The Presenter’s Paradox: When Less is More

The Service Line with J. N. Halm: It’s A Joke...employing Humour at the Front Line
J.N. Halm is a columnist with the B&FT

I find it interesting that my journey through corporate Ghana has always been at the forefront. For some reason, I have always found myself facing the customer, in one capacity or another. Anyone who came across me in those early days would attest to the fact that I was the quintessential sales and customer service employee—confident looking, sharply dressed, fast talking, and full of enough product knowledge to fill an encyclopaedia.

When it came to dealing with customers, especially new ones, I had a three-part MO I worked with. I would start by overwhelming customers with as much knowledge about the features of the products or service I was representing. From there, I would transition the presentation into the advantages of each feature. Lastly, I would begin to enumerate the benefits of each advantage. The truth is that this style brought in the results—helping me to bring in some good deals—and for that reason, I was not really concerned about any other way or style of handling customers.

That was until I was paired with another chap, who joined the organisation about a year after I did. Kwame was one of the most polished individuals I had ever come across. He was an all-round great guy to be around. Kwame’s style could not have been any more different from mine. Whereas I was the more loquacious one; he was more measured. Whereas I was the loud one; he was the soft-spoken one. Interestingly, it was our differences that made us such a great tag team.

Initially, I thought Kwame was that reserved because he was just trying to learn the ropes. Whenever, we were dealing with a customer, he would allow me to take the lead and he would just sit back observing the proceedings. His words were always quite few. However, after a while, I realised that the laid-back approach was Kwame’s style. It took me a while but I eventually realised that whenever Kwame was dealing with a customer, he always only said enough—nothing more.

Kwame knew something I did not—that when it comes to communicating with others, more often than not, more is less. And there is even a name for that. This phenomenon is what psychologists refer to as the Presenter’s Paradox.

To better appreciate this phenomenon, it is important to consider the give and take nature of all communications. We are told that for communication to have taken place, the receiver of the message must successfully decode the encoded message to obtain the desired meaning. The chances of miscommunication are always present because so many things can go wrong during the process.

One of the causes of poor communications is the tendency for a difference in judgment between the one receiving the message and the one sending the message. It is this difference that gives rise to the Presenter’s Paradox.

It has been found that receivers tend to listen to all the information they receive and then strike an average to form an impression. In other words, when forming an impression, people would regard both the good and the bad, the favourable and the unfavourable, before forming an impression. This is what we mostly refer to as “seeing the big picture”. Unfortunately, many presenters are oblivious to this fact. To the average presenter, the receiver needs to receive as much information as possible to come to a favourable conclusion.

The danger in this mind-set is that, by adding on a lot more information, the chances of adding unfavourable or less favourable information becomes higher and this might end up diluting the entire message. Some have described this phenomenon as adding cold water to hot water. The temperature of the mixture would most certainly drop. This is effect of the Presenter’s Paradox.

It is a fact that many front line employees (FLEs) commit the error of information overload on a regular basis. I will be the first to admit that I was one of those. As far as I was concerned, a customer-handling professional had to know how to talk—and so I did a lot of it. I was of the opinion that to convince a customer, I had to tell the customer all I could about what we had on offer. According to the Presenter’s Paradox, however, when FLEs offer more than enough benefits, the additional benefits do not do much to the customer.

As a matter of fact, the “extra” tends to cheapen the overall value the customer believes he or she is getting from the transaction. It therefore makes sense, when dealing with customers to provide them with only a few high-value pieces of information than to pile on more information that does not add much to the overall interaction.

I find it intriguing that I was even able to bring in any good deals during those days. I can only imagine how more effective I would have been if I had known about, and correctly made use of, the Presenter’s Paradox. I would not have used as much energy as I did and I, certainly, would have achieved a lot more.

Having suffered in the past because of this Paradox, I am able to confidently assert that one of the causes of FLEs giving more than enough information is ignorance. Many of us did not know any better. We were natural-born talkers, so we did what came easy to us. No one taught us any better.

Lack of confidence is another cause of the information overload we practice at the front line. In my experience, I spoke a lot in my presentations because I was not very comfortable with silence when I am with a customer. A confident person would not be unnerved when the customer is silent. The novice that I was expected the customer to be excited after I am done with my presentation. Therefore, if the customer become quiet, my first reaction was to think that he or she did not like what I had said. This would then cause me to launch into more pontifications about the benefits of the product. Apparently, all this was counterproductive. Like I said earlier, in my defence, I did not know better.

One disadvantage of loading customers with more than enough information is that it leads to time wastage. By spending more time with one customer than I am actually supposed to, I did not have time to spend with other customers. This meant that at the end of every week, I ended up struggling to meet my weekly target of the number of people I had to meet.

There is another important angle to the Presenter’s Paradox when it comes to handling customers. It is in the giving of freebies as well as in bundling products together for sales and marketing purposes.

Gifts meant for customers must be carefully chosen because if the customer views the gift in an unfavourable light, it could affect the customer’s overall impression of the organisation. A gift, if it must be given, must add to the total experience. Otherwise, it must not be given at all. In many instances, it might be better not give any gift at all, than to give a gift that lowers the customer’s perception of the experience. Giving a high net worth customer a gift item that feels demeaning might put the customer off and sour the relationship.

In choosing an appropriate gift for a customer, it is important for the organisation to know what the customer would appreciate before presenting that gift to the customer. Once again, the need for a good Know Your Customer (KYC) system for every business set up comes in here. An organisation must know its customers well enough to know what to get who.

In bundling products together, it is important that the added product does not take away the value of the main product. A demonstration reported in a September 1994 edition of Journal of Consumer Research proved that when furniture that were originally deemed as excellent were bundled with other pieces of furniture that were not so highly rated, customers generally gave a lower rating to the original pieces of furniture. In short, customers preferred the original furniture alone than when other pieces were added to them. Unusual as it may sound, customers prefer a US$5000 product alone than to have that item offered with a cheap US$5 item.

Aside diluting the experience of customers, giving customers gifts that are unappreciated is also an expensive venture. Basically, it is throwing money away. Or as I like to refer to it—going out to buy trouble. Why spend money on something that would make your customers dislike what you are offering? From the example above, that US$5 could have been spent elsewhere.

As has been regularly stated on this page, customer interactions are the building blocks of customer relationships. This is why every organisation should be interested in every interaction front line employees have with customers. in the hyper-competitive environments many businesses find themselves in, nothing can be taken for granted. Training of front line staff must be done with this fact in mind. As has been discussed in this week’s piece, it is possible that customer-handling employees might be over-talking themselves out of their customers’ favour. Many organisations are losing business because of this phenomenon. Any serious business should not allow this to happen.

Be they sales personnel, customer service executive, marketing professionals, all front line employees (FLEs) need to know that when it comes to interacting with customers, there is a point where diminishing returns begin to set in. FLEs need to know this point and to put a stop to their presentation when they get there. Sadly, my good friend Kwame passed away a couple of years ago. But I still remember him, especially on those when I come across someone who is clearly oblivious of the Presenter’s Paradox.

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