How To Understand What’s Stopping Customers From Doing What You Want Them To Do

Find out how to identify different barriers on your customer's journey

One of the most common mistakes marketers make is focusing too much on motivating customers; when in reality, they should be asking themselves: “What’s keeping customers from doing what I want them to?”

In this article, you’ll discover: 

  • How you can get out of the habit of focusing too much on persuasion and spend more time understanding why people aren’t doing what your business or organisation wants them to do;
  • A useful framework to help you identify different kinds of barriers or headwinds that make decision-making and behavioral changes more difficult; and
  • Examples of how an understanding of these barriers helped organizations achieve their goals, plus tips on how you and your team can do the same.
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What might prevent you from reading this article?

Maybe you’re short on time. It looks like it could take you several minutes to read it (in actuality, it should only take you 5 minutes). 

Maybe you think it will  have nothing to do with your business (actually it will show you a quick and easy-to-use framework that dozens of companies have used to understand the barriers that prevent people from buying their products, whether these companies sell apparel, life insurance policies, or pharmaceuticals). 

Or maybe you got an alert about this article on your phone, but you hate reading long text on a small screen, and you won’t be back home or back in the office for a couple of hours. If that’s the case, we recommend e-mailing yourself the link to this article so that it will be at the top of your inbox when you get back to your desktop computer.

Instead of focusing on why you might read this article, we started by thinking about reasons why you might not.

We may not have done the best possible job of getting you to read this article (although if you’ve got this far our chances of you finishing it are reasonably good), but we did do something very important. Instead of focusing on why you might read this article, we started by thinking about reasons why you might not.

Think long and hard about the “why nots”

In her excellent new book, “How to Change: The Science of Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be”, Katy Milkman — one of the shining stars in applied Behavioral Science (she’s a Wharton professor who’s worked with dozens of startups and giants like Walmart and Google) — extols the importance of understanding barriers, or obstacles as she prefers to call them. Before embracing Behavioral Science, she studied engineering. Here’s what she says:

“An engineer can’t design a successful structure without first accounting for the forces of opposition (say, wind resistance or gravity). So engineers always attempt to solve problems by first identifying the obstacles to success. Now, studying behavior change, I began to understand the power and promise of applying this same strategy.”

The question that keeps us awake at night is: “What’s it going to take to make people act?” But we really should be asking ourselves: “What’s keeping people from doing what we want?”

In general, most of us working in marketing and business don’t have the benefit of an engineer’s perspective. We see our jobs as developing programs that encourage prospective clients to try our products, or encourage our customers to keep buying them. We spend hours and days – even weeks and months – trying to understand what might motivate them to buy, and how we can come up with ideas that will spark that motivation. The question that keeps us awake at night is: “What’s it going to take to make people act?” 

But as it turns out, obsessing over that question might make us blind to the question we really should be asking ourselves: “What’s keeping people from doing what we want?” It’s something we should be asking before we even get started on people’s motivations and reasons to buy something. In their book, “Why People (Don’t) Buy: The Go and Stop Signals”, marketing professors Amitav Chakravarti and Manoj Thomas suggest that:

“Effective marketing entails strengthening GO signals and weakening the STOP signals”

But most marketing effort (both in terms of the time spent by marketing teams and their substantial investment in marketing activity) is focused on strengthening the GO signals. One reason for this is that as adults, we often see our value as builders, or “adders.” In a recent paper published in Nature, researchers investigated this. Their research suggests that:

 “People systematically default to searching for additive transformations, and consequently overlook subtractive transformations.” 

The authors continue:

“Additive ideas come to mind quickly and easily, but subtractive ideas require more cognitive effort. Because people are often moving fast and working with the first ideas that come to mind, they end up accepting additive solutions without considering subtraction at all.”

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Taking away barriers and reducing stop signals just doesn’t seem as sexy as a high-profile program to drive demand, and so we tend to not spend enough time on it, but evidence suggests that if we prompt ourselves and our teams to consider solutions that remove barriers, they’ll do just that. 

But most organizations lack the tools or processes to do this. And the barriers or “headwinds” preventing customers from taking action are many and various. Only after identifying them all can you really prioritize which ones to subtract, or at the very least mitigate. A tool developed by the Business of Choice helps marketers take a systematic approach towards identifying the range of possible signals and circumstances that consciously, or subconsciously, make inaction easier than action.

Visual of a windsock to depicting four different headwinds
Visual of a windsock to depicting four different headwinds

These “headwinds” can be broken down into four groups: Human Nature, Cultural Factors, System Factors, and Competitive Forces. Here’s a simple visual of a windsock to remind us of the different headwinds.

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Human Nature

This “bucket” includes many of the heuristics and biases that affect people’s choices, and we are covering it first because it will very often (but not always) provide the keys to unlock barriers in other categories. When using this tool for a life insurance company, a behavioral analysis of market research suggested that a significant barrier preventing people from taking out life insurance was Optimism Bias. 

Optimism Bias leads us to believe that unfortunate things are less likely to happen to us than they are to other people. The recommendation to the client was to reduce the effects of this headwind and focus more on the positive benefits of life insurance (peace of mind, the idea of legacy) rather than focusing on the bad things that could happen, thereby trying to burst the bubble of their optimism bias.

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