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What’s the real fear that sits underneath business owners’ anxiety about the pace of change?


The Luddites were a loose rabble of 19th century workers that rampaged about northern England, intent on destroying the new machinery being used in cotton and woollen mills.

Nowadays they are commonly viewed as being anti-technology, trying to hold back the pace of change.

In fact the Luddites were skilled workers adept at using the technology but driven, in tough economic times, by a fear of losing their jobs. Smashing up the machines was simply a form of protest.

And it is this fear of lost income that sits uneasily with many business owners today.

One of the top 5 worries of business owners we have interviewed is about keeping up with all the technology and business changes taking place.

In many ways this is understandable. Over the past 8 years there have been numerous profound earthquakes in the business world.

Even the word disruption – bandied around as a quasi-glamorous, must-have headline – is a challenging word. Most people are change- and risk-averse; it is part of our biological wiring and can raise primal fear triggers: fight or flight.

Little wonder business people are worried about the perceived level of change wrought by technology advancements and new business models.

It’s worth digging deeper

However our further questioning around their worry uncovered a recurring theme.

The deeper fear underneath was actually around losing future sales from customers.

    “The competition is doing xxx, maybe I should too.”

    “Should I be using YYY app, is it any good?”

    “It’s hard keeping up with all this digital stuff – social selling, content marketing – what are all these?”

All of this is fear-based, reactive and leads to distraction from the things that really matter.

There is a simple answer, one which many of the business owners overlooked:

What is it that your customers really want?

What are their real underlying problems and how can you better serve them?

The external environmental changes are understandable. They gather a lot of media attention and feed into unconscious fear drivers. It is, however, a distraction.

Your customers buy your services and your best strategy for growing future revenues is to understand them – serve them better – so that they buy more of what you can offer. And so that you can find more customers like them.

  • Know them at a deeper level – more than just objective demographic criteria. Understanding their fears, desires and attitudes is crucial. What drives them? The objective stuff is too shallow, which is why most ideal client profiles rarely deliver any marketing cut-through.

Most people buy at an emotional level and then rationalise afterwards. Even in the business to business context the emotional drivers are huge: how will this decision make me look in front of my colleagues, my boss. These social anxieties are profound.

  • Research them – talk to them and really understand how they use your product or service. Not as you think they do but as they really do. Ask questions but make sure they are not self-serving getting pre-determined answers. It needs to be an open, honest and fearless conversation. Warts and all.

Case study

In work we did for a financial planning firm the client was aware of some customer dissatisfaction, but honestly believed it was around speed of service. We also noticed that they had negligible referral rates.

In fact the research uncovered that the key issue was a lack of clear communication about how their financial plans were progressing.

     “Matthew is a nice guy and we trust him with our money but…..’

     “He is a clever man and really knows his stuff but….”

Time and time again clients did not understand how their plans were unfolding, what they could do to improve their long term position. Would they be able to afford a comfortable retirement?

From their feedback we developed two simple communication tools:

  • a simple one page strategic plan summarising their investments and strategies with easy to understand language and visuals
  • a one page score card showing them how their plans had progressed over the previous 12 months, with recommended actions to improve future performance.

Both were very well received.

And in the current round of client review meetings, referral rates have increased 937% – to an average of 1½ referrals per meeting.


In doing your research here are some useful guidelines:

  • Try and wear your customer’s shoes when coming up with the questions – it is about them, not you.
  • Be wary of self-serving questions.
  • Be open-minded.
  • Position the research up-front – so that the customers understand you want a very open and honest conversation.
  • Your questions are just a spring-board to listen and ask further questions – to really understand – so follow up initial answers with “and what does that mean to you?”“how does that make you feel?”
  • Have real conversations – either over the phone or face to face. Only this will give you the deeper emotional insight to understand what really matters.
  • Ideally get a third party – their independence typically allows customers the freedom to be truly candid.

As usual if you have any questions or would like help with your research, just call me on 0459 320 999 – or send me an email.

Posted on 23 Jun 2016


  • Kailyn
    3 years ago

    That’s a posting full of insight!

  • Dene Kilpatrick
    4 years ago

    Well written Alex; I devoured every word. There is an art in asking questions – It in not just about questions, it is about finding the right questions. You nailed this in your closing guidelines. Thank you for sharing.

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