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The Neuroscience of Customer Onboarding

Do you meet resistance from new customers when you most expect them to be excited about your product? The reason might be due to the inner workings of the brain. Ed Powers, Vice President of Client Success and Marketing at InteliSecure, and a key figure on the Denver Customer Success scene, recently enlightened me on the neuroscience of customer interactions and how a good or bad onboarding experience could impact your customer relationship forever.

What is neuroscience? 

Neuroscience is the study of the structure and function of the nervous system and brain. Neuroscientists focus on the brain and its impact on behavior and cognitive functions, or how people think. What does neuroscience have to do with onboarding? A lot, actually. During onboarding, brain science comes into play in these areas: first impressions, confirmation bias, and buyers' remorse.

First impressions matter

It seems that not all customer interactions have equal importance. Even though your customer might appear to be rational and logical, the parts of their brains activated during onboarding are those that deal with fear and value. As a result, people don’t perceive the beginning of relationships objectively. In the article First Impressions and Onboarding, Brian Anderson shares, "Faced with uncertainty, the brain sets the first and most impactful cognitive anchor upon which all subsequent learning is based.” Neurobiology predisposes people to automatically place more importance on first impressions.

In his blog Why a CSM’s First Impression Means So Much, Ed Powers explains that the beginning of a customer relationship directly affects the final outcome, which means how you start with a new customer may determine whether they renew or they churn. Those first 90 days are that important. Neuroscience offers intriguing insights into why starting on the right foot is critical for reducing churn and for building customer loyalty.

Confirmation bias

Split-second first judgements are so influential because subsequent information and learning reinforces the initial experience. In time, cumulative perceptions evolve into long term biases, or confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to interpret new information as evidence of one's existing beliefs or theories. In the article What is Confirmation Bias, Shahram Heshmat Ph.D., writes, "we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it.”

This means, when your new customer has a favorable first interaction with you, they look for evidence to confirm the supportive relationship moving forward. However, when that first interaction is adverse or nonexistent, customers continually confirm their negative prejudice. They stop gathering new information and stay stuck in that initial bias. Shahram Heshmat continues, "Seeking to confirm our beliefs comes naturally, while it feels strong and counterintuitive to look for evidence that contradicts our beliefs. This illuminates why opinions survive and spread.” Ed Powers shared with me that once the mind learns, the underlying neural patterns are difficult to change, which is why perceptions linger. So, when you mess up the initial connection with new customers, you’re stuck playing catch up with them.

Buyers' remorse

I don't know about you, but when I make a large purchase, I do my homework. I research the heck out of things. I read reviews and ask everyone I know so I make an informed decision. Then, when I finally put my money down to purchase a new car, bike, vacation, or even a pair of shoes, my head is full of expectations. When my thoughts are spinning about making a wrong choice, it means buyers' remorse has set in.

Wikipedia indicates that buyers' remorse is “the sense of regret after having made a purchase. It is frequently associated with the purchase of an expensive item such as a vehicle or real estate.” In the article How to Avoid Buyers' Remorse, Zachary Crockett shares, "Some 82% of people report feeling regret or guilt over a purchase — $10B worth of goods, collectively. It can happen with something as insignificant as an ice cream cone or as serious as a house, and it’s hard to tell when it will strike.”

Ed Powers told me that a mental process called prospection happens when you make complex value-based decisions. You imagine how you will think or feel in the future as a result of your decision. Your brain goes into prospection when you anticipate that fantastic vacation coming up. Your customers brains prospect during the sales process when they buy your product. The predicament is that the brain doesn’t stop anticipating when the vacation starts and when the contract is signed. Instead, it creates stories about what happens next. You run through scenarios to confirm your expectations and your fears. And you do this indefinitely until there’s a reason to stop. It seems the more involved you are with a purchase, the more intense your potential regret will be. Consider the personal risk your buyers make when they select your product over all the choices they have; their decision could put their reputation on the line.

Did you have any idea how complex the inner workings of your customers’ brains are? I had no idea until Ed Powers enlightened me. It looks like neuroscience illustrates just why onboarding is the most important part of the customer journey. As soon as you engage new customers those subtle yet powerful first impressions, biases, and expectations are already at work.

My article, Trust: The Missing Piece of Customer Onboarding, shows you how to use cognitive closure and the orchestrated onboarding framework to immediately build trust, which helps you quickly move customers to their success and to yours.



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