A Promise that Drives Customer Away

Judging today’s communication, the rule of the game is simple – if you haven’t said a lot, you probably have missed a trick or two.  Somewhere along the line the supposed rule of thumbs – “Keeping it short and simple”, “Less is more” etc. – are taking a thumb down. In today’s over-communicated media, shouting is probably the only possible way of getting heard. However, this does not permit deviation from 3 basic principles. 

  1. The less things are said, the easier it is to remember
  2. If you say everything, you are no longer interesting. If you are no longer interesting, you are no longer remembered.
  3. And most important of all, customer satisfaction is not good enough. You have to constantly delight the customers. And the only way to do that is through surprising customers.

What is the story? 

To be told more simply: it is about over-delivering and under-promising, a sin every company is involved in. What makes it so interesting is that every time you ask the companies how many of them deliver more than what they claim they would deliver, people raise their hands and say, “That’s us”. And when you ask how they did that, they say, they have a new line-extended product coming out and it provides 5% more nutritional value for the same price, which they are promoting with this “heavyweight” budget in the coming quarter. Well, hardly the right course of action. When companies go overboard telling customers that every time they use their product they will get 5% more value, they didn’t over-deliver at all. They just did what they said they were going to do. And there is nothing surprising about that.Examples are everywhere. A bewildering number of institutions promise immediate personalized attention but deliver long waits and recorded messages. Cosmetics promise out of this world glamour. What they give is worldly at best. Toothpaste promises love at first sight, while plaque and tartar is probably the only thing they can work on. Fast food, hotels, soft drink, weight-loss programs, airlines — marketers in all categories seem to have made flowery promises that would make even the most love-struck charmer watery-eyed. Well, when you promise the world, the world is no longer enough. Where is the surprise party?

If there is no element of surprise, the game is lost even before it begun. And it is mostly, because in their relentless and sometimes impossible pursuit of short-term number game, they have focused on creating impossible numbers — building in-store traffic, creating purchase intention and first trials– and not on building proper relationships. So companies make lofty promises expecting hefty returns, hoping that the more potent and extravagant the promises are, the more fish will succumb to the net. What gets lost in the translation is that the more potent and extravagant the promise, the tougher it will be for companies to keep it.

What do smart and not-so-smart ones do? 

Smart brands do more than that. They build in surprise. For example, in Hotel Four Seasons, one person is dedicated to every guest before they arrive. They have to find out one interesting fact about this person. It might be the lecture he last gave, it might be the GM he drives. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that they never go on board to say “We know every detail about our customers so that we can customize our offers for him” in their communications. It is something for the customer to find out. An element of surprise to delight customers. And that’s the way it should be.There was a time when honesty was uttered. And it paid handsome dividends. Avis, the number 2 car rental company, lost money for years before they accepted in their ad “We are No. 2. We try harder”. And that worked miracles for them. They didn’t promise best service, because none will believe that from the No. 2 player (“If you are the best, how come you are No. 2?”, they’d ask). They promised shorter cue and less service time, because they are the second best player and more people stand in cue in front of the No. 1 player Hertz. And after accepting their number 2 status and promising some thing they can exceed, Avis made profits for the first time in years.But judging from today’s communication style, “modesty” is a lost cause. “Hidden Cost” is the buzz-word. From mobile telephony to banking, the trend is to highlight the benefit (which most of the time is “highlighted” to lofty, impossible heights) and allow the customers to read between the lines and find the “traps”. Price quoted never includes “VAT and Tax”. It is stated at the bottom with the assumption that none will ever read it until too late. Services charges which are deducted so conveniently at the end of year are never mentioned. Warranties that need to be extended with cash payments are conveniently overlooked. It is difficult to find out one mission statement where “transparency and trustworthiness” is not mentioned. It is impossible to find out one company who implement those words, day in day out.Accepting a few exceptions, brand loyalty has been raised to mythical status. Everybody wanted loyalty, very few understood how to acquire and keep that loyalty intact. Apart from a few cult-like brands like Harley-Davidson, very few brands can claim that their customers will go the distance to buy their brand and will actively recommend their brands, no matter what. Was there ever any doubt that the situation will be like this if we take a background check on this companies and see exactly how many of them constantly exceeded their supposed loyal customer expectations on a long term basis? Hardly. The brand experience in general is very bland, mundane and very very predictable, if not below par. Even the ever reliable ones are faltering to keep their promises.  So next time, when you raise a complaint about your customer defecting, think when was the last time you exceeded your customer expectation. What do we do about it?

So what should be the way of things? Here is a short guideline.

1.      Don’t communicate every benefit that you are providing in black and white. Leave something for the customers to find out on his own. Such unexpected benefits strengthen the customer – brand bonding

2.      Don’t say “We do everything that the customers demand”. Such attitude will put you in firing line as if you succumb to every whim of the customers, it will hurt your bottom line. Rationally, no company can do that. So it’s better not to make such promises.

3.      Your non-communicated promises are your biggest assets, so use them often and strategically. Your ad might say that you have the best customer service, but if you provide complementary gifts as on that day to everyone who receives service from your customer service center, that adds more value, simply because that is something that the customer did not expect when he stepped into the service center.

4.      Communicate the same promises internally (to your employees and channel partners) and externally (to your customers). Advertising does not induce repeat purchase, a delightful POS experience does. 

5.      Make you communication as clear and transparent as possible. This includes including VAT and Taxes in your pricing, mentioning the service charges that customer will incur in their lifetime etc. The sticker in your desk states “Never fool a customer”. Its about time, you start acting accordingly

6.      If you are the number 1 player, don’t rub in your leadership credentials all over the place. The leader does enjoy the bragging rights, but use it sparingly. If you are the leader, people will come to know that and give you due credit anyway.

7.      If you are the number 2 /3 player, don’t try to claim that “We have more quality than number 1, but it is only for the dearest customers to find out for sure”. Customers will never buy that.

8.      Most importantly, start practicing what you have preached all along. If you promise “Customer Service at a mouse click away”, you better mean that. If you promise “Foam that will last generations”, you better mean that. Because any deviation will result in customer dissatisfaction. And we all know what customer dissatisfaction will result into  

The rule of the game is simple, but it’s the players that made it complicated. There is a natural course of action and the battleground is not the marketplace, but inside the mind of the customers. No matter how much you try, you cannot change it. So better accept it. Over-promising generates transactions. It stimulates trials. But those trials won’t be followed by repeat purchases. Those trials will never be backed by loyalty and retention. Over-promising creates customer dissatisfaction, erosion of emotional bonding and even worse customer defection. No matter how hard you play the game, lofty promises do not guarantee hefty returns. And that’s a promise.

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