Customer Delight... and Other Myths

 

With the realization that satisfied customers may slip off to the competition at any time, companies are no longer satisfied with customer satisfaction. A new rallying cry has emerged: "satisfaction isn't enough!" And with that cry has come a new buzzword: Customer Delight.

Delighted customers are better than satisfied customers, the reasoning goes, because they buy more, complain less, spread positive word-of-mouth and exhibit other profitable behaviors.

Many companies have taken this to mean that they should exceed customer expectations every time. Like the town of Lake Woebegon, where all of the children are above average, these companies never simply meet expectations. Instead, they have to create a memorable event in the mind of every customer who walks through the door.

This sounds wonderful at first, but a little logic will show that it's actually a preposterous notion. If you always exceed expectations, then expectations will simply rise. With ever-escalating expectations, you have to offer more and more to make an impression. Eventually the employees will be dancing naked in the aisles to get the attention of customers.

Despite the silliness of the idea, an untold number of companies have jumped on the customer delight bandwagon. The results have been horrifying: Perpetually grinning grocery clerks. Waiters who interrupt intimate dinner conversations to introduce themselves and make small talk. Front desk clerks at hotels that answer calls from guests by saying, "How can I enhance your experience?" Legions of service workers determined to become every customer's close personal friend.

The fact is customers don't want to be delighted all the time. It's exhausting. Every consumer receives service dozens of times a week from a wide range of companies, and most of those service interactions are, and should be, routine. Customers want service workers to be efficient, helpful and pleasant, but the service interaction itself should not become the center of attention. It is the outcome that matters.

The key to achieving Customer Delight is not excess, but opportunity. While most service is routine, every once in awhile a situation arises that is out of the ordinary — a complaint, a question, a special request, a chance for an employee to go the extra mile. If employees are trained to look for these opportunities and empowered to act on them when they appear, customers will be delighted at the right time. These service experiences will furnish customers with stories about the company's exemplary service, and eventually the company will engender its own legend. But nobody tells stories when every service encounter is a grand experience. When it comes to delight, a little goes a long way.

Customer Delight is now being eclipsed by another buzzword: Customer Loyalty. Articles and books about customer loyalty are sprouting up every few minutes. CEOs are naming it as their top priority in the coming year. It is being touted as the Holy Grail that links service to profits. There doesn't seem to be much dissention; the case in favor of customer loyalty is airtight.

But what, exactly, does customer loyalty mean? Most of the articles and books define it chiefly in terms of what it does. They identify a set of desired customer behaviors (increased purchase activity, more positive word-of-mouth advertising, decreased turnover) and say that customers who exhibit these behaviors must be loyal. Doesn't this sound like circular reasoning?

Having defined Customer Loyalty in terms of its presumed outcomes, they then treat it as a "thing" that can be identified and measured. This is a fallacy that philosophers call reification: regarding something that is abstract as if concrete.

Besides, if Customer Loyalty is a good thing because it results in desired customer behaviors, why not just direct one's efforts at the behaviors themselves? Who needs a middleman? Rather than trying to affect loyalty because it correlates with profitable customer actions, wouldn't it make more sense to concentrate directly on influencing the customer actions?

But wait. Customer Loyalty advocates will say that it isn't just a convenient term to describe a set of desirable behaviors. It refers to a feeling — an emotional bond. Loyalty is what makes us stick with a company through thick and thin.

The operative word here is "thin." There is no virtue in sticking with something through thick. It's only in the face of temptation or failure that one gets to prove one's loyalty.

For customers, temptation comes when a competitor offers a better value. Failure comes when a company does something stupid. Therefore, loyal customers are people who stick with a company when they get a better deal somewhere else, or when the company makes a foolish move.

In other words, loyal customers are people who can be depended on it make irrational business decisions.

Businesses consistently overestimate the extent of their customers' loyalty while underestimating their customer's proclivity for rational behavior. The bankruptcy courts are littered with shop owners who trusted to their customers' loyalty when Wal-Mart came to town. In the 1980's, when it looked like Japan would take over the world, businesses across the country appealed to loyalty by exhorting customers to "Buy American," despite the fact that Japanese products offered better value. The exercise failed completely, and business owners were forced to improve the quality of their products and services when it became clear that customers were capable of making logical choices.

Where companies fool themselves is in assuming that loyalty is an end in itself. They spend money and effort finding ways to increase loyalty with the thought that loyal customers will behave the way they want them to. A more sensible approach is to first ask how customers should behave, and then look for the most cost-effective way to influence their behavior. Ambiguous, emotion-based labels like "delight" and "loyalty" simply complicate the effort.

The subject of service quality has always been burdened by fuzzy terms, buzz words and pet theories. This is not likely to change, and new ones will soon replace the current crop of terms. For service quality professionals, this makes life exciting. Customers, however, probably shouldn't hold their breath waiting for service to improve.

 

Businesses consistently overestimate the extent of their customers' loyalty while underestimating their customer's proclivity for rational behavior.