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Two Simple Concepts for Satisfying Customers

George E.L. Barbee

George E.L. Barbee is one of the original Batten fellows at the University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business. Before that he was a PwC partner for 20 years. This piece is adapted from his book 63 Innovation Nuggets (Innovation Etc., 2015).

 

There is nothing so useful for a leading-edge thinker as a succinct idea, stated plainly and simply, that makes your practice better. For people in marketing — and, really, for everyone else in business as well — some of the most valuable nuggets have to do with customer relationships. Customers are not always who you think they are. They don’t always want what you think they want. These two simple concepts can help.

1. Get to know your highest-volume customers. A successful marketing leader comes to know a great deal about the best, most loyal customers. These fall into one of three groups: the early adopters, the repeaters, and the heavy users. Each of these groups is different. Early adopters may not always be repeaters. And not all repeaters will become heavy users.

It’s the heavy users you should come to know best: the people who continually buy your products in high quantities. They are gold. They may be a minority — even a small minority. And market research will often miss them. But to your company, they can be worth five or even 15 times an occasional or casual customer. Listen to them. Keep them happy. Coddle them.

For a personal-care company, a heavy user might be a woman with long hair who uses three times the shampoo of a typical user. For a shaving products company, the heaviest user is a man who shaves twice a day and uses a few new blades each week. Coffee purveyors should seek out the java drinker who brews three fresh pots a day. Beer marketers need to focus on the suds fan who always buys the same brand and drinks it every day. Food companies should seek out more contact with the habitual snacker, who eats, say, the same brand of popcorn every night before the TV. It’s not just makers of consumables — theme parks and restaurants have their heavy users, too, who visit regularly.

Spend time analyzing your heavy users. Find out what they want and why your product keeps them coming back. Look for qualities that would make them even more loyal. Chances are, small improvements aimed at heavy users will lead other customers, such as your early adopters or repeaters, to become heavy users themselves.

2. Fill the satisfaction gaps. In most product and service categories, there are subtle (and some not-so-subtle) gaps between what customers really want and what they will accept. They want to be enthralled, but they are OK with being satisfied.

I prefer a close shave, but I’ll accept a good enough shave — one where I don’t bleed all over the sink. I want a particular type of fast food, but will accept the brand closest to my highway exit. I desire an aged, grass-fed steak, but will settle for a regular cut. And in the services industry, I want an attentive provider, but I’ll accept one who is merely competent. As a customer, I’ll accept any of these “good enough” offerings, but I don’t love them. And I’m thus fair game for a rival.

As a customer, I’ll accept “good enough” offerings, but I don’t love them. And I’m thus fair game for a rival.

I call this space between adequate results and complete gratification a “satisfaction gap.” If you can fill such a gap and give customers what they truly want instead of what merely satisfies them, you will attract as many customers as you can handle. But these gaps are not easy to identify. Market research doesn’t reveal them, because customers don’t talk about them. Often, the customer has put up with a compromise too long.

In a category you’re familiar with, observe the customers. What are people putting up with? What are the subtle or not-so-subtle compromises? Find an innovative way to fill the gaps.

One of the first free and publicly available video-conferencing tools was Skype. It was easy to use, but most users eventually experienced significant transmission hesitation and delays. The visual image could be jerky, and sometimes the audio would cut out or the call freeze. Nonetheless, this service was so innovative that users lived with the satisfaction gap. They found the compromises acceptable.

Then came Apple’s FaceTime. It eliminated Skype’s transmission interruptions, and allowed people to use their tablets and phones — not just a desktop computer — for video chats.

Identifying the satisfaction gaps in categories and businesses you are familiar with can be an exciting exercise. Observe. Take notes. Someone’s satisfaction gap is your unique business opportunity.

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Two Simple Concepts for Satisfying Customers