What the Availability Heuristic means for CX

20th Mar 2020

People are way more afraid of shark attacks than we should be. The reason we are is the same reason branding works for your organization to attract customers.

However, before we get to that, consider the following statistic. Since the year 1580, aka the year we started charting shark attacks, there have been a little over 2,000 shark attacks, of which 471 were fatal. Averaged over the whole period, that’s about six attacks per year, one of which is deadly.*

It’s a remarkably small number given how much headspace it takes up for all of us. We fear sharks killing us, even though the amounts are objectively small.

The Availability Heuristic

The reason is this psychological phenomenon called the Availability Heuristic. We discussed Availability on a recent podcast. You’ll recall that heuristics are short cuts in our thinking. The Availability Heuristic is the idea that we react to things and judge their likelihood of happening based on how easy it is for us to imagine it happening or to remember it happening to ourselves or other people.

If you’re trying to judge the likelihood of something happening, the easier it is for you to remember instances of it or construct a scenario where it could happen, then that’s reasonable, some of the time, for assuming its prevalence. For example, you can use this method to increase your chances of winning a running race or packing appropriately for travel. In other words, it’s not a terrible way of doing things.

The problem is there’s lots of other stuff that can make something more vivid or easy to remember or imagine that has nothing to do with its prevalence. For example, if something happened recently, then we will tend to think that it is more likely, even though it is not. If something is very kind of visceral or fear-related, it will be easy for us to remember or to imagine, even if it has nothing to do with anything, like shark attacks.

We had some good news, which is that Beyond Philosophy has been recognized as one of the best management consultancies by Financial Times for the second year in a row. Now, stay with me, because this ties into the concept of Availability (really). Financial Times ask people in business about who should be on the list, and because we do a lot of social media, people remembered us.

Memory plays a role in Availability as well. We notice how easy something is to remember, and the easier it is to remember, the more likely we think it is to happen.

Making Your Brand Available to Customers

If we want to tie this to Customer Experience, people make judgments about future interactions with companies based on what they’ve heard, seen, and experienced in the past. We choose based upon our anticipations of what the experience will be.

For example, I have a Wal-Mart or Publix, which is an upscale grocery store close to my house. Each has a different experience from the other, which I can recall (vividly), and that drives my anticipation for the future experience there. I choose based on these recollections and the purposes of my shopping trip.

Moreover, as we always say, there is never only one thing happening. The Availability heuristic is essential, but branding is, too. Wal-Mart and Publix have different brands carefully cultivated for themselves. If I want to save money and live better, I choose Wal-Mart. If I want an elevated experience with better customer service than Wal-Mart (because let’s be real…), then Publix.

However, if you were a third grocery store trying to enter the market, you would have a bit of a problem. Unless very generous investors backed you, chances are you would not be able to “out-brand” Wal-Mart and have the Availability Heuristic do the work of driving traffic in the doors. You would have to find other ways to make your brand information available in the minds of customers.

Many different things influence availability. If your branding pitch was more recent than the messaging from your competitor, it might be easier for customers to remember. Also, having a more vivid message could help. Setting up proximal branding to the point of sale could help, too. Personalization is another way to increase the Availability of your product or service. If it was a message that customers felt was tailored to them or someone like them, it could work. All of these things make a message or an idea or a brand more mentally available to someone.

However, for these to work, it would be best to understand who your customers and prospects are and who they will be in the future. There is no point in marketing to a group of people that are never going to buy your services. Moreover, you should know what the unmet needs your customers and future customers have and how you are going to deliver them.

Finally, if you’re up against an organization with a massive marketing budget, you’ve got to think of a different way of getting out there. When people recognize you, the Availability heuristic will begin to influence their behavior. However, to ensure it is a positive influence, back up your branding and the Availability it produces by delivering on your brand promise. It’s no good telling people how great you are only to disappoint them with an awful Customer Experience.


* Most data shows around 60 to 85 shark attacks a year, including this graph from the Florida Museum. Of course, one must also consider that record-keeping on shark attacks was probably much more difficult in 1580 than 1980. That said, shark attacks are not as prevalent as our collective fear of them would imply. 

To hear more about this marketing tool in more detail, listen to the complete podcast here.

What customers say they want and what they really want are often different things. It is vital to know what drives value for your organization. Our Emotional Signature research can tell you where you are compared to other organizations and what to focus on to drive value for your customers. To learn more, please click here. 

Colin Shaw is the founder and CEO of Beyond Philosophy, one of the world’s leading Customer experience consultancy & training organizations. Colin is an international author of six bestselling books and an engaging keynote speaker.

Follow Colin Shaw on Twitter @ColinShaw_CX

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