Marketing Idea No. 21 – A Promise that Drives Customer Away

This article is published in Executive Times  

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. Today companies are all over-promising and under-delivering. What’s interesting is that every time you talk to companies and ask them how many of you are over-delivering and under-promising, people raise their hands and say, “We over-deliver”. And you might ask how do you do that? And they say, we have a new juice coming out and it is 25% more for the same price. And you say, “OK, did you tell people that?” And they say “Of course”. And then you have to point to them that they have missed the point. You told people they were going to get 25% more, I say, so you didn’t over-deliver at all. You just did what you said you were going to do. What is so surprising about that? Even more examples abound. A bewildering number of banks promise immediate personalized attention but deliver long waits and recorded messages that claim, “Your call is important to us.” 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 followed the advice: “Promise her anything. . . .”. Well when you promise the world, the world is no longer enough. Where is the surprise party? Why do companies play this game? Because, in their headlong pursuit of short-term volume goals, they have focused on creating transactions — building traffic count, creating trials, ” — and not on building competitor-proof relationships. Why? Because that’s what companies typically measure, and that’s how their managers are held accountable. So companies make promises, hoping that the more powerful and grandiose the promises are, the stronger the consumer response will be. But the more powerful and grandiose 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 retail 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. Apple, a company that took design and innovation to incredible heights, had never any major complaints about their product. It is one of the few companies in the world with an obsessively devoted consumer following. And when it launched the iPod Nano last month, fans ran out of words to describe their awe and gratitude for the “impossibly small” device. But then this happened  (As quoted from Internet)

“At Nano’s launch it looked as though Apple’s mercurial ability to fuse aesthetic appeal with cutting-edge technology had created another winner. But then the screen on Matthew Peterson’s Nano broke, Apple said it was not covered by the warranty and he got mad. And then he got even. Peterson set up a website, called http://www.flawedmusicplayer.com. Flawedmusicplayer.com became a forum where Nano owners who had suffered similar problems with their devices could vent their frustration. At one stage, Peterson said he was getting 30 complaints an hour about Nanos. As the furore grew and shareholders started to ask uncomfortable questions, Apple was forced to admit that consumer grievances about Nano screens, led by Peterson, were justified.” A natural case of overpromise and underdelivery. When Apple falls, there can be few doubts about the rest. 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 cant change it. So you better accept it. Over-promising generates transactions. It stimulates trials. But those trials won’t be followed by repeat purchases. Over-promising engenders customer disaffection, disappointing those who were attracted by an expectation that remains unfulfilled. The long-term consequences for companies, customers, and stockholders are anything but positive. And that’s a promise.

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