This was my first lesson on customer inferences. In the words of MIT Sloan Professor, Duncan Simester, customer inferences are “Using observable cues to infer unobservable product features”. Whether true or not, the restaurant customers inferred that touching a hot bowl meant that the soup was also hot.
Duncan Simester cited another example of inferences – McDonald’s encouraged their franchises to maintain a clean parking lot since people inferred that a clean lot meant that the kitchen and restaurant were also clean.
People infer when making buying decisions – the solid thump when closing a car door infers that the vehicle is solid. People usually associate a higher priced item as being a more premium product of higher quality. Many digital cameras and smart phones advertise high megapixels counts because people believe that more megapixels means better photographs (not necessarily true). Brand names are constantly extended to other products if they infer quality and value to the buyer. It’s also how a small one-person outfit can outshine a multi-national corporation by creating a fancy company website with stock photos of good looking professionals – the internet can make all companies appear the same.
In fact, one can argue that the user experience after purchase and quality impression is also based on inferences.
Being innovative and having a great product is not enough for success – do not expect that the customer will recognize that a product meets their needs. Professor Simester states that people are selective and interpret information based on prior experience. We interpret information in a manner that supports our beliefs, and retain information that supports our past beliefs. One of the world's top automobile manufacturer visited my company to select a vendor for a major contract. In addition to technical specifications, their decision factors included observing how clean our factory was and whether the employees appeared happy and friendly.
It is important for firms to address these inferences and understand how customers learn about and choose products. In some cases, it could be through educating the consumer. In other cases, the customer bias is too ingrained. That means properly satisfying their inferences, i.e., make that car door sound solid when closing or torch that soup bowl over a grill.