Read Fiction to Learn How Customers Think

Anneli Knight
Smarter Writer

Anneli Knight is a journalist, writer and academic with a background in law and finance. She lives in Byron Bay

Anneli Knight
Smarter Writer

Anneli Knight is a journalist, writer and academic with a background in law and finance. She lives in Byron Bay

If you want to understand your customers, pick up a good book and get lost in its characters. Discover what prolific writer and psychologist Hugh Mackay thinks about the insights gained from reading.

Acclaimed psychologist, social researcher and author of both fiction and non-fiction, Hugh Mackay urges people to read novels because he believes this is how you learn how people really think. Hugh’s two latest books are: The Art of Belonging, based on his social research around community and living well, and his novel Infidelity, exploring the complexities and undercurrents of relationships. And Hugh says you’ll learn at least at much about human nature reading his novel as you will in the pages of his detailed social research.

“The truth about people's lives is located in the messy miniatures of their personal stories and that's why I also like to write novels,” says Hugh.

“Though utterly fictitious, they may well come even closer than my social research to telling the truth about what makes us tick.”

Understanding how your customers tick is essential for business success, and finding the answer to that question can run to the deepest levels.

Books from above

Listen to your customers

Listening to customers is important, but there’s much more you need to do.

“To understand our customers we do need to listen to them, and through qualitative research we can explore their hopes and aspirations and fears, their satisfactions and dissatisfactions,” says Hugh.

You can listen to customers by asking questions: How was the service? Would you recommend us? Will you come back? But none of the answers will explain the full story.

“You need not just research but a broader understanding of the stories of people’s lives, the mistakes they make, and what they dream. Having a background and deeper understanding of what people are like enriches the research,” Hugh says.

“And the best place to find that is in fiction. Good fiction – powerful, evocative fiction – uncovers a particular variety of truth that somehow slips past the filters of conscious or rational thought.”

Fiction shows you diverse personalities

Good fiction gives you unique access to the interior life and worldview of a person, the character, who is completely different from you or people you are likely to meet.

“The most convincing characters in any work of literary fiction will be facets of the author’s own personality. The very process that gives fiction its authenticity demands that bits of the author’s psyche that come out of hiding to express themselves through impersonation,” he says.

Reading fiction can help you understand people’s contradictions, their dilemmas, why they might sometimes do the opposite of what they say they will do. 

Understand your customers from the inside-out

When people say they don’t bother reading fiction because it’s all made up, they are missing the essence of what fiction is about. Because fiction explores the inner life of characters, it offers a chance to come closer to understand what your customers are thinking.

“Fiction is closer to reality than autobiography or historical texts. You can have the most vivid descriptions of 18th century London, or whatever it is, but it’s not until you move into fiction that the material springs directly from the imagination and comes closer to the reality of the human condition,” says Hugh.

And ultimately, this is what meeting the needs of your customers is all about.

Non-fiction books look at a subject from the outside, in an analytical and objective way, Hugh says, whereas fiction explores human experience from the inside-out, offering new possibilities and insights for understanding people.

“Many of us intuitively attach more significance to the subjective truth, the interior truth, the truth as we see it from our own point of view. That kind of truth touches nerves in us,” says Hugh.

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