Bad Intuition: Too-Thin Slicing


The concept of “thin slicing” was popularized by Malcom Gladwell in is best-selling Blink. In short, thin slicing is the ability for people, based on their past experience, to find patterns in behavior, appearance, etc. with a very small time sample. An expert salesperson, for example, may intuit whether a prospect is a likely buyer within a few seconds of meeting her. Gladwell’s theme in Blink was the amazing ability humans have to process information and arrive at correct conclusions in a very short time and sometimes without conscious awareness of the process. He cites an example of an expert on ancient statuary who thought a newly-discovered antiquity “looked wrong” despite undergoing months of expert examination and scientific testing; the sculpture was indeed a modern fraud. Paul Barsch of the Marketing Profs Daily Fix points out that sometimes thin-slicing one’s way to conclusions can be dangerous.

In The Perils of Intuition, Barsch quotes a Wall Street Journal Article, The Gatekeeper: How Posh Hotel Sizes Up Guests, in describing a hotelier who is exceptionally skilled at spotting tiny fashion details, like a Hermes tie, to identify wealthy guests deserving of special attention. Barsch points out the danger in this kind of thin-slicing: by looking for external fashion cues of this type, one is likely to misidentify the hotel’s most valuable customers. The customer with the best contribution to the hotel’s bottom line may well not be the guy with the flashy neckwear, but rather the unassuming frequent traveller who stays often and treats the staff well. Barsch advocates a data-based approach to identifying who your best customers really are.

I think a third approach may serve businesses: instead of trying to identify the best customers and treat them better than the rest, work to do the same excellent job with all customers. Personally, I’m a bit put off by the thought that if I show up wearing a Hermes tie my service will somehow be better than if I took my tie off halfway through a long flight. And while I have no problem with rewarding the most profitable customers with special offers and perquisites, I think even a first-time visitor should receive the same excellent service – that customer, if treated beyond his expectations, may turn into a highly profitable long-term client.

The best advice for sizing up customers in a retail setting comes from an exceptionally successful car salesman. This individual was by far the most successful salesperson in his dealership over several decades of selling. While there were a variety of factors in his success, like keeping track of past customers and staying in touch (index-card based CRM!), he attributed most of it to treating everyone who walked in the dealership door the same. He commented that other salespeople might avoid getting stuck with a customer who appeared poorly dressed, or too young to be a serious buyer. Often, treating these customers with the same level of interest and courtesy as those who looked more promising resulted in a sale. The guy in jeans sometimes turned out to have plenty of money and didn’t feel the need to dress up to buy a car; the kid sometimes returned the next day with his parents to write the check.

Thin-slicing is a powerful tool, as is data-based customer segmentation – but don’t lose sight of the end objective, providing great service to all.

  1. Dennis Jolley says

    I couldn’t agree more with this comment:
    “I think a third approach may serve businesses: instead of trying to identify the best customers and treat them better than the rest, work to do the same excellent job with all customers.”

    In a McKinsey Quarterly article, David Court argues that the CMO needs to become the “voice of the customer” internally. Teaching front line staff to choose which customers to treat well based on fashion is encouraging poor customer service on the whole.

    While thin slicing is a powerful – and I would argue, useful tool – it is only effective when it is used by someone who has enough experience to have developed expertise in an area. You can’t take a new bell captain and expect them to be able to thin-slice high value customers simply because he knows what a Hermes tie looks like.

  2. The Decision Strategist says

    This is such a good statement. Treating every customer well seems like a much better (and obvious) tactic.

    Dennis is right in noting that thin-slicing takes experience. That kind of thing can be developed, but is generally not something that can happen quickly.

    It seems like many people are taking away the wrong thing from the article you cite though. Thin-slicing isn’t the same as just noting that someone is wearing a tie or carrying a bag, it’s the synthesis of many factors together to make a decision based on past experience.

    In that sense, thin-slicing is a very effective and cheap way to make good decisions, providing your experiences generally mirror reality.

  3. Roger Dooley says

    Good points, Dennis and TDS – identifying designer fashions is a rather shallow form of thin slicing, and expert thin-slicers develop their skill based on actual experience and outcomes rather than assumptions.

    Though I question whether a five star hotel should be trying to guess which customers should be treated better, I’m sure there are business situations where such decisions can be beneficial.


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