Wednesday, August 18, 2010

When The Customer Isn't Right...


I hope all is well and that you're having a lovely week so far!  We've been fiddling with our Facebook page, our site, networking up a storm and generally pounding the pavement just like all of you.  While doing all of this, I took a LinkedIn break and stumbled upon a status message that went something like this (I've edited out some of the specifics):

"According to a survey, almost 80% of customers did not understand the mechanics of the product.  Perhaps they should have to take a test before purchasing the product so that they are not their own worst enemy."

In a fit of marketing and customer advocacy pique, I wrote something like this in response:

"and the instruments that allow them to purchase and use the product should provide more straightforward info...  everything is always a two way street. :)"

It turns out that, as usual, nothing is that simple or straightforward.  See, I thought for a bit and there is a nugget, really the main point, about that status message that is more of a "read between the lines" issue which I would like to bring to your attention.  Because the guy is right.

The main point is actually the negative ripple effect of the consumers' misunderstanding of the product.  It's great that consumers are self directed and don't want help but what good is self direction and independence if they are doing it wrong and become "their own worst enemy"?  And, how much have they hurt themselves and how much do they have to work to fix something as opposed to engaging in long term strategizing and building for the future?  How many good resources (money and time) get thrown after bad?  This is the crux of the status message, really.

All of this reminds me of that maxim of "The customer is always right."  But, in this case, not always and to great negative effect.  If you consider that it's possible that where these consumers purchase these products might be rife with information and educational tools, then it might just be that the customer chose to neglect or ignore the advice/information and hence the bad experience.  Many variables exist, to be sure, and the many cocktails you can make with them is mind boggling.

And here is where we have a bit of a problem.  I can't ever envision a situation in which one could successfully say, "Hey, look.  You're my customer but I'm telling you now, you have no idea what you're talking about.  So, let's let me drive for a while because I'm an expert...  or at least my fancy degree tells me so."

But there are times that, to do right by your customer, you have to say something or you have to intervene despite the maxim.  You are obligated to navigate or help them navigate around a scary enormous iceberg not only because it's the right thing to do but you would like to keep their business.  Because if you say nothing and let them hit the iceberg though they may be smart and self directed, you're still on the hook.  Ounce of prevention versus pound of cure.

How to do this?  Well, it's all about positioning, isn't it?  It's about respecting the customer and treating him/her as if they are the center of the customer universe.  In these types of sensitive situations, the focus should be on possible pain and the avoidance of possible pain.  It should be about how you can help your customer recognize the possible pain instantly and also the path he/she can take to avoid the pain.

As I said, the status message really was about the negative things that happen when customers aren't fully informed and how painful the outcome can be.  If one could write super long status messages and explain this further or worded more about the negative effects of misinformation or misunderstanding, then it would look like a cautionary tale and a piece of advice to seek better education or what have you.

So, how do we help customers recognize the pain when we see it in their futures?  We have to ask a series of questions: What interested you in this product? Have you used this product before? If you didn't have the product, would it impact your lifestyle? How many other people have you spoken to about this product?  What are some practical examples of how this product can be used to suit your needs?  And so on.

If any of the answers to the sometimes socratic questions show uncertainty, then the customer will soon realize that he/she actually is not right, perhaps more information and guidance is needed and they start asking you for your input.  It's at this critical permission point where you're allowed to help them self correct their navigation to go around the iceberg.

And, it's also at this point that, thanks to your socratic questioning, they start to look to you for more input and guidance going forward all the while thinking and believing they are steering the ship.  Hard to do but critical to maintain the relationship.


Parissa Behnia
Idea Chef

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