How Your Customers’ Identity Issues Are Affecting Your CX - Beyond Philosophy Blog - Colin Shaw

How Your Customers’ Identity Issues Are Affecting Your CX

by Colin Shaw on June 28, 2019

I get surprised sometimes by how many qualifications and degrees people list at the end of their name. Some of them might go on for half an hour! I find myself wondering why they want me to know all that.

However, I often refer to the fact that LinkedIn recognizes me as one of the top 150 business influencers. I am proud of that. It occurred to me that it is the same thing.

There are several reasons why people do things like list their degrees or tout their status on a social media platform. We discussed a couple of them in a recent podcast.  The first is a psychological principle called symbolic self-completion, and it can also affect customer behavior in your experience.

Symbolic self-completion is the idea that we surround ourselves with evidence that we are what we hope we are. In other words, we use symbols to help us deal with insecurities. The external evidence we collect and display offsets the unease we feel internally about something.

The more established a person is, however, they are less likely to participate in symbolic self-completion. Researchers conducted a study on this concept at the University of Texas.

The “Longhorns” are a proud school; their alumni are fanatics. It was an excellent school for this study. Fittingly, the researchers asked students how much university paraphernalia they own.  They found that on average, first-year students owned way more apparel and notebooks and the like than seniors. They explained that seniors felt more confident in that identity as Longhorns, whereas the first-year students were insecure in that identity.  Freshmen wanted to surround themselves with Longhorn paraphernalia.

Our Self-Perception Drives Some of Our Customer Behavior

People all have a self-perception.  We look to ourselves and the things that surround us for evidence of who we are, what we like, and what we do.

However, in some ways, this situation seems to be counter-intuitive to the way it should work. It appears that it should be that we have preferences, and based on those preferences, we act.

In economics, a theory of customer behavior is called Revealed Preference. This theory suggests that the ideal way to understand consumer preferences if to keep tabs on what they buy.  The idea behind the argument is that no matter how much people say they like or dislike something, what they do tells you what they really feel. In other words, your preferences drive your behavior.

For me, the interesting bit is that not only do you have to understand what your customers’ preferences are, but customers have to understand their preferences as well. What we prefer is not always as apparent to ourselves as logic would dictate.

To clarify, there are lots of instances where people do, in fact, understand their preferences. However, there are other times when we look to our own behavior to inform us about our favorites.

For example, you might have a snack food that you perceive your feelings as “neutral” towards it, like pretzels. However, you always have pretzels, and when they are around, you eat them. Therefore, over time, you realize (or conclude) that you like pretzels. In some ways, it is like watching yourself as if you were another person make a choice and then drawing a conclusion about how you feel about it.

In my daily life, I often think to myself, “Why am I doing this?”  It could be because of the things I write and talk about all the time. That said, there are times when I notice the frequency I do things, too. Then, I think, “Hey! I’m doing that a lot; therefore, I must like it.”

Self-perception reveals itself in some sales situations. If I get something for free, as a consumer, I don’t care about it much. If I did want the item, I would have paid for it, wouldn’t I? However, if I do pay for it, I had to extend some effort and resources to get it. That’s evidence to me that I must value it.

Consider the lines outside the Apple store when they launch a new product.  If you sat outside the Apple Store for 24 hours before a new product is launched, that is quite a lot of effort. It is also evidence to yourself that you must like Apple products a lot.

Self-perception is also part of mid-life crises. If you feel old, you try to do things you think young people would do, e.g., buying a sports car, doing a triathlon, going back to school, etc.

Then, we fool ourselves into thinking,  “Oh, well, obviously I am not old because an old person wouldn’t own this car/run this race/get this degree at this point in life.” We’ve changed our self-perception by procuring evidence of the opposite.

It is essential to mention here that it can happen at a conscious or an unconscious level. We are often not actively assessing what is driving our behavior. It is the intuitive part of our brain, which you’ll recall is our emotional and automatic thinking, that’s looking for ideas to pair up together and looking for evidence of feeling certain ways. The same intuitive part of our brain puts it all together, too.

We don’t always see ourselves acting this way deliberately. With the choices we make, we might think now is the time to invest in the material item or ourselves, ostensibly, in the case of a midlife crisis, before it’s too late.

Selling to the Self-Perceptive Customer

Understanding where your customers are from this customer behavior perspective is vital.  Having empathy for your customers self-perception leads to a whole different set of selling opportunities.

In the late 1970s, a study looked at how easy it was to redeem a coupon as revealing customer preferences. Researchers studied what happened to sales after they stopped running the coupon.  Did sales return to their previous levels, or did they drop off afterward?

The results of the study found that for the easy-to-redeem coupons, there was an increase in sales during the coupon time frame and then a steep drop after it was over.  It was evident that coupon-driven sales did not indicate their preferences. However, when the coupon was challenging to redeem, and sales went up but then returned to normal sales levels quickly after the coupon promotion ended, then it was evident that people must like the product.

We’ve talked about the importance of making things easy for your customers and that is still true in most cases. Around the margins, though, it might behoove you to think of ways you can use effort in your experience to build up self-perception for customers. In terms of self-perception, it seems a little bit of effort on their part can improve the customer’s estimation of value, a counter-intuitive value of effort.

Starbucks is a good example. You have to speak Starbucks to get your order. Take, for instance, the sizes. Most of us know that Starbucks doesn’t come in small, medium, and large. Instead, it’s Tall, Grande, Venti, and Trenta, which is 31 ozs and only for cold drinks. But of course, per, there is also the Short, which is 8 oz. —and not on the menu.  Then there are the caffeine amounts. Rather than Regular and Decaf only, they have Regular, Decaf, and Half Caf, the latter referring to the espresso shots in your cup; one will be Regular and the other Decaf. Then, there is the milk…anyway, I’m sure by now you get the point.

Starbucks has a language that only Starbucks customers speak, which makes ordering a bit of a hassle. It doesn’t make sense from the usual perspective of making things easier. However, from a self-perception angle, it exemplifies that when you hear yourself ordering an “Iced, Tall, Half-Caf Skinny Latte, No Foam” that you must like the product.

So…How Do I Apply All of This to CX?

In your Customer Experience, you should ask yourself the following questions regarding self-perception.

  • Do I understand my customers and how they use self-perception with my product or service? I say it a lot because it bears repeating. If you know your customers, you know what evidence they are trying to surround themselves with and why. It likely won’t be all your customers; but individual segments might be using it more than others and in different ways; e.g., young people want to establish themselves, or more mature people want to hang onto their youth, etc.
  • Are you providing people the opportunity to use their behavior as evidence they like something? Subtle experiences can emphasize self- perception and help customers feel the benefit from it. Try making the experience a learned process that makes a member feel like they are “in the club.” However, don’t make it difficult to the point of being annoying (a fine line, I realize).
  • Can you enhance the Customer Experience by emphasizing self-perception? Amusement parks often build in moments for sharing an experience on social media. The self-perception of this moment is that your customers will notice they are willing to stop, take a pic, and post it. It’s evidence that they are having fun because people wouldn’t bother to do that if they were miserable.

Let me be clear: I don’t think that most organizations need a hand in making their experience more difficult. They managed to do that by themselves. However, there is a difference between the difficulty in your experience feeling frustrating and the difficulty they feel becoming being evidence of their appreciation of the product.

Also, remember that you can’t expect your untested brand to evoke the self-perception behavior either. Nobody’s waiting outside of the doors of a company they’ve never heard of for a product with which they have never had an experience.  People must already believe in your brand or have some experience with the product to be willing to give that extra effort.

Finally, realize that there’s never only one thing happening with customers decision making and behavior. There is always a multitude of things happening. Self-perception and self-completion might not be the only psychological concepts in play at any given moment.

To truly understand your customers preferences, you need to undertake research, particularly about how your customers feel when they interact with you. This emotional data is significant for how  your design and position your Customer Experience.

Of course, emotional data is harder to get than empirical data. Every experience evokes an emotion, whether it is on purpose or not. We call this the Emotional Signature.

The Emotional Signature is based on work we did with the London Business School where we talked to people all over the world to determine which emotions drive the most value for a Customer Experience. We use our Emotional Signature Research to determine if you evoke one of those emotions with your experience.

Whether they are on a journey for self-completion or self-perception, understanding your customers’ preferences can help you provide an experience that gives them what they need regarding their sense of self.


To hear more about How to Understand Your Customers Preferences  in more detail, listen to the complete podcast here.


Our research shows that all organizations have an Emotional Signature, which is the emotional engagement or relationship you have with your customers. The Emotional Signature also discovers your ‘hidden’ experience and what REALLY drives value $$$ for you. To learn more about how The Emotional Signature Research can help you take your Customer Experience to the next level, please click here.



Hear the rest of the conversation on How to Understand Your Customers Preferences on The Intuitive Customer Podcast. These informative podcasts are designed to expand on the psychological ideas behind understanding customer behavior. To listen in, 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


Novak, Jess. “How to Speak Starbucks (Slideshow).” 15 May 2014. Web. 3 June 2019. <>.

Colin ShawHow Your Customers’ Identity Issues Are Affecting Your CX