How Our Dumbed Down “Understanding” Of Customers Destroys Good Service By Robert Bacal
You’d think it would be easy to determine what customers want. Just ask them. Or, watch them behave. There aren’t any other options. If businesses could get actionable and accurate information this simply, we’d have much better customer service, and companies would get a better return of investment. It is WAY more complicated. In this chapter we’re going to look some of the fundamental problems in the quest for understanding customers, and in particular, how we end up creating over-simplified and over-generalized descriptions of what customers do and how they make decision.
Your Son, The Fruit Shopper
One Saturday, your son asks you for some help with a school assignment. “Dad”, he says, “I have to write a two page report for class on how to buy fruit, but I don’t know where to start. Then, once I’ve done the report, I have to go to the market and buy five different fruits. Can you get me started?” As a diligent parent, you want to encourage your son’s research skills, and you don’t want to make it too easy for him. You suggest that he hit the Internet and search for “buying fruit”. Your son seems satisfied with that, and off he goes. Later in the day, he comes back and asks for a few bucks to buy the fruit, and you cough it up, reminding him to return the change. Off he goes. When he returns with his bag of fruit, you see that his bountiful fruitilicious booty includes:
- One very very green banana.
- One beautiful apple that is just right and ready to eat.
- One orange that is bright orange but hard as a rock.
One avocado so hard, you know it’s best suited for use in construction work and it’s never going to be suitable for eating.
A watermelon that certainly looks OK, but you can’t tell if it’s ready to eat. You aren’t a fruitologist, so how the heck would you know without cutting into it.
What in the world happened? It’s pretty simple. Your son foundered on the over-simplication and over-generalization problem. He applied general rules for choose FRUIT, not rules for picking each variety of fruit. The rule he used? Pick fruit that are firm and green.
He chose the banana over others he could have chosen because of its green color and its firmness. Following the general rule, he didn’t realize that it didn’t apply to the banana. The Granny Smith Apple worked out well, because the general rule does apply to granny smith apples. The orange, not so much. It’s firm all right, and hence it will be bitter. The avocado is green, but inedible, and the watermelon is both green and firm (most watermelons are), but YOU know that’s not enough of an indicator of how well that particular watermelon is going to taste.
You’re so distraught over this catastrophe that you forget to ask for your change, and he doesn’t offer it. Oh well.
The over-generalization problem refers to situations where we look at a “class” of things as if they are all alike, and all governed by the same rules and principles. Since our brains are wired to classify things into categories or classes, all of us have a tendency to use broad classes, because they reduce the amount of thinking and memory required to navigate the world. Classes, categories, or generalizations also allow us to more efficiently communicate with each other about the world. Here are some other examples of common types of statements that involve either generalization or over-generalization:
- University professors can’t teach.
- People from [country] are [insert characteristic]
- Cats don’t play fetch.
Think of these generalizations as a kind of shorthand. They enable us to talk about professors, people from another country, and feline behavior without specifying an impossibly huge amount of additional specific information. As absolute generalizations they are all wrong, though. Sometimes right. Sometimes wrong. Never always correct.
Generalizations serve important functions for human beings. In and of themselves they are not problematic so long as we recognize that they are flawed. That requires an awareness of how we look at the information around us, how we remember it, and how we apply it to decision-making.
Lacking awareness that we are simplifying things or over-generalizing, we are quite likely to do exactly what your son did, which is to make decisions based on information far too general. The wrong decisions get made. By the way it’s also the case that generalizations tend to “make sense” to us, if we don’t think about them too deeply. That’s why so many of the things we consider to be “common sense” can be really misleading and aren’t quite so “common”.
The Myth of “Universal Customer”, or Customers Want…
The question: “What do customers want?” presupposes that customers are alike enough to share the same wants. Not only is it a over-simplified question, but it begs for and requires answers that are over-generalized and, once again over-simplified. General questions like this actually get in the way of understanding customers so we can “give them what they want”. We end up with simplified rules that resemble the “pick fruit” rule, your son applied in his school assignment. With similar disappointing results.
To answer the question: “What do customers want?”, is actually not possible without over-generalizing. Inevitably, if you think really hard about this and apply some critical thinking, you’ll realize there’s really no such thing as “what customers want”, that applies across the board. In fact, what customers want is a moving target. Customers of the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain don’t want the same things, or expect the same things as the customers of the Motel 7 chain. McDonald’s customers want something different than customers going to that upscale eatery down the street that is so expensive prices aren’t displayed on the menu.
It’s the same for every sector. Within each sector, you’ll have “sub-classes”, (i.e. specific fruit) where customers differ completely on what they want. That’s fairly understandable, right?
But answering the question gets even more tangled. Take for example, geographic location. Do the people in New York want the same things in terms of service as the people in Nome, Alaska? Or Fargo, North Dakota? Do they see “respect”, something often mentioned when it comes to customer service, in exactly the same way? They do not. The Alaskan shopping in New York would probably find the customer service absolutely horrible, the employees abrupt, and hurried, while the New Yorker might lose patience in Fargo, because everything takes so long, and the employees are so damned chatty.
There are a number of factors that make generalizing about customer service, not only misleading, but potentially dangerous.
There’s one more potential pitfall to generalizing in the customer service arena, and it’s a bit of a mind-blower. If you take a SINGLE customer, what he or she sees as good customer service is going to depend on a vast number of things that we call context. As a result, a single customer can want different things at different times, even on the same day.
As an example, you’re on a holiday trip with your five children, and your car dies on the highway. My guess is that what you want from any people you encounter in customer service interactions is plain old speed. You want the tow truck NOW. You want the repairs done NOW. Your kids are screaming, you are tired, and irritable, and whether the tow truck driver is chatty or not isn’t really all that relevant. In fact, you’re so damned tired that you don’t WANT friendly and chatty, particularly if you feel all those warm fuzzies are costing you more time.
That’s not to say you want RUDE behavior. What you DO want is the problem solved as quickly as possible.
Would that apply to other contexts even in the same industry? Perhaps. Perhaps not. On a more leisurely day, when you aren’t irritable or tired, you might welcome a friendly or even chatty counter person at your local auto repair shop. If it takes an extra minute or two to get things moving, not a problem. Sometimes you want a friendly welcoming conversation, and other times not.
Certainly, if you were shopping for a new car, and interacting with a sales person, you wouldn’t be as concerned with speed. In fact, you’d probably leave the car lot if the salesperson pressured you to make a decision.
You can probably think of other situations, or contexts where what you want changes. My personal favorite is buying milk from a convenience store. Nobody goes to the convenience store to save money. Their prices are higher on almost everything. So, when you want the milk, you want it “conveniently”. Get in, get out with the milk. You don’t care to slowly browse around the store, and you probably don’t want a long conversation with the cashier about the weather. Neither do you want to be in line overhearing a long conversation between cashier and another customer about the weather. Even with the identical task, buying milk, this time in a supermarket, you might want a slower “experience”, and friendlier staff. The point being that even with a single person, wants change according to context.
In short, when we talk about “customers want”, or even “the customer”, we are grossly oversimplifying. There is no “customer” and there is no way to intelligently answer the question: “what do customers want” so that it applies to all customers all the time.
Yet, that’s what happens all the time. Not only do businesses talk about “the customer” as if they are all alike, but they make decisions based on gross generalizations about this mythical customer. That previous sentence may in fact be a bit of an over-generalization itself. Like characterizing customers generally, there may be exceptions so important that the generalization may be more wrong than right. This generalization stuff is hard.
The saving grace lies in our own awareness of making generalizations, and challenging them as we make decisions. That’s my excuse, anyway.
Customer Service Research Is Over-Generalized
One source for understanding what customers want is to look at studies from major research firms that claim to tell us. We’ll take on the negative effects of these studies in its own section, but for now, take a look at the following bits of advice and/or article and research titles:
What Customers Want When They Speak Out (customerthink.com)
These all have one thing in common: they are suggesting that customers can be characterized generally, and 2) implicit in that is it’s a good idea to make decisions based on these generalizations.
If we look to social media, and what, for example customer service “experts” (people who state they make their living vending services in the customer service arena) say , it gets downright scary. Take a look at these tweets:
The 5 rules for every customer conversation (Quising)
Customers today have higher expectations and want quicker responses and more efficient processes (GMViews)
Customers do business with companies that love their employees and deliver on their promises (valaafshar)
There are literally thousands of tweets from “experts” just like these. They tell us what “customers” want, but the problem is there is NO universal customer. In fact, what’s worse is that the same customer wants different things from different companies, or different things at different times when interacting with companies.
It’s so dumbed down that if companies buy into these over-generalizations, they can’t possibly improve their service, or gain competitive advantages in the marketplace.