What is an FAE?

Are You Making This BIG Mistake?

by Colin Shaw on March 10, 2020

Have you ever made a snap judgment about another person only to discover you were wrong? I have. Psychologists call this a Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE), and it can wreak havoc on your customer-driven growth.  

We explored FAEs in our latest podcast and the effect they can have on your Customer Experience outcome. We also discussed why recognizing them is essential to your bottom line and some steps you can take to prevent them. 

What is an FAE? 

An FAE is a term that describes how we perceive our limitations and the motivations of others as well as how we attribute successes and failures. The FAE also explains how when we see shortcomings in others, we attribute it to some characteristic of the individual. So, for instance, if you see somebody cut somebody else off in traffic, you might conclude that the person is a bad driver. You might even think that “lousy driver” is a core characteristic of them as a person. 

However, when we do something terrible ourselves, and there’s some failure on our part, we tend to attribute that to the environment to something external. So, if we cut somebody off in traffic, we justify it. Something in the environment caused us to act like a bad driver momentarily. We think It’s not that I’m a terrible driver. I was distracted because my kids were yelling in the backseat. 

With the concept of FAE, the opposite is true for successes. If I do something good, then I attribute it to my good qualities as a person. If you do something good, then you were just lucky. 

The danger with FAE is it leads to a total misinterpretation of customers. If you’re dealing with a grumpy customer’s complaint, you might conclude that this person is always grumpy instead of realizing that they’re talking to you because there was a service failure, and that’s why they’re upset. Once you misread that person, then, going forward, you might take a different set of approaches with them than if you had realized that the grumpiness is due to the situation.

FAEs can hurt your bottom line, too. I have an excellent example of how FAEs hurt some of my past work colleagues’ bottom line. One of my first jobs in my 20s was selling Xerox photocopiers. On this particular day, I was greeting people at the exhibition stand as they came in for demonstrations of the copier, a job that I hated most. 

This disheveled guy came to the stand dressed in a tracksuit. The senior guys, who prided themselves that they could recognize a customer, determined this guy wasn’t going to buy anything, so they ignored him. A junior colleague didn’t. The junior colleague went over to chat, and the disheveled guy, who had a very successful business and no sartorial sense, bought several of these bloody enormous photocopiers that cost an arm and a leg. The commission on the sale was considerable. 

The Setting Matters More Than You Think

Reading other people is difficult when one doesn’t understand the setting. Human beings are surprisingly responsive to the environment. So, when we’re trying to understand another peoples’ behavior, we need to factor in the situation where it occurs. 

You have to understand how the customer is feeling entering the experience to design an experience effectively. In our business growth consultancy, we worked with a health insurer’s call center and listened in on some calls. We learned that people calling a health insurer are disproportionately under a lot of strain. Usually, the caller is sick, or a loved one of theirs is sick, and they’re calling because of some misunderstanding about billing or worries about their ability to pay. It is an extreme emotional setting. Therefore, the employees were going to get an emotionally strained interaction with the caller as a result. We saw the importance of training employees on how to handle that situation from a soft-skills perspective to avoid the problems of FAE. 

In another example, we worked with a mobile phone company in the Lost and Stolen Department’s call center. We saw that the call center employees treated these customers like any customer calling in. However, the situation was not the same as any customer calling in. You have different feelings when your phone has been stolen, especially if you were mugged. Moreover, those feelings were different than those you would have if you realized that you had left your phone in a cab. The emotions those customers felt coming into that interaction could contribute to employees’ FAE of them. To combat these problems, we taught the team to acknowledge how the customer is feeling first before getting into the business at hand like they would other customers.

Having a High EQ Helps Thwart the FAE

Understanding how FAEs occur is vital, which could require training, even explicit instructions on how this works and what employees can do about it. With practice, employees can improve their management of natural FAE tendencies and the Customer Experience to an exceptional outcome.  

We are firm believers in training on soft skills like this. At Beyond Philosophy, we have Memory-Maker Training, which teaches employees to identify how the customer is feeling, walking into the experience. We also then train the team on how to convert customers to feel an emotion that drives value for you walking out of the Customer Experience. 

Some employees will have an easy time with this training while others struggle a bit. Employees with high emotional intelligence (EQ) will understand intuitively how to manage a tendency for FAE in customer interaction and how to anticipate people’s feelings when they enter an experience. We find that 10-15 percent of the attendees know how to do this naturally, but the bulk of the organization needs some form of structure or some training. People with average or low EQ might have to work at it more. 

So What Do We Do With This Information? 

How can we use what we know about FAE and its consequences to improve Customer Experience and facilitate customer-driven growth? We have a few suggestions.

Start by considering the environment that the customer is in when you are interacting with them. There’s a famous psychological study from the early 1900s where researchers told seminary students that an emergency had come up, and they needed the students to run across campus and lecture on the Good Samaritan story. So, these seminary students ran across campus one by one. However, the researchers had staged a “needy person” in a doorway the students passed. The researchers wanted to know if these pre-clergy members would stop and help the needy person. Most of them didn’t stop and instead hurried by to the hall.

The good news is that the conclusion was not that people are fundamentally evil and hypocritical. Instead, it was that the setting matters. Most of these students would have stopped in some other setting and helped the needy. But the students thought they were in an environment where they had this emergency that caused them to react in this way. It would be unfair and inaccurate to draw broad conclusions about them as people. So, the lesson is to remember the setting for other people and us. 

We would also recommend researching where these interactions vulnerable to FAE occur. You should know what is happening and where. The data will tell you what needs your attention.  

Implement training for people in the front lines not to make FAE judgments, too. In other words, teach your employees to put themselves in the customers’ shoes. The health insurance company, for example, trained the customer-facing employees on how to understand how they would feel if the employee were in the same situation as the caller.

Find the unmet needs that cause the emotional state that customers have when they call in.  A significant opportunity exists when you understand the customer and their behavior: you can uncover unmet needs. Satisfying unmet needs drives value in your Customer Experience. 

However, you have to be sure you have the right unmet need, which involves research. Typically, unmet needs are more subconscious and psychological than other things. Uncovering these opportunities requires understanding your customers at a much deeper level than what is generally expected. Our Emotional Signature®  research considers the difference between what customers say is significant and what really drives value. The latter is the customers’ unmet needs.

Misinterpreting why a customer acts the way they do can lead to limits on your customer-driven growth. Understanding your customers’ behavior can help you uncover ways that you can move the interaction to an improved outcome, one that satisfies your customers’ unmet needs and benefits your bottom line. 

To hear more about Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) in more detail, listen to the complete podcast here.

emotional signature improves business growthWhat 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

Colin ShawAre You Making This BIG Mistake?