Customer focus, customer care, customer satisfaction, give the customer what they want. This is the age of the customer – or so modern business speak would have us believe, but I think that there may be trouble brewing in the happy clappy rainbow land of cheery staff and chirpy customers. You may imagine that this is a strange comment coming from me, who is someone renowned for shouting the customer message from the rooftops, yet it all gets a bit spooky when I tell people that there is no connection between customer satisfaction and repeat business. In fact I have, after one of my more boisterous seminars, had the odd lynch mob in hot pursuit.
“How was the audience, Geoff?”
“With me all the way, but I managed to shake them off at the airport!”
If they do allow me a moment to explain, I ask that if they so fiercely disagree with that statement, what evidence do they have to suggest that their repeat business is coming from their satisfied customers – and anyway how do they know that their customers are satisfied?
“How do you know they’re satisfied?” I shout from behind my burly bodyguard.
The first reply is usually, “If they come back.”
Isn’t that a bit late? “I haven’t seen Mr Smith for a while, he must be upset or disappointed.”
“OK, ask them if they’re satisfied.”
Now it is this process of asking that I take exception to because it often consists of conducting a customer satisfaction survey. These mean that we could be walking down the street when out jumps a woman with shoulder pads like an American footballer, and wiry auburn hair that stands still when her head moves. Armed with a clipboard and a piercing voice she commences her survey.
“Do you do business with any of the following companies?”
“I do, I use Acme Copier Service.”
“Well would you describe these products as satisfactory or not satisfactory?”
“Do you find the attitude of their staff, satisfactory or not satisfactory?”
“Do you find the premises, satisfactory or not satisfactory?”
This could go on for hundreds of questions but the results are averaged, analysed, and the outcome is expressed as a percentage of ‘customer satisfaction’. The el supremo of the particular company – usually at some conference or other – will present the ‘customer satisfaction index’ to his team. Everyone waits in nervous expectation but they shouldn’t worry because the result is usually 94.6% customer satisfaction, or thereabouts, and after rapturous applause we are told that although there is still a little room for improvement and that there is no call for complacency, we should still give ourselves a pat on the back.
Well, I ask you, what was the point of all that? When was the last time you rushed up to your friends, flushed and gasping with excitement, to say, “You must try that new restaurant in the town, I went there the other night and it was…satisfactory.” Who on earth aspires to become ‘satisfactory’. Some firms pay a bonus based on the level of the customer satisfaction survey but what happens then is that the survey result becomes the goal and the customer is forgotten. Supposing you have nine customers who love you and one miserable old git who has complained, nit-picked, and scored you unjustly low so that it destroys your average, you drop below your magic 95% and lose your bonus. A solution? Murder him and bury him in a shallow grave, thereby returning the average to acceptable levels! In fact why not get rid of all your customers except your close relatives who will always score you at 100%.
The problem is that what we really need to predict is the future for our business, and it is our most miserable and difficult customers, the ones that make unreasonable demands today, that will become tomorrow’s norm.
In restaurants they ask, “Everything alright with your meal?”
And we say, “Yes thank you very much.”
That is a 100% score, but when we get to the car park we say, “Didn’t think much of that place, won’t bother eating there again.”
In the meantime, though, the staff all get their top score bonus and at the same time lose another customer. They should pick us up by the throat and ask, “Is this the best meal you have ever eaten?”
Companies are always telling me that they can’t do that. “Why not?” “Because it won’t be the best meal they have ever eaten!”
But even if it isn’t the best meal the customer has ever eaten, shouldn’t that always be what we should aspire to. In any event what happens is that the results mislead companies to dumbing down its products. Tom Peters calls it commoditizing and it is based on the mistaken idea that we should give the customer what they want – usually supported by anodyne phrases about value for money, durability and user friendliness.
A survey may show that out of a hundred people offered a popular high street burger against a strong chicken vindaloo curry, 98% took no offence to the burger, against 80% who hated the curry. Therefore we should get into mild flavours or even a flavourless burger business. Wrong, because the 20% who went for the vindaloo went for it with a passion. If we carry on we will have a world full of beige computers, beige family saloon cars, box houses and insipid food.
The big fallacy of modern business is the non threatening idea that we can just keep responding to survey results and get a little better each day by giving the customer what they want, but what about innovation? What about the competitor that gets a lot better very quickly with a great new idea? It leaves us dead in the water. With a new and innovative idea you sometimes have to take a leap of faith and leave the competition standing. You can’t jump a chasm in two bounds!
So OK, I have you convinced and you are going to build dramatic and innovative products and services that may use special materials and methods that, although costing the customer a little bit more, will delight and thrill them, but you may then come to me in a few months time with a threatening look in your eye and say that no-one bought it. That is where the final piece of the puzzle fits. We have to start actively selling again. I looked at my cheery old selling books that come from the sixties and seventies and they say things like, “Production minus sales equals scrap!” Nothing happens until somebody sells something. The oldest of the American evangelising sales gurus, Elmer Wheeler, used to say, “Sell the sizzle not the steak.”
Build thrilling cars, offer exciting holidays, breathtaking homes, drool-creating food, desire-making services, but then get out there and sell them. Those old sales pioneers were right back then and are even righter now.