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Dangers of Making Assumptions About Customers

Updated: May 21, 2019

I recently embarked on the process of hiring a weekly fitness trainer. My motivation was driven by a desire to support my close friend in an upcoming marathon. She longed to earn a “Hawaii 50” t-shirt in commemoration of successfully completing a marathon on her 50th birthday. My prospective trainer "appeared" to be listening intently as I clearly explained my rationale for enlisting his services. However, much to my surprise, my explanation appeared to go in one ear and right out the other. As he gathered my intake papers, the trainer stood up and responded, “That sounds great. The weight will take care of itself.” I was stunned by his insensitive retort. As I asked him to clarify his statement, he immediately realized his misstep in offending me. He attempted to backtrack and correct course. But it was too late. The damage had already been done.

Even the most well-intentioned sales professionals make dangerous conjectures about their customers. As an executive (whether you interface directly with clients on a daily basis or not), it’s critical that you keep your biases and prejudices in check and avoid making rash judgments about customers. As Canadian novelist and playwright Roberson Davies reminds us, “The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.”

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1. Don't make assumptions

Lemony Snicket once cautioned, “Assumptions are dangerous things to make, and like all dangerous things to make -- bombs, for instance, or strawberry shortcake -- if you make even the tiniest mistake you can find yourself in terrible trouble.” Far too often, sales professionals and others make assumptions about their customers. They assume that all gym-goers frequent the gym because they desire to lose weight. They assume that elderly females aren’t in the market to purchase sports cars. They assume that buff “macho” males prefer action films over romance flicks. These biases can be fatal.

As an executive, it’s critical to challenge your assumptions. My long standing experience as an executive coach has allowed me to develop and refine a series of tactics and tools to help executives identify their ingrained assumptions. Through self-awareness, reflection, mindfulness, and related training, I’m able to assist my clients in challenging their most basic assumptions. With some executive coaching, executive leaders can break and reframe their mental models, so that they're able to more effectively diagnose situations and create an environment for more productive conversations aimed at learning, deep understanding, and personal leadership development. As seven-time Emmy Winner Alan Alda once remarked, “Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in while, or the light won't come in.”

2. Clarify customers' motivations and objectives

It’s not sufficient to simply shed our assumptions about customers. We must be crystal clear in understanding the motivations and objectives underlying a customers’ purchase decision. Regrettably, few employees take the time to analyze their customers’ goals and intentions. Research by VB Insight paints an especially grave picture, revealing that 80% of consumer-facing businesses don’t understand their customers beyond basic demographics and purchase history.

At the onset of any relationship with a customer, it’s critical that you devote sufficient time to illuminate your customers’ motivations and objectives. Don’t be afraid to explicitly ask your customers to elaborate on and clarify the impetus behind their purchase decisions. Angela Ahrendts, Senior Vice President of Retail at Apple, advises “Ask questions; don't make assumptions.” Doing so will empower you to more effectively frame your value propositions and conversations. Basic demographic information simply does not cut it. A report by Ernst & Young explains, “Basic segmentation…does not provide sufficient insight into customer needs, channel preferences or desire for receiving advice…marketing strategies based on standardized assumptions (rather than deeper insights about life stages, behaviors, attitudes, interests, lifestyles and other psychographic factors) are destined to fall short.”

3. Ask customers if they are seeking advice

Salespeople have a natural tendency to flower customers with unsolicited advice. While typically well-intentioned, unsolicited advice can easily come across as intrusive and unwelcome. In fact, humans have a biological tendency to eschew unsolicited advice. Thomas Plant, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University and adjunct professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, explains that when humans receive directives about what to do and how to do it, they respond with a defensive defiance because they feel their personal freedom and decision-making capabilities are being infringed upon.

As a salesperson, regardless of your level of expertise or familiarity with a given product or service, it’s easy to come across as obtrusive when doling out advice. Seth Meyers, a clinical psychologist with the L.A. County Department of Mental Health, explains, “People who give unsolicited advice do so not because they necessarily care about the receiving audience but because giving advice gives them a sense of control and order. The advice giver has a problem-solving orientation which can be beneficial when applied to their own life, but often intrusive when applied to others' lives.”

It’s critical that salespeople and others recognize the perils associated with offering unsolicited advice. If there is additional information that you believe customers should consider before making a purchase, it’s best to ask permission before advising.

As I continue to train to support my friend in her upcoming marathon, I’m constantly reminded of the dangers associated with assumptions. Seemingly innocuous assumptions about customers can easily destroy relationships. The fitness trainer’s assumption about my weight goals, though not motivated by malice, caused him to offend me and, in turn, left a bad taste in my mouth. By simply taking the time to understand me and my motivations, he would have been able to more deeply understand my intentions and, in turn, build stronger rapport with me. As Marshall McLuhan once remarked, “Most of our assumptions have outlived their uselessness.” As an executive, to avoid following in the same missteps, contact me to inquire about my executive coaching program. PS: I kept the trainer. I figure that plenty have forgiven my blunders, so why not forgive his.


Dr. Nadine Greiner PhD, Executive Coaching San Francisco

Nadine Greiner, Ph.D. provides Executive Coaching and Human Resources solutions. Her mission is to make the executive experience exceptionally enjoyable and effective. She believes that the world needs great leaders, and has dedicated her career to helping them.

As an organization psychologist and former corporate CEO, Dr. Nadine understands the pressures and demands executives face. She offers her clients the high expertise that only comes with three decades of consulting success, and a dual Ph.D. in Organization Development and Clinical Psychology. Dr. Nadine is an in-demand speaker, teaches in doctoral programs, and coaches other consultants. She is the author of two books: ‘The Art of Executive Coaching: Secrets to Unlock Leadership Performance’, and of ‘Stress-less Leadership: How to Lead in Business and in Life’.

Contact Information: Feel free to email Dr. Nadine San Francisco Executive Coaching at or by phone at (415) 861-8383.


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