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You are probably "thin-slicing" this article right now. You are quickly judging, often in seconds, whether it's worth reading on. Right now, your customers are thin-slicing your offerings, your Web site, and your marketing communications. They are rapidly deciding, often unconsciously, whether your message is credible, whether you can be trusted, and whether they should take your call, read your collateral or browse your Web site.

If you don't know what thin-slicing is, what it means, and how it works—then read on.

Malcolm Gladwell has been called a marketing god. His first book, The Tipping Point, has sold over a million copies. The book has been called one of the most influential books of the decade. His latest work is titled Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, and it intimately describes, in a highly engaging manner, what thin-slicing is all about.

Blink starts with describing how difficult it can be for art experts to identify a well-done fake in the art world. The best experts are often fooled, except for a strange, "intuitive repulsion" that they feel around the fake. It's a visceral, palpable feeling that they experience in the first few seconds, which often can't be described in words. It's in those first two seconds, Gladwell writes, that Blink is interested in.

The Internal Computer

Research on the brain and neuropsychology has blossomed in recent years. Gladwell discusses a part of the brain called the adaptive unconscious, which helps us to survive in a world in which split-second decisions can mean life or death.

Decisions can be made at both the conscious and unconscious level. Typically, some decisions are deliberated over, such as inviting a coworker to a party, while others are more spontaneous and unconscious, such as whether to argue with someone or determine whether someone will be a good teacher or employee.

Gladwell writes about one research study that is emblematic of the thin-slicing approach. A psychologist wanted to see how long it took someone to make a judgment about a teacher's effectiveness. The psychologist gave students three ten-second clips of a teacher—with no sound—and found that they had no trouble coming up with a rating of the teacher's effectiveness. She then gave them five-second and two-second clips, again, with no sound, and the results were similar to the longer ones.

The psychologist then compared these snap judgments with evaluations of those same professors made by their students after a full semester of classes. The results were essentially the same. A student watching a silent two-second clip of a teacher will reach conclusions similar to those of students who sit in an entire semester of classes with that teacher. That's the power of the adaptive unconscious, according to the author.

The adaptive unconscious, in one form or another, has clearly been applied in the marketing arena—think of using ornate packaging for the same product, and charging a significantly higher price, or the well-known story about Häagen-Dazs, with its connotation of foreign chic, when it was really started in the Bronx.

The adaptive unconscious is in play anywhere that a human being is making a decision or judgment. Most people, for example, make a positive or negative judgment about a Web site; they thin-slice it within seconds. We often generalize about a whole company based on a single experience, such as a dissatisfying call with a customer service representative or non-responsiveness from a sales person.

It's important to "unpack" a buyer's preconceptions and initial snap judgments. Sometimes, they are not correct, or representative, and would not be corroborated with repeat experiences. The underlying message is that snap judgments can be favorable or unfavorable to any business, but it's important to ensure that you understand the indicators and markers either way.

Questions to consider: What is the typical adaptive unconscious response for each of your offerings, your brand and your marketing communications? What would a thin-slice predict for each?

Medical Malpractice

You would think that a doctor would be sued for medical malpractice due to gross incompetence or for missing a critical step in an operation. Gladwell wants you to imagine that you work for an insurance firm that covers physicians for malpractice, and your boss has asked you to choose, for accounting reasons, a way to effectively determine whether a doctor is likely to be sued for malpractice. You have two choices: (1) vet the training, credentials, and track record of the doctor over the last few years; or (2) listen to very brief slices of conversation between a doctor and his or her patients.

Given the subject of Blink, you can probably guess which choice is the better predictor. That's right; there are highly skilled doctors who get sued often, and others who make many errors but never get sued. Gladwell writes that patients file lawsuits because they've been harmed by poor medical care and because of something else.

The author recounts a fascinating study by medical researcher Wendy Levinson. She recorded hundreds of conversations between physicians and their patients; roughly half had never been sued, whereas the other half had been sued at least twice. A number of differences were found between the two groups. Surgeons who had never been sued...

  • Spent more than three minutes longer with each patient

  • Made more "orienting" comments, such as "First we'll do this" or "I'll leave time for your questions"

  • Made more "orienting" comments, such as "First we'll do this" or "I'll leave time for your questions"

  • Were far more likely to be funny during the visit

What was not different, however, was the quality or quantity of information disseminated or any additional data about the patient's condition. Gladwell stresses that the main difference was "entirely in how they [the doctors] talked to their patients."

What's even more amazing was a follow-on study by a psychologist who took a total slice of 40 seconds of the conversations (10 seconds from four conversations) and "content-filtered" the slices, which entailed preserving intonation, pitch and rhythm, but not the individual words. The judges rated each slice in terms of warmth, hostility, and dominance, among other qualities, and by using their ratings they were able to consistently predict who got sued and who didn't.

Think about that scenario. Without knowing how experienced the doctors were, what kind of training they had, what kind of procedures they tended to do, or even what they were saying, the researchers were able to effectively predict who had been sued for malpractice and who hadn't. In the end, according to Gladwell, it "comes down to a matter of respect," which is often communicated by tone of voice and listening skills, among other empathic gestures.

The medical malpractice research should give pause to anyone who wants to develop a relationship built on respect and trust, which is highly germane to all sales professionals and marketers. Trust is a concept that is at the heart of what a lot of salespeople and consultants want to become—a Trusted Advisor versus a commoditized vendor. Customers are much more likely to trust you when you show them some respect and don't talk down to them, when you ask for their input in developing new offerings or improving your service or value to them.

The foundation of Stephen Covey's multimillion dollar seller, Principle Centered Leadership, is about being trustworthy. If persons or institutions are not trustworthy, then they can't be trusted, empowered, or aligned. The bedrock of the model is trustworthiness.

In the book Return on Customer, Peppers and Rogers write that a firm's Return on Customer is "maximized at the point that the customer most trusts the firm."

In a nutshell, trust and respect are built by what are often simple, warm gestures such as really listening and caring, giving people a road map for what might happen, and talking with them and not "at" them. At any given moment, every sales and marketing conversation is either building or destroying trust. Make sure you know which one... and why.

Determining Heart Attacks

Heart attacks are the leading cause of death in the United States. More than 1.5 million Americans suffer a heart attack each year, and about one-third of them die from it. Determining whether someone has had a heart attack and should be treated further or go home is a critical decision that can often mean the difference between life and death. Gladwell discusses that very issue as it took place at Cook County hospital in Chicago in the late '90s.

At the time, about 30 people a day came into the emergency department of Cook County complaining of a heart attack. Chest pain patients were resource intensive—in a hospital that was resource-strapped—and had a treatment protocol that was frustratingly long and elaborate, and often inconclusive. In the end, after all the tests, the doctors made their best estimate as to whether the person should be treated further.

The chairman of the department of medicine, Brendan Reilly, wanted to find a better way. He took 20 cases and gave them to various doctors who had a lot of experience with patients complaining of a heart attack. The chairman wanted to find out how much agreement there was as to which patients were actually having a heart attack. The answers were all over the board.

Gladwell writes that today, only about 10 percent of those admitted to the hospital on suspicion of having a heart attack actually have a heart attack. Pertinent to the previously noted study around malpractice, defensive medicine is a $100+ billion industry.

As Gladwell recounts, in the 1970s a cardiologist named Lee Goldman worked on an algorithm and decision tree for many years in hopes of finding a type of equation that could perform better than a trained physician at identifying heart attacks. Reilly became interested in Goldman's algorithm and ended up trying it at Cook County. He was in a crisis situation and felt he had to do something. As the saying goes: If what you're doing isn't working, try something else.

For two years, Reilly had the doctors use their traditional approach and the Goldman algorithm and then he compared the efficacy of each method. The algorithm was the indisputable winner. It was about 70% better in recognizing patients who weren't actually having a heart attack. With the most serious patients, the doctor guessed right about 75-89% of the time, versus more than 95% of the time for the algorithm. In 2001, Cook County Hospital dedicated itself to using to the Goldman algorithm for chest pain. A picture of the decision tree hangs on the wall in the emergency room.

The net result of that heart attack story, according to Gladwell, is that you often have to know very little to "find the underlying signature of a complex phenomenon." There are only four criteria in the Goldman algorithm.

Think about this. With potentially hundreds or thousands of pains, profiles, and physiological interactions that a doctor can be presented with, predicting whether someone has had a heart attack can come down to four criteria. In fact, numerous studies that Gladwell highlights show that "extra information is more than useless. It's harmful." In many cases, doctors would do better if they knew less about their patients, according to the author. Although knowing less or asking fewer questions is not always the best practice, it does emphasize that certain complex phenomenon have a parsimonious signature that can "cut through" all the noise to get at the important signal.

How does all this apply to sales and marketing? Some companies, but not all, who want to cut through the market noise often use an algorithmic equation or decision tree when identifying target segments or qualifying sales opportunities. There's a good chance that more need to.

For example, a chosen market segment might need to be...

  1. Measurable (I know how big it is and how fast it's growing)
  2. Substantial (it's large and attractive enough to be worth pursuing)
  3. Actionable (I know enough to take action)
  4. Winnable (I have a good chance at winning all or parts of the segment)

Each segment would be tested against these four criteria, with a clear justification for going outside them.

Somewhat analogously, if I'm qualifying a potential sales opportunity, there are four well-known criteria:

  1. Whether the prospect has a real need
  2. That need is often demonstrated by setting aside budget
  3. Having a timeline
  4. Having a person of authority sponsoring the project or initiative

In essence, if a company's target segments or sales opportunities cannot "pass" each criterion, then a different decision (e.g., pursuit option) should be reached.

The overriding message is that in an increasing sea of information and Google-able data today, having a parsimonious decision model becomes even more important. Just like Cook County hospital, all companies are resource-strapped and have to make quicker, often mission critical, decisions. As Gladwell aptly writes, "To be a successful decision maker, we have to edit."

Coke vs. Pepsi

Almost every marketer is familiar with the Coke and Pepsi competitions—which famous stars each brand can get to pitch its products, what creative ads they can come up with, and what brand associations they can build to what is (essentially) colored, carbonated, sugar water.

Gladwell discusses the famous Pepsi Challenge of the '80s in a whole new light. Blind taste tests, for example, do not always predict what they appear to.

In the mid-1980s, as Pepsi began to become almost equal with Coke in terms of exclusive drinkers, it filmed some television commercials pitting Pepsi in head-to-head taste tests with Coke that they named the Pepsi Challenge. As Gladwell writes, the results were not favorable to Coke, even when Coke itself replicated the challenge—57 percent of tasters preferred Pepsi.

Some people at Coke took the results very seriously and launched a number of ideas around changing Coke's secret formula, which were assessed in various taste tests. Gladwell writes that in new taste tests, New Coke beat Pepsi by 6-8 percentage points. The new drink was given the go-ahead—and subsequently flopped. Coke was forced to bring back the original formula as Classic Coke.

The irony of the story, accordingly to Gladwell, is that for the last 20 years Coke has vigorously competed with Pepsi using a product that taste tests say is inferior, and Coke is still the number one soft drink in the world. According to the author, it is not a simple matter to "find out what people really think," as most marketers are well aware.

When further analyzing the Pepsi Challenge, it becomes clear that there may be more than one way to do a taste test. There is. The type of test that Pepsi originally did is called a central location test, or CLT, which often involves taking one sip of each product versus drinking a whole can or case in your own home. The latter approach is called a home-use test, which often produces different results from the CLT. Gladwell quotes a former product developer for Pepsi in saying that one of the biases of the CLT is toward sweetness, which Pepsi is generally known for. Thus, it shines in sip tests.

In summing up the lesson of the Pepsi Challenge, and how the results didn't translate into more buyers or market share, per se, Gladwell writes that "in the real world, no one ever drinks Coca-Cola blind." We often psychologically bundle a host of other brand imagery, including the packaging, the logo, and the linked associations. As Gladwell warns us, thin-slicing has to be done in context. It may be predictive when taking a slice of certain "moment of truth" or realistic experiences, but not necessarily with something artificial and without context.

The lesson for marketers, not a novel one but a good reminder nonetheless is that behavior often trumps intent. What people say they are going to do, and what they actually do, are often very different. The adage "actions speak louder than words" is apropos.

For example, a few companies use a form of "design for response" or versioning in marketing their wares. They severa; similar offerings with varying attributes and then see what sells the best (e.g., some software companies have contemporaneously put out various versions with different functionality). They look at what people actually buy—how they behave in the real world. It's a type of launch-and-learn process.

In looking at the power of behavioral analysis, we note that behavioral-based interviewing is the most popular, and predictive, way to interview prospective employees. The bible for diagnosing a psychological disorder, the DSM-IV (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual—Fourth Edition), is fundamentally based on phenomenological or behavioral-based criteria. Attempting to understand someone's intentions is a fascinating and complex pursuit, but it's the message in their behavioral signature that is often more meaningful—and, for marketers, more predictive.

After You Blink

We often think of snap judgments as being bad. Although some of us, through an ongoing reflection of our experiences, become more and more wedded to our "gut." Our intuition often helps us to cut through all the noise. Sometimes the very thinnest slices of experience provide an abundance of meaningful information, and sometimes they don't.

If you're extracting a slice from a critical moment or experience such as when a doctor is talking with a patient or when a student is judging a teacher's effectiveness, you are often cutting from a homogeneous data set or one is which the whole pool of experience is pretty similar. A CLT or a 20-second song snippet is probably not how we "consume" a cola or a song. It's not predictive of what we do in the real world.

The other lesson that Gladwell wants us to take away from Blink is that we can often control our rapid cognition. There are a number of studies and stories that he brilliantly recounts to further illustrate how our biases and preconceptions can get the best of us.

Conducting "blind" reviews for the symphony, for example, have allowed a lot more women to be selected. Physical height or attractiveness is often not the best selector of a leader, at least as a primary criterion, if at all. And, last, sometimes the "rational" model of decision making, with its bias for the systematic weighting of all relevant criteria, pales in comparison to a potent thin-slice that provides an uncanny level of insight and understanding.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

image of Michael Perla

Michael Perla is Sr. director & life sciences people leader, Business Value Services, at Salesforce.

LinkedIn: Michael Perla