaigns: Say no to ad campaigns that don't really say what you need to say to your customers. This requires understanding what benefits your customers are looking for and how much awareness, knowledge, positive or negative attitude and loyalty they currently have about your company. Educate yourself about all aspects of customer behavior (such as the hierarchy of effects) so you can be better informed and make better decisions to say no.
  • Promotional campaigns: Say no to promotional campaigns that will drain your brand equity. Say no to promotional campaigns if you're targeting customers who don't care about promotions, or will consequently see your company as a gimmick or only a place for deep discounts (unless that's exactly what you want customers to think about you).

OK, I'm sure there are many other things you can say no to, but you probably get the point already. In marketing, as in other parts of business, it's tempting to be optimistic and try new things, but the opposite is often more important. Having a good marketing strategy requires knowing when to say yes, but often success comes from knowing when to say no.

Successful marketing requires strong understanding of our customers. But don't forget: successful marketing also requires an understanding our own natural instincts.

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image of Allen Weiss

Allen Weiss is MarketingProfs founder and CEO, positioning consultant, and emeritus professor of marketing. Over the years he has worked with companies such as Texas Instruments, Informix, Vanafi, and EMI Music Distribution to help them position their products defensively in a competitive environment. He is also the founder of Insight4Peace and the former director of Mindful USC.