“This crisis has forced us to change our behavior for the better” My interview with behavioral scientist Tom De Bruyne

Tom De Bruyne is the Co-Founder of the Behavioural Design Academy and of SUE Amsterdam, an agency specialized in behavioral change. He and his co-founder Astrid Groenewegen lead a team of psychologists and creatives that turn insights on customer behavior into marketing communication strategies. I have had the pleasure of collaborating a few times with Tom in the past decade. Seeing that his insights are especially useful for these trying lockdown times, I recently interviewed him for my Steven’s Weekly podcast and decided to put some of the highlights here on my blog as well.

Every crisis is an opportunity

As you know, I’m an optimist, so it was great to recognize that same positive drive in my conversation with Tom. Of course, he realizes that the pandemic will come at a tremendous cost, and that many exciting and even healthy companies will disappear. But, like so many true entrepreneurs, he also sees an opportunity: “The cool thing about this crisis is that it has forced behavioral change upon us in positive ways: all of us were forced into new habits and we had no choice but to make them work”. The most visible example is how most of us suddenly became homeworkers from one day to the other. Freelancers were used to this of course, but many managers – in big ànd small companies – felt very uncomfortable with not having everyone in the office around them. The issues here were of course control and trust. But everyone was thrown into a context in which they had no other choice than to make it work.

If we want to keep these good habits going forward, we will need to adopt a new mindset and evolve from physical control – “if you’re in the office, I know that you are working” (which is obviously no guarantee at all) – to becoming outcome driven. “The successful companies that work with distributed teams don’t give a damn about how much hours you throw at the problem, they manage by outcome”, explained Tom. “And they are really focussed on making sure that everyone has all the right tools and connections to excel at what they do.”

Realizing that the old habits were bonkers

The only way to convince old school managers of letting their workforce work from home when things go back to “normal” (whatever that is), according to Tom, is that this forced quarantine and social distancing will last long enough so that they will have enough time to experience success. Decision makers will need to sense that their people are capable of high-performance work – on their own as well as in teams – remotely. They will need to feel that managers can trigger and inspire their people from a distance. “If we are capable of generating these high-performance outcomes while we are forced to work in a distributed way, then I think this this will become the new default for a lot of companies. At first, people might repeat their ‘old’ habits when they go back to the office, but most will realize after one week or so how completely bonkers that is. And then people will start to discuss how they can change their approach.”

Tom feels that it’s too soon to tell what this corona-induced digital training course will have as impact upon customer behaviour and consumer preferences. But he is very hopeful to see that a lot of us are clearly looking for connection and are rediscovering that our sense of happiness is completely correlated with being part of something bigger than ourselves.

Bigger than ourselves

The latter confirms my belief that companies will need to jump on that ‘bigger than ourselves’ train. As I write in my new book “The Offer You can’t refuse” (out in September 2020) convenience is rapidly becoming a new commodity and companies will need to move ‘up’ two steps into their relationships with customers. First, they will start to focus just as much on the life journey of people as on their customer journey, becoming some sort of “partner’ in their life. And secondly, they will need to really take responsibility to tackle some of the huge problems that we are facing today. I loved to see the past few weeks of this pandemic, how companies have really stepped up to the plate in that aspect, like car companies that have switched production lines to make respirators. Or like Tom’s example of the Swinkels family – owner of the Bavaria brands – who redesigned their whole process to manufacture hand sanitizer instead of beer.

Which are the customer problems that you want to solve?

Instead of selling goods and services, companies will really have to start to think about which are the customer problems – personal and more universal – that they want to solve. Tom had a fantastic example in the matter, from the Rabobank, a big cooperative bank in the Netherlands: “The Rabobank believes that the freelancers of today are going to be the lost generation because they have no steady income, hop from assignment to assignment and are therefore not able to build financial buffers in order to pay off a mortgage. So one of the Rabobank executives told me that “we need to think about how we are going to design our offering to prevent the fact that more than 1 million people in the Netherlands will become this lost generation who won’t be able to build up a stable future for themselves”. Now that is a purpose. And not one of those fluffy, perfectly interchangeable ones, either. I thought that was awesome.”

According to Tom, if we want companies to continue on that pandemic triggered drive of solving real-life problems, companies will need to create a context in which specific behaviors are triggered. “The problem with companies that are on the stock exchange is that their whole behavior is completely triggered by the quarterly results, which means that they simply can’t invest in long term strategies because they always have to show their hungry shareholders that they are performing well this quarter. We need other incentives. If the goal of the company is to create a healthy company that solves problems for its customers in the long run, while at the same time creating a meaningful life and a meaningful business for themselves, they will be much more inclined to act in ways that don’t have to pay off right away. That’s a common structural design problem in companies that are listed on the stock exchange. Changing that requires the kind of leadership that Amazon has. They keep the shareholders waiting with the promise that in the end, they will simply conquer the world for them.” The question is: what type of customer problem will you solve for your customers, so you can start conquering the world in small steps?