The Customer Service Survey

Dunning-Kruger Effect

by Peter Leppik on Wed, 2013-10-16 16:30

You know that thing everyone always talks about how most people think they are above-average drivers?

As I learned today, it turns out this has a name. It's called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, after a pair of psychologists who first described it in 1999.

(Of course, the rest of us have been describing this effect for decades longer than that, but Dunning and Kruger were the first to describe it using actual, you know, research.)

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a cognitive bias where people who are bad at something believe they are above average. For example, in one study, participants in the bottom quartile for a particular skill (that is, the people who were worse than at least 75% of the participants) estimated that they were, on average, in the 62nd percentile--well above average.

Anyone with any level of skill in anything has probably seen this in others. And--let's be honest here--probably every one of us is guilty of thinking that we're above-average in some skill we're actually really bad at.

The problem seems to be that if you're really bad at something you don't know how to evaluate your skill level. You don't know what it means to be good at it.

Dunning and Kruger also found that their effect can be reversed through some basic training. This training serves to both increase skill level and also help people recognize their mistakes. Ironically, the people who are the most skilled tend to underestimate how good they are--probably because they are both more sensitive to their own mistakes, and they are likely to be surrounded by other experts.

I'm convinced that the Dunning-Kruger Effect applies to companies just as much as it applies to people. In the Customer Experience world it seems that the companies with the worst customer experiences are also the ones which declare the loudest that they do a great job serving their customers.

(This is often followed up with a statement that they don't feel the need to improve their customer experience, because it's already so good.)

Stirring a little confirmation bias in with Dunning-Kruger gives a particularly toxic brew: a company which is bad at something, but thinks it's above average, and actively ignores evidence to the contrary.

I can name a few companies off the top of my head which provide terrible customer service, but think they're pretty good and refuse to listen to anyone who tells them otherwise. You can probably name a few, too.

So how do you overcome this? Fortunately Dunning-Kruger is relatively easy: you learn a little about what good service looks like and improve the company's self-evaluation skills. It's getting to that first step which can be hard. Confirmation bias makes people think that little bit of information isn't needed and would be a waste of time or money. So here's a three-pronged strategy:

  1. Provide credible feedback. Make an effort to acknowledge all limitations of the feedback, and focus on individual customers' stories rather than statistics (at least initially).
  2. Be positive. The message should be "there's always room to improve," rather than "you stink."
  3. Keep at it. Over time people's opinions will shift with a persistent stream of contrary evidence.
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