The internet puts a world of knowledge at our fingertips. So it might surprise you to learn that we actually think we know less if we have access to answers online.
At least, that’s the finding of a new study.
The study divided participants into two groups, one with internet access and one without, and then asked them a series of 100 questions, like “What is the capital of France?” The participants with internet access were allowed to say they didn’t know the answer, and then look it up. The researchers found that the internet users were five percent more likely to claim ignorance than participants who had to rely on their own knowledge.
“Our results suggest that access to the Internet affects the decisions we make about what we know and don’t know,” said Evan Risko, the University of Waterloo psychology professor who led the study. “We hope this research contributes to our growing understanding of how easy access to massive amounts of information can influence our thinking and behavior.”
The researchers weren’t sure why internet access affected behavior. They suggested that an easy source of answers might make it less acceptable to say you know something and then be proven wrong. Or it could be that it’s rewarding to use the internet to confirm what you know or satisfy your curiosity.
Internet Access and Customer Behavior
With smartphones in their pockets and purses, customers now have ready access to the internet wherever they are. And that means that they can and will look for answers online, sometimes dramatically affecting their customer experience.
Here’s an example. A couple of years ago, our toaster broke, and I headed to a department store to pick out a new one. I knew exactly what I wanted. Two bread slots, black. Just like the old one. But when I reached the appliance aisle, there were three toasters that met that description and no sales clerk in sight. Which one should I choose?
I pulled out my smartphone and started looking for answers. And pretty quickly, I drifted to another retailer’s website and was looking at toasters that my department store didn’t even sell. I found one that seemed perfect. It was on sale, so I ordered it on the spot.
Because I consulted the internet for answers, I ‘left’ the store while still standing in it!
Internet access may affect customer behavior in other ways too. Customers who have looked for answers on the internet may already know about a product’s features and specifications. They may have more specific or advanced questions for the sales staff. But if the staff lacks the knowledge and training to answer those questions, the customer can end up feeling frustrated and unhappy.
These sorts of emotions – frustration, neglect, unhappiness – are what we call ‘destroying’ emotions when we evaluate emotional signatures that are part of the customer experience. Customers with these feelings have a worse experience and are less likely to make a purchase.
Dealing with the Internet Effect
That doesn’t mean that internet access is always bad for business. But it does mean that it is important to design a customer experience that recognizes that your customers can and will go online for answers.
Better staff training may be one answer. Multinational companies may need to consider tailoring their customer experience differently in different places, depending on whether internet access is likely to be available. And some retailers are incorporating interactive touchscreens or scannable placards that take customers to a website to learn more about a product and see other choices that aren’t on display in the store.
Have you noticed the ‘internet effect’ on your own buying decisions? Tell me about it in the comment section below.
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Colin Shaw is the founder and CEO of Beyond Philosophy, one of the world’s first organizations devoted to customer experience. Colin is an international author of five bestselling books and an engaging keynote speaker.
Follow Colin Shaw on Twitter @ColinShaw_CX