Customers Are Terrified of You. Here’s Why.

Although I insist on telling myself that I’m a young person, I’m definitely not. I know this, because my body looks disgraceful, my back aches for no reason, and because I insist that 90s music and films are clearly superior to any of the contemporary nonsense being pumped out today. Point Break and Back to the Future are timeless classics that put Avengers to shame.

I made the mistake of watching the 2015 reboot of Point Break on a flight recently, and it offered all the pleasure of a North Korean labor camp. For starters, it enthusiastically refers to itself as a “reboot”, which we all know is a completely terrible term. A reboot is something we ask our parents to do when they call for help with their crashed computer, not anything to do with cinematic masterpieces. On that note, watching this movie proved to be less enjoyable than offering parental tech support.

After watching this horrible remake, I was prompted to rewatch that great original film just to reboot my troubled mind.

You can imagine my dismay to find Keanu’s acting back in that original was not nearly as amazing as I recalled. The dialogue was forced and corny, and the limitless coolness that I so fondly recalled had aged like milk left out in a heatwave. On the positive side, it does feature Gary Busey looking accidentally funny, and a cameo with Anthony Kiedis from the Chilli Peppers. It also has some fairly excellent surfing (in a 90s-way) from Matt Archbold in the opening scenes.

Still, this shock led me to also investigate another childhood favorite, Back To The Future. Although this seems to have retained it’s charm, there’s no doubt that the special effects now look decidedly YouTube-esque and there’s a general lack of polish compared to anything currently on Netflix.

You may recall Michael J. Fox’s character, Marty McFly, bristles at ever being called “chicken”. I had totally forgotten this little plot device, and in case you have too, it can be summarized as “Marty gets into confrontations not befitting someone of his modest height simply because a bully suggests that he lacks courage”. I guess bullied kids back in the 80s and 90s must have loved seeing an everyman hero standing up to a thug.

For some reason, this reminded me of some behavioral science I had been reading which describes the way our subconscious interprets and responds to threats. In short, when it’s our subconscious that detects threat (as opposed to our conscious minds), we are exposed to increased bias compared to when our assessment of a threat is more conscious. For people who suffer chronic anxiety, some researchers speculate that there may be a “pre-attentive warning system” that gives the sufferer too many false signals of threats, leaving them feeling more anxious than their circumstances would reasonably dictate. It’s as though their threat autopilot is always anticipating a crash and trying to course-correct, even though this is just a pessimistically biased misinterpretation of real threat levels.

Although we all have this threat autopilot, this biased subconscious warning system doesn’t cause most of us to suffer chronic, debilitating anxiety. In fact, we have become so efficient at avoiding threats and retreating from fear that we barely even notice it anymore (unlike Marty McFly). Nevertheless, that threat autopilot is still there in all of us, and it skews more toward inaccurate bias than to an accurate assessment of circumstances. Our autopilots have a vast array of mental shortcuts that we employ daily to simply bypass dangers and discomforts before they even break through to our conscious world.

If you’re trying to build a business, you should know that it has implications for when your customer considers buying from you.

First of all, you should have one primary objective if you wish to move a fearful, reluctant potential customer into action: shift them from subconscious to more conscious thinking. It’s in the more conscious state that the customer will be less exposed to fear-aversion biases, and more aware of the real risks and rewards of spending their money with you (Daniel Khaneman’s masterful Thinking Fast and Slow is mandatory reading for anyone who wants to know more about this idea. What I’ve clumsily called autopilot here, he refers to as System 1 instinctive thinking).

In my view, there are three useful triggers to remember when moving someone from their subconscious autopilot (System 1) to more conscious thinking.

  1. SURPRISE – in the CORE Marketing Method we emphasize surprising in two main arenas (Surprise with Value, giving people shockingly more than they anticipate, and Surprise with Service, giving people shockingly more care and attention through the buying process and throughout the post-purchase relationship). Surprise is a powerful tool in marketing because despite anyone’s preference to ignore you, surprise forces the customer to mentally re-write the narrative they have about you to include these new surprising ideas. In creating a new narrative about you, the customer deeply embeds your business into their memory and is forced into conscious thinking in the process.
  2. EMOTION – although emotions sit within the autopilot (System 1) mode of thinking, by clearly associating your business with pronounced emotional drivers that are important to your Ideal Customer, it can remind your customer of their unmet need. Consider someone asking you “would you like a cold beer?” when you have been feeling thirsty on a hot day. The thirst may not have even been front of mind, but upon prompting with the “cold beer”, your thirst becomes more obvious and motivating. In the same way, if your business has uncovered an important emotion that resonates with customers, and you put it directly in the customer’s field of vision, the increased sense of need causes the customer to shift from their subconscious to a more deliberate (conscious) search for a solution.
  3. CONTEXT – some times and places are simply not conducive to interrupting your customer’s autopilot thinking. When she is rushed, or in certain types of groups, or in deeply repetitive routine tasks, she will be less inclined to break out of autopilot thinking. Conversely, in a situation where the customer naturally has more available time, is among less familiar groups, or is not in the middle of routine tasks, she may be more ready to think in more conscious and deliberative ways.

It also helps to know a little about the way fear and bias manifest in your customer, and what your specific responses should be. I’ve listed three biases below that add to your customer’s fear of buying from you (and I’ve provided some solutions for you to consider).

FEAR BIAS #1: Inertia

We all have a strong inclination toward the status quo.

We feel much more at ease with no change, because with change comes the possibility of danger or loss. Even our physical bodies revert to an equilibrium of homeostasis as a healthy default. We prefer balance, sameness, and predictability. For this reason, we need to have drivers that are pronounced enough for our conscious mind to get past the subconscious desire to simply not change at all. In other words, you need to have something very motivating to get you over the hump of inertia.

Solution: elevate the need and make it easy to act.

Stanford’s BJ Fogg has rightly become famous for his excellent Behavior Model. This describes something that is reasonable intuitive once you see it laid out. In summary, the harder (or more effortful) something is to do, the more motivation is required to move that customer into action.

In the CORE Marketing Method, I emphasize marketing tactics that move your Ideal Customer toward specific and identified behavioral actions. So, according to Fogg, it makes sense for these actions to be easy to make (therefore requiring lower levels of motivation to see a customer complete the action). Similarly, we look at tactics that increase motivation through focusing on relieving emotional pain points. As you can see in the image above, prompts (tactics) above the curve will succeed in moving your customer to change a behavior (such as choosing your product over a competitor).

When battling fear-based inertia in your customer, initially give her a small easy action to take that is matched by an emotional driver that is powerful enough to make her push through her fear of change. Once she has made that easy action (and experienced some sort of emotional reward), she will be more confident to make subsequent steps toward being your customer.

FEAR BIAS #2: Uncertainty

Our default position is to protect our resources. In the case of your customer, normally the main resource being protected is money (but also time and effort, and potentially their ego and status). If your business provides any uncertainty about its capacity to truly answer a need for your customer, they’ll be afraid to share their resources with you. They’ll be scared to bring out their wallet.

Solution: show your true self (flaws and all)

The real answer to uncertainty is to thoroughly prove your credibility in order to reinforce trust. This concept is so critical and multifaceted that it makes up 1/4 of the central concepts in the CORE Marketing Method (the “C” stands for Credibility). For this illustration though, I’m going to call out one counterintuitive hack that an entrepreneur can employ to boost trust.

Small and medium size business owners rarely want to let customers know about their modest size and typical SME shortcomings. More often, the entrepreneur tries to create facade of “big business” that never really rings true. Because most customers can tell that the small business is not really a giant global enterprise, the entrepreneur’s efforts to come off that way feels false. Immediately, this is the opposite of trust-building.

More importantly, there’s a remarkable psychological quirk that can work in the small business person’s favor. It’s call the Pratfall Effect, and it suggests that your business will be more appealing if it seems to be capable of delivering on its main promise, but is also clearly susceptible to small inconsequential mistakes. One experiment that proved this theory included an actor who knocked over a cup of coffee during an interview. Experiment subjects liked him better, compared to the same set up where no coffee was spilled. The coffee-spiller was obviously human, and more therefore relatable, which translates to being more likable. Likability and trustworthiness are closely linked in our minds.

In your business, make it known that you stand confidently for reliably solving one critical pain point for one Ideal Customer. You do that thing really well because it’s your true specialty and you know the Ideal Customer intimately. At the same time, it’s fine to let your customer know that you’re a real person, perhaps a small operator, that your Golden Retriever sits at the reception desk, and that you really don’t think you can do those other things the competing big multinational firm offers. By admitting your limits and some minor flaws, you will get a boost in credibility and your customer will lose their sense of uncertainty. This idea is even employed by huge global brands from time to time, such as the famous campaign by Avis Car Rental which proclaimed “Avis is only No.2”.

An interesting side note: research shows that online product reviews of 5 stars are less likely to induce a purchase compared to reviews in the 4’s. The reasoning: people are more inclined to believe the authenticity of something very good, as opposed to perfect.

So, if you want to get past the fear of uncertainty, consider dropping your facade and showing your human (imperfect) side and become more relatable. They’ll trust you for doing so and their uncertainty will fade away.

FEAR BIAS #3: Low Self Efficacy

Self efficacy, in case you’re not really familiar with the term, just describes your own confidence to perform a task adequately. There are four factors that are recognized as impacting your self efficacy:

  1. Mastery: your demonstrated success or failure over time
  2. Modeling: watching others succeed or fail at the same task
  3. Social Persuasion: another person encouraging or discouraging you
  4. Physiological: an awareness of your body showing signs of stress or panic (such as sweating palms or hyperventilation)

Unfortunately for our own self efficacy, we tend to recall painful events more than pleasurable ones, and this also relates to our life as consumers. We can all easily recall being ripped-off or disappointed with a purchase at some point in our life, but we rarely hold on to feelings of pride for the plethora of times that we’ve purchased something successfully. The pain of that historical rip-off sits rigidly in our memory, it tugs on the subconscious, and so your autopilot refuses to fly anywhere near that sort of territory again. Your consumer self efficacy has been forever shaken, and it leaves you with fear – which creates hesitancy – when it comes to buying something like that in future.

This really gets to that first known influence of self efficacy: mastery. We have more mental availability for our failures as customers (even though they are rare) and so we subconsciously doubt our own ability to buy with confidence.

Also of note: regarding social persuasion, research suggests that negative discouragement from others has more power to impact your self efficacy down compared to the positive impact of having an encourager pushing you along. That said, a positive encourager still works wonders, especially if it’s someone we find physically attractive.

For the reasons cited above, you should assume that your customer will be exposed to a biased low self efficacy when it comes to buying from you for the first time. This will manifest in hesitation and caution: failing to complete the checkout from their online shopping cart (industry averages around 68% for abandoned carts), inexplicably failing to send in the signed Scope of Work contract, or refusing the retailer’s offer of assistance with “just browsing, thanks” even when the customer really does need help.

Solution: address the four self efficacy factors

To help with mastery, consider smaller, low-risk buying actions first that prove instantly that the customer can buy from you confidently. As soon as possible, give them a quick emotional win (in a previous post I’ve also described how to emphasize post-hoc rationalization at the first purchase experience … this action will also help them build self efficacy in relation to buying from you). An example might be those taste-tests that the ice cream shop provides. How many times have you ever sampled a few flavors (a small low-risk commitment) and then just decided against buying at all? Hopefully never, because skipping ice cream is something only psychopaths would do. But also because once you’ve made that little low-risk action, you are already committed to buying the whole overpriced waffle cone.

To help with modeling, consider whether your business can create group exposure and buying events (such as grand opening events, auctions or group demonstrations) which takes advantage of the elevated emotions that people feel in groups and the tendency for social facilitation (the effect of individuals being more effective when operating alongside other people completing simple tasks). Another way to help with this is to remind the customer of all the other people who’ve successfully bought from you. When McDonald’s reminds us that billions and billions have been served before us, they are really just asking us to feel confident that our purchase will also be successful based on social proof, and so we leave our low self efficacy behind.

To help with social persuasion, ensure that you and your team are vocal in support of the customer when they are in the middle of the buying process. This is demonstrated by the fashion retail assistant who compliments that article of clothing you are trying on. Or, as happened with me when I bought my first piece of real estate, the realtor went to lengths to know how much of a bargain I was getting and that was clearly a savvy buyer. Even though I knew she was being a sales person and trying to get me to close the deal, my subconscious liked getting the support of her social persuasion.

If a customer engages with your business in the company of others (such as a friend), bring that friend into the conversation to create a positive encourager, and to avoid them becoming a negative detractor. You may also want to think about ways that you can create offers for new customers to bring a friend who may also become a customer and enjoy some sort of reward.

To help with physiological, ensure that your customer’s physical environment is comfortable and non-threatening. However you can, try to help them avoid the elevated heart rate and those other physical reminders that they are stressed or fearful (which in turn erodes self efficacy).

In short, the low self efficacy your customer feels is real, even if it isn’t rational. Put measures in place to help build their self efficacy and watch their fear and hesitation subside.

So, now that you know why your customers are terrified of buying, you can begin to respond in ways to help reduce those fears. There’s also some good news for you: although these subconscious fears are quickly acquired, they are also quickly forgotten. You just need to help the customer put them out of their mind.


  1. Hi AJ,

    Just heard your conversation on fire nation. Am a musician based in Qld.
    I know you a super busy. Would love to hear your advise on creating a campaign for releasing my music.

    1. Hi Tsiti, thanks for reaching out!
      There’s no single answer to that question, that I can offer in just one reply. But I can say a few things:
      – have a plan in place before you starting “making bets” … spending money, time, or energy on promotional efforts (what we would call tactical executions). The plan is the thing that will move you along, not any single tactic.
      – your plan should work backwards from a time-point down the road. I suggest forecasting way out to five years with just a few big goals (achievable but ambitious dreams). This becomes the thing you aim for and that all your efforts in the near term should point towards.
      – make a list of 3 goals (maximum) just for this year, which are logically in the direction of your 5 year goals. These first year goals should emphasize knowing your audience better, improving your craft, and zeroing in on the type of person that loves what you do.
      – don’t panic and make “bad bets”. These are impulse actions that are usually about getting something achieved in the very near term, but aren’t aligned to your goals. Become disciplined in following a process that is incrementally pushing toward your goals. An example of a bad bet would be spending a lot of money on promotion because you have a show next week and you don’t know how many people are coming. In these situations your emotions take over and you are more likely to make risky decisions. Instead, determine a process and stick with it.
      – find a mentor in your musical field who you admire, and is willing to invest some time in helping you along. Buy them lunch. Ask them to catch up with you once a month. Respect their time by coming with a few questions for them (written down) each time you catch up. Be sure to thank them and continue to appreciate them. Most decent people with a measure of success will be honored and flattered to help someone out in their field.
      – it’s fine to be your unique self and not change for anyone. However, if you have a dream of increasing your audience, you will sometimes have to consider whether you want to evolve what you do in order to please more people. This is a decision that only you can make. The good thing is that technology now provides you a global audience, so you have lots of people to reach before you are forced to broaden your appeal. If you are looking for live audiences in QLD though, you’ll have to recognize this is a limited market and therefore if you are too niched you may not get large numbers to your events.
      – as for a release campaign: invest some of your creativity in building anticipation among everyone you know who might like your music. Ask friends, family, fans to to connect with you on social media, and ask them to support your upcoming release. Give them some sort of preview before everyone else and ask for their honest feedback. What do they love, and what don’t they love? Aim to build a community of 100 people who are your “Pre Release Family”. Let them in on your new music … maybe even stream a little live demo just for them, or share a track in advance for them. Let the them know that they are helping you to improve your art form before you unleash it on the world, and that you appreciate their contribution to what you are creating. Their feedback will form a type of market research which will inform many of your tactical executions, so be sure to listen to what they say even if it is not always complimentary. I know this is vulnerable, but the best human beings (especially creatives) are those people who are committed to continual improvement. Continual improvement means that you are constantly curious to uncover anything in your work that isn’t really living up to what you hope, and can be improved upon. You’ll generally get more value from honest friends telling you what isn’t exactly working, compared to those who tell you “it’s all great and 100% perfect!”.

      … finally, in the coming months I will be partnering with a successful creative to offer guidance for artists, musicians and other creatives who want to be more systematic in the business side of their art. Make sure you subscribe to my mailing list on the home page, so that you’ll see when that is happening.

      Good luck. I wish you every bit of success and fulfillment in what you do. Please keep me posted.

      It’s your creative work and your potential, so get out there and own it 🙂

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