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The psychology of uncertainty – and how to use it

14 December, 2020 Reading: 4:03 mins
Hugh Massam

By Hugh

We are uncertain of almost everything these days, but why do some businesses seem to handle it better than others, even to thrive?

The psychology of uncertainty – and how to use it

We are uncertain of almost everything these days, but why do some businesses seem to handle it better than others, even to thrive?

Uncertainty in marketing teams shakes foundations, drives short-termism and can mean rushed decisions. This is partly neurology at work: human brains are hard-wired to seek certainty and reduce unknowns, especially under stress. But the psychology and physiology of uncertainty might also be a licence to try a new tack and break out of self-imposed limits using the upside of stress – the physical ‘high’ as stress releases cortisol and adrenalin.

The most obvious extreme example of stress triggering a radical innovation has been the development of at least three Covid vaccines in a matter of months: the speed and outcomes themselves are stunning but, perhaps more importantly, the ways the industry and regulators came together, the new routes to making them at scale and their mode of action – how they work in our bodies – each represent huge innovations in themselves with tremendous spin-offs for the wider medical and disease-control arenas. These have probably swept aside hundreds of old timelines, conventions and assumptions. So – where could we all take a leaf from their book and challenge the previously unassailable?

Home buyers seem to be making rapid decisions – the current spurt of purchases seems partly due to the artificial stimulus of a stamp duty holiday but also probably the flight of capital from other areas to something that really is ‘as safe as houses’. So could you take a safe decision in one area, even a make-do decision, that gives some certainty and allows energy to go into innovation elsewhere?

Importantly so many assumptions about the buying process and the right channel to use may have gone out the window with the pandemic, but the real uncertainty is: once things become more normal which buying behaviours will revert to 2019 mode almost immediately, and which will have permanently changed? For example, globally-focused hospitality in countries across the world is rediscovering the domestic tourist – how much will we revert to old travel habits when things open up again? If I was in hospitality right now this would be top of mind, and perhaps a basis for a reinvention of my offer.

Working from home has become the new normal for many – but how much will we go straight back to five days a week in the office, and which industries will do it more than others? Even marketers themselves can’t agree – a recent survey shows there are marked differences, with agencies wanting to get back to the office far more than in-house marketers. One thing they do all agree on is that the pandemic has normalised remote working and this will affect hiring decisions. This doesn’t just matter if your company rents out the office spaces and car parks which they no longer want, it is likely to change the way we live, work and play in our cities, affecting everything from how business is conducted to public transport. One idea some people like is TWaTs – Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in the office, the rest from elsewhere – but there are numbers of employees who have taken Covid as an opportunity and moved to work remotely hundreds, even thousands of miles from their old base, intending to stay there with their employers’ blessing. This is a radical shift in thinking, it seems pretty permanent and it matters if you serve those people (or, for that matter, employ them). However, if the backbone of your customer base is manufacturing, law, education or the public sector their models of work and decision-making seem likely to remain unchanged, apart from more support staff working from home part-time.

If you sometimes feel paralysed by indecision perhaps it’s worth asking: what opportunities have these changes created? How can we own a new channel or embrace emerging ways people are transacting with us? Do we need a new or repackaged offer to really maximise this new growth?

A tried and tested role for marketers that will both drive down uncertainty and probably offer great new insights is to book some brief time with customers to reconfirm what we call ‘pain and jobs’ – does your offer still do a great job for your customers today, does it still remove important ‘pain’ for them and make their work easier? Have their needs shifted? Is the entire chain of your customer experience, from initial enquiry to post-fulfilment as competitive and as good as it needs to be ? We simply can’t ask this too often at the moment.

Overall, it’s worth tapping into the psychology of uncertainty and using it to our advantage.

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