Four Common Business Questions Answered by Behavior Analysis

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By Tom Petrini, M.S., BCBA

Guest Author

Will you use Applied Behavior Analysis ever again?”

Since I first told people I was leaving my role at an adult program for individuals with autism to attend business school this has been the most common question asked of me. To this day the answer remains the same, I have never stopped using the strategies I learned from behavior analysis.

I knew after reading Beyond Freedom and Dignity I wanted to learn more about how behavior science could stretch past autism treatment.  My interest in business piqued following my Organizational Behavior Management course. Initially, I was having trouble moving from health and human services into the business world. Therefore, I decided to go to business school to learn the current strategies, technical vocabulary, and motivations of modern business. Following business school, I started work in the corporate world and was excited to tackle any issues that came my way using my newly acquired business insight combined with my original training in behavior analysis.

“Why does everything take longer than it should?”

You have just reviewed a monthly process, and it takes about two hours from start to finish. Everyone agrees it should not take this long; however, the person who created the process has left the company and no one is certain why each step is required. This is where the component analysis comes into play. A component analysis allows you to systematically remove parts of a business process to figure out which steps are necessary (Cooper et al, 1995; Haring & Kennedy, 1990). I find it also helps to highlight the purpose of the essential steps.  Regardless of the why, there are many processes across businesses that are inefficient. Fortunately, the component analysis gives behavior analysts and business managers a tool to systematically identify waste in processes.

“Why are there still errors, we did a training last month?”

On the first day at my current company my manager was reviewing my responsibilities and I questioned for a moment, “What did I get myself into?” Then he said, “We will also need you to train new users on our internal app.” A sigh of relief, I was confident in my ability to train people because I had a tried-and-true formula in Behavior Skills Training (BST). BST is a four-step training procedure used to teach skills to proficiency that includes instruction, modeling, behavior rehearsal, and feedback (Sarokoff & Sturmey, 2004; Miles & Wilder, 2009). BST stands out because of its focus on active engagement of the trainee and the trainer, ensuring skills have been trained to proficiency in as close to a real world setting as possible. Observing the skill in a live setting and giving immediate feedback will further bolster the effectiveness of the training.   This is why anytime I start to draft a training document my outline looks the same:

  1. Instruction
  2. Modeling
  3. Behavior Rehearsal
  4. Feedback

“How do our customers make decisions?”

Why do our customers buy some products and not others? Why are the customers only using one feature of our product? Do the clients understand the risk involved when they turn that off? These are all questions I have heard since joining a security and fraud product team. These unknowns can be very irritating to security experts who understand the customer’s behavior is at best counterproductive and at worst dangerous to their business. The principles involved with the Functional Assessment Interview (FAI) can be used to create questions to ask a customer either in a formal survey (Kern, Dunlap, Clarke, & Childs, 1995; O’Neill et al., 1997) or informally in conversation that help to identify the function of the customer’s behavior.

There is nothing worse than developing a full solution and rolling it out only for it to fail because it did not solve the underlying problem. For example, if you create trainings on the importance of passwords and your customer does not know the steps required to change a password, it is unlikely they will actually change their password following the training. Rather than developing a full training, the company could update the software so that customers are required to change from the default password and add guided instructions on how to change their password. In this case, an FAI would have identified why customers were not engaging in safe password behavior and aided in creating a function-based solution. 

“What are our customers/employees passionate about?”

Meeting potential customers or new team members can be awkward at times. Being armed with a few good questions can break the ice and lead to a more meaningful conversation. With a little thought, those questions can serve as a preference assessment interview. The goal of a preference assessment is to identify potential reinforcers for an individual’s behavior. This can be identifying the person’s preferred method of communication, what the person engages in outside of work, or what strategies they prefer to use to complete their work (Daniels & Daniels, 2006).  The process will also identify a few of the person’s dislikes which will help you avoid being paired with punishment.

Once proficient, these interviews can lead to a conversation where the person is talking 80% of the time and they are fully engaged and describing their passions. Not only are you learning a lot, often the conversation is intrinsically reinforcing to the person (nice work you are already pairing yourself with reinforcement).

If people are involved it does not matter the industry or problem – behavior analysis can help. Behavior analysis has a large opportunity to expand by investigating how to increase sales and operational efficiencies in business. It is important behavior analysts understand the preferences of the modern business person and functions of their behaviors.  As OBM continues to grow and prove its effectiveness, business leaders would benefit to listen and should be willing to abandon what is not working and replace it with a functional, evidence-based solution.

Did we leave out any questions?  Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!


Cooper, L. J., Wacker, D.P., McComas, J.J., Brown, K., Peck, S. M., Richman, D., Drew, J.,

Frishmeyer, P., & Millard, T. (1995). Use of component analysis to identify active variables in treatment packages for children with feeding disorder. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 28, 139-153.

Haring, T.G., & Kennedy, C.H. (1990). Contextual control of problem behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 23, 235-243.

Sarokoff, R.A. & Strumey, P. (2004). The effects of behavior skills training on staff implementation of discrete-trial teaching. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 37, 535-538.

Miles, M.I & Wilder, D.A.(2009). The effects of behavior skills training on caregiver implementation of guided compliance. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 42, 405-410.

Kern, L., Dunlap, G., Clarke, S., & Childs, K.E. (1995). Student-assisted functional assessment interview. Diagnostique, 19, 29-39.

Daniels, A.C & Daniels, J.E. (2006). Finding and Creating Positive Reinforcers (R+). In G. Snyder and B. Jernigan (Eds.). Performance Management: Changing behavior that drives organizational effectiveness (pp. 194-198). Atlanta, GA: Performance Management Publication.

Tom Petrini, M.S., BCBA works for a Fortune 250 credit card processing company on their Security and Fraud Product team. His work focuses on conducting analyses on client charge back and breach data to reduce risk in the customer portfolio and identify potential customers for new products. Prior to earning his Masters in Management from Wake Forest University in 2016, Tom earned a Master of Science from Florida State University and received his BCBA certification in 2013. He can be contacted via email at [email protected].

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