By Frank J. Rich
The following is an introduction to a short series on the principles in understanding the customer. This column has spoken often about the customer, his psychographic profiles, the fundamental art and science of buying, and the channels and messages that satisfy his natural inclinations to find himself through the buying experience. In the coming weeks I’ll be addressing a number of elements of the buying experience (the human experience) that bear rethinking, and the actual results of subtle changes in approach and words that draw customers into a relatable and productive exchange with sellers. We’ll challenge norms, and in the process give both participants the opportunity they seek. In the meanwhile, start here to prepare for a walk through the mind of consumers.
In our efforts to apply the “truths” of business, we often err by the casual use of things we think we know. It’s the cogito ergo sum of a well-worn practice that allows such license, and the kind of careless thinking that leads to misunderstanding and ultimately, failure.
One such dictum is the oft-heard statement, “The customer is always right.” In its essential meaning it suggests that customers are to be treated with respect and deference, a special anointing that allows them the unusual privilege of obvious misstatements … about you, your company, or even the industry you work in. If you have customers, as most who work do, examples come easily to mind. But armed with such miscalculations we often face the most important objective in business—to satisfy the customer’s needs—with resentment and bitterness for having suffered through the dictum above. Increasingly, distinguishing the meaning in the statement from its expression becomes important as the requirements for “knowledge workers” rely on competence and careful assessments of the marketplace.
In fact, the customer is not always right, but he is never wrong. The heuristic in this seeming nuance is, perhaps, more important than most realize. Not only must we learn well how to serve the primary purpose in business—to create and keep customers—we must learn and practice an approach to the customer that encourages an effective response. When we choose to inform and educate, to become the assistant buyer customers seek, and not push and pontificate, then the métier of our choice is more fulfilling by the achievement of our goals. The alternative is the atavism of a Paleocene order, that which separates the future of business practice from the past.
Were this focus on the choice of words only the splitting of hairs, it would hardly be worth the paper they’re on. Rather, the careful consideration of words spoken and actions taken is the atelier of the mind, that workshop where all behavior takes shape. None of us wants to hear that we are wrong, but most are happy to learn something from another who is sincere and caring. The learning urge is fundamental to the human condition.
In his new book, People-Focused Knowledge Management, Karl Wiig asserts that mental models are the foundation of knowledge, personal or enterprise. As reference models, they encode personal experiences, and those from other sources. People and enterprises use these mental models to anticipate events and deal with situations. In simple terms, thought becomes behavior, and most thought is an essential combining of emotional responses to actual experience. How we “think” about the customer is how we will “behave” toward him. And this is why millions of dollars in sales are daily slain by the jawbone of an ass.
We have heard that there are two rules for business success regarding customers. Rule one is, “The customer is never wrong.” Rule two is, “When in doubt, refer back to Rule one.” Customers can be selfish, demanding, vain, fickle, arrogant, and disloyal; much like all of us when we turn into customers. What they are in search of is themselves, those qualities in the marketplace of suppliers that most relate to their own sense of value and belonging. If they come upon it accidentally, count yourself lucky. More often, it requires careful attention to their wants, needs, and habits, and good communications skills to win them over.
For example, I heard from someone at a recent gathering: “So, you’re a trainer. My company has a trainer already.” This, after answering his question about what Encore Prist International does. My quick answer was, “organizational development!” My second response was to ask if he had ever considered a difference between training and development. He had not, but was interested, so I obliged his curiosity. I asked how long he had been with his company, how old the company was, and the tenure of most in management. His answers all pointed to short work spans for most in the company, and a problem with turnover. I then asked what seemed most important to his employer when he was hired—his skills or habits. He pondered the question for a moment, then returned that he had not been asked at all about his habits, just a lot about what he had accomplished where he worked previously. I explained that his experience was fairly typical and that most short-term employees are let go for lack of good attitude and habits. Skills and knowledge can be taught through training, by skilled trainers, but attitude and habit journeyed longer in the making. Development, I offered, has a focus on the latter, and by the examination of right principles and practices as integral parts of the person and his values and belief system. With that, he admitted that his company had been wrestling with a turnover problem for some years, and that he had personally been looking furiously to fill slots in his department in the midst of a very competitive job market. Development, he concluded, might be just what his company needed.
Customers have three choices. They can buy from you, from another, or not at all. Most business success comes from developing customers of the “third kind,” those that drive other customers to you because they themselves feel so taken care of. Customers also have two important questions. “Why should I buy this product or service at all?” and “Why should I buy it from you?” Know the answers to these questions, and never make the customer wrong.