Mon, 26 May 2003

Managing customer expectations no easy job

Taufik Hidayat Contributor Jakarta

When business is thriving and customers are lining up for your products, you feel deeply contented and think that you are going in the right direction. But when there is a downturn in the market and your customers switch over to the competition, you are suddenly awakened and startled by this harsh new reality.

Only then do you start to contemplate and think over what may have gone wrong. Businesspeople often erroneously assume that the price of their products is enough to keep customers loyal. They also often take the service element for granted. Then they make the worst of all blunders. They do not retain their customers by implementing the appropriate retrieval plan, instead rushing to launch new advertising and promotional campaigns, which will mostly result in a batch of new and probably fickle customers.

Then the businesspeople are snared by a different vicious circle. The new customers' loyalty is not maintained because they have not revamped their basic philosophy, which did not work yesterday. So customers come and go. Indeed the majority of them leave, while those who stay cannot be expected to contribute to a company's profitability.

For these type of hit-and-miss companies, retaining customers is a grueling task. Theoretically, at least, they are aware that customer satisfaction is of paramount importance. In reality, however, it is a step beyond simple satisfaction. Various surveys on customer satisfaction have revealed that even the most satisfied customer can switch over to the competitor's brand. Several surveys came up with the terrifying data that almost 80 percent of those who change brands said they were relatively satisfied with their previous brand.

Today, many major companies -- owners of leading brands -- realize that they have to go beyond "simple or basic customer satisfaction", because the tangible elements of the products or services they provide can be copied by competitors. Hence, "me- too" satisfaction exists alongside "me-too" products that flood the currently globalized market.

Just like the English proverb, "Good is not good, when better is expected", the toughest competition is in providing the highest level of satisfaction, which means providing more than the concrete benefits of a product.

Take star-rated hotels, for example. At all points of contact, from the friendly bellboy to the entire staff, including the manager, every one is ready to attend to your needs courteously with the highest level of professionalism. Your satisfaction during your stay is also enhanced with all sorts of perks, like welcome drink and fruits, free vouchers for the use of the hotel's karaoke room, spa, fitness center, swimming pool as well as taking care of your transportation needs and ticket bookings and so forth. Some also send you a birthday card. All of these things and more have been specially prepared to ensure lasting satisfaction.

The ensuing result is, naturally, that the satisfied customer is transformed into one of the most effective means of communication: positive word-of-mouth. This centuries old and most basic tool of advertising has for years been recognized as the most powerful "arsenal" by even today's modern companies.

Customer satisfaction is not simply meeting a customer's basic requirements. That is level one. The second level is providing a customer with services that entice him to become a loyal user or a repeat purchaser. The third level -- used by marketers of many major brands -- contains features that exceed a customer's expectation. Here the element of "delightful surprises" is intended to work in cementing customer loyalty and transforming it into a durable relationship.

Customer expectations, more than satisfying basic needs or creating a one-time satisfaction experience, should be something more than "value for their money". While initially this seems to affect a company's production and marketing costs, in the long run, with a growing customer base that leads to a higher number of sales and profits, the effort is more than worthwhile.

Another aspect of customer satisfaction to remember is that it is very dynamic. Customers with higher educations and, most importantly, vast experience expect more. What satisfied them yesterday may not be that satisfying today.

To gauge a company's performance, as well as consumers' attitudes in relation to customer satisfaction, regular surveys are needed. These surveys also should reveal the company's strengths and weaknesses, making the marketer's job easier in creating and implementing the highest level of service excellence.

Managing customer expectation is nothing more than keeping the promises a company has made. Naturally, disappointments on the part of customers are often the result of sky-high promises that exist or are mentioned in a company's advertisements and other promotional materials. Often, some companies forget or tend to belittle the disastrous impact of negative word-of-mouth by the "unpaid media" -- dissatisfied customers.

One of the solutions for companies that have been lagging behind in the area of customer satisfaction is for their marketers and the entire customer service team to implement, and not only create, claims or promises for their communications materials. Prior to agreeing to a seemingly exaggerated promise, they should challenge themselves and ask the question: "Are we really up to this statement? Can we deliver?" If the honest answer is "no" or "not yet", then why not gear up the entire company, its infrastructure, hardware and software and so forth, for the upcoming mission to gain profits by providing customers with satisfaction "level three".

Maybe a statement by American hockey player Paul Coffey, the highest scoring defenseman in NHL history, is relevant. "Staying on top takes continued and relentless effort. Being good needs hard work, but becoming the best and staying the best requires unceasingly arduous work."

Coffey's credo took him to the top. And a number of companies have also risen to the top by putting customer satisfaction above anything else. Though it is not easy, it remains the only way to keep your company from being beaten black and blue.