Our natural human behaviour dictates that, when it comes to our perceptions of our relationships, we create a narrative about the other person/group of people, which is external from what is actually happening. For example, we might make assumptions and judgements about people, often without realising, which will impact how we approach the relationship.
It is therefore important to check in with how you, your team, and your organisation think about your customers. Not just in your individual relationships (though this is relevant too), but as a collective. When you meet a new client for the first time, how do you feel? How does everyone else feel? How does your customer services team feel about new customers compared to your service design team, for example?
Is there a feeling of excitement or dread?
It is likely that you, your team, and your organisation as a whole, will be making similar assumptions and judgments about your customers, which will be influenced by culture and experience. If you are B2B, you are likely to categorise clients by size, spend, industry, etc. This is standard practice for many, but by doing so you are creating labels and therefore a level of judgment and assumption. Without realising, this builds layers between you and your customers.
We often see organisations emphasising the customer experience, but then all effort and ‘success’ is based on numbers. When talking about customers, the conversation is focused on the collective as a number, a percentage. People aren’t numbers so there is an immediate disconnect.
I’m reminded of an FT.com article I read about a company that was investing in AI to help their customer service team be more human. Ludicrous I know, but because the employees worked in a high-pressure environment, combined with a product/service that didn’t fair too well, call handlers were becoming numb to the humans on the other end of the line.
The collective view on customers here is highly negative, driven by layer upon layer of seemingly painful conversations and demanding results.
Ladder of inference
A useful way to refer to this layering is that we climb a ladder of inference, which was coined by Dr Chris Argyris in the early 1970s to describe an unconscious process we follow that creates a (false) narrative to fill any gaps of uncertainty in a relationship. This then influences how we perceive and approach other people.
There are now numerous versions of the ladder of inference, but the emphasis remains that we (i) digest observable data, we (ii) select ‘some’ of this data and (iii) add our own meaning to it, we then (iv) build assumptions to a (v) point of conclusion.
Inference ladders were introduced to me on a wonderful Quality Of Mind course, in the context of how relationships can become distant simply because of our thinking, not because of what is actually happening.
In my own simple words, assume you have a ladder for every relationship. At the very bottom, you approach the relationship from a place of neutrality and curiosity. As you climb the ladder, you make judgements and assumptions about the other person, who is also going up and down their own ladder – especially as they react to you going up your ladder! Importantly, as you both climb, your two ladders move further apart. To solve any issues and reconnect, you must return to the bottom of your ladder.
What rung are you on?
Whilst the focus above is on our one-to-one relationships with other people, I wonder if it also relates to our relationship with other factors (brands, politics, sport, etc) and groups of people, i.e., our customers as a whole. I expect anyone reading this article to be pretty customer-focused, but it can be easy to climb your ladder without realising. The first challenge, therefore, is to notice any assumptions, judgments, or feelings you have about customers. Why do you feel this, and where does this come from?
The power of the inference ladder is that, once we realise we are a few rungs up, we can climb back down. This is a conscious process to remove the layers of judgement and assumption, to help you to approach your relationship from a place of neutrality and curiosity.
Neutral and curious
I’ve asked the question, what do you think about your customers, and I hope you see that this is not straightforward. The answer at any one time will depend on how far up the ladder you are, your colleagues are, and your organisation is.
I encourage you to play with this and notice when you are climbing a ladder of inference when referring to your customers or users. You can’t change other people, so notice if you are able to climb down a few rungs to a place of neutrality and curiosity, regardless of those around you.
You’ll be surprised how suddenly those UX and CX challenges feel much lighter.