‘Chunking:’ Why Everyone is “end to end, innovative, and world-class”

By Rob Perrilleon, Vice President, Consulting Services

June 17, 2016

Chunking

In my last post, you heard about the Curse of Knowledge, and how it can lead to overly technical language that confuses the audience. There is another communication trap where you think you are using clear, easy to understand business language, but the message is as unclear to the customer as the technical-speak.

When we talk to clients about their differentiation, certain terms come up almost every time: “comprehensive (or end-to-end) solutions,” “our experience and expertise,” “focus on client’s success,” or “our people.” These are not complex or technical terms, so why are they still meaningless to the customer? Ask yourself, do any of your competitors say, “We have limited capabilities, we’re new to this business, we hire anyone with a pulse, and we don’t really care about your success”? Of course not! Everyone makes those claims, so they all sound the same to the customer. What’s interesting is how passionately most people defend those empty statements. “I know, but we really mean it!” is the typical response.

So what’s going on here? Why do people want to make these claims, even when they admit that they don’t convey any differentiation? The answer is a term called “chunking,” originally coined by the psychologist George Miller. Miller established that humans have a fixed number of slots in working memory to store information. Chunking is simply combining pieces of information, so they occupy fewer slots. Anyone who learned to remember the names of the Great Lakes with the mnemonic “HOMES” chunked five pieces of information into one.

Chunking works great in communications, but only when both parties understand what’s being chunked. The question “Can you give me a ride to the airport for my 6:00 flight?” has a lot of chunking going on. How do you get to the airport? How long does it take? Is there traffic at that time of day? How far in advance do you need to get there? Depending on who you’re talking to, the original question may be fine, but some people will need it all explained to them.

And that’s the connection to those meaningless differentiation claims. I have no doubt that the person who says “end to end solutions,” is not only sincere, but also has a very clear picture of what ‘end to end’ means, how that differs from their competition, and what value it delivers to the customer. The problem is that the customer doesn’t have that depth of knowledge, so they don’t know the underlying chunked information, and all that meaning is lost on them. Recall one of the key principles of the Curse of Knowledge: Most people will overestimate how much their customers know about them.

How do you overcome this? Just like with the Curse of Knowledge, don’t overestimate your customers’ understanding of your capabilities. Then, ‘unpack’ some of that chunked information. Even better, draw some contrast to your competitors. For example, instead of saying “end to end,” try something like, “Since A, B, C and D are so interrelated, it’s important to get them all from one place. You’ll only get in-house capabilities in all four areas, fully integrated, with successful implementations, from one place – us. Other providers have gaps, or rely on third party integrations, but that’s not the end to end solution you really need.”

It’s a little longer, but it means a lot more than just “end to end.”

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