How Not to Create Customer Satisfaction


Given a choice, most people would rather have happy, satisfied customers than angry, complaining customers. But how to create customer satisfaction is sometimes a mystery. In this column, Naomi Karten describes one person's experience that backfired and taught him some lessons.

During one of my seminars, we were discussing experiences people had in striving to create customer satisfaction. Striving might have been just the right word, because as reported by Josh, a seminar participant, you can strive and still not succeed. As Josh described it, in reviewing his customers' specs, he saw a way to give them something much better than what they had asked for. So he proceeded to build his own grand solution.

One minor detail: He didn't let his customers know he was doing this.

In listening to Josh, I sensed that as he developed this solution, he was pleased with himself for his insight, creativity, and initiative. And his customers would, of course, be pleased with him as well. But when he presented his solution to Ginny, his key customer contact, she rejected it outright. "It's not what we asked for," she told him. End of discussion.

"Why even bother trying to please them?" Josh asked, agitatedly. "You go above and beyond and they're still not happy."

But might there have been some other explanation for Ginny's reaction? As quickly as I asked the group what they thought, several possibilities surfaced as to why the customer rejected his solution.

One possibility concerns surprises. Namely that many people don't like them. When suddenly confronted by something other than what they were expecting, they may reject it, belittle it, or find fault with it. I can almost imagine Ginny shouting, "You what?" If customers ask for A, and with no advance notice you deliver B, don't expect them to jump up and down with glee.

A related possibility is that of wanting to be involved in key decisions. Often it's not the solution that customers reject, but rather the fact that they had no say in its formulation. Not having had a chance to provide input, they may react negatively to a solution they might otherwise have welcomed. At that point, even the most compelling benefits may not make a difference; rejecting a superior solution delivered unexpectedly is an emotional response, not a logical one.

Clearly, Josh would have been much wiser to describe his solution to his customers before proceeding. At that stage, he could have presented it as an idea, not a done deal. He might have offered it as a proposal and sought their opinion. He could have cited the benefits they hoped to achieve and shown how his solution could go even further in achieving those same benefits. Under these circumstances, his customers might have loved his idea and given him their go-ahead.

But even if they still favored Plan A, they might have been impressed with his initiative. Furthermore, by accepting their preference for the original plan, he would have shown himself to be flexible and easy to work with, factors that could enhance his reputation.
As Josh listened to this discussion, he started to realize that focusing single-mindedly on the project while ignoring his customers' perceptions, preferences, and expectations was not a route to customer satisfaction. But we were just warming up; there were many other explanations that might have accounted for Ginny's rejecting his solution. For example:

  • Ginny may have been acting on orders from her manager. "Here's the system we need; now go make it happen." In that case, the expectations to be met would not have been Ginny's, but her manager's. Even if Josh's solution appealed to Ginny, she may not have been in a position to approve it if her next performance review was to be based on how well she carried out her manager's mandate.
  • Ginny may have been trying to recover from falling short in past projects. Perhaps, her manager's confidence in her abilities had decreased as a result of these past failures. This time around, she knew she had to get the project done right or else—and "right" meant to exact specifications. The direction of Ginny's career path might have been at risk if she didn't carry out the project as stated.
  • Josh's solution may have missed some elements that were critical to what the customers wanted. Regardless of how spectacular his solution may have been, it may have focused on certain functionality that excluded other functionality that was a higher priority for the customer. If Josh had taken the customer's priorities into account in his "better" solution, he might have won his customers over even if the solution diverged from their specifications.
  • Josh may have done a mediocre job of describing his solution to Ginny. Maybe his explanation was too abstract. Maybe, in his enthusiasm, he omitted relevant details. Maybe he neglected to mention benefits. Maybe he garbled the facts. Maybe he gushed. Very likely, he didn't give nearly as much thought to how he would describe his solution as he did to creating it in the first place.

The end result: Instead of being seen as doing something extra for his customers, Josh may have planted the seeds of doubt in their minds. They now had cause to wonder whether he could be trusted in future projects or if he'd again take matters into his own hands. And he still had work to do on this current project, such as starting over and meeting the original commitment.

Of course, even if Josh had gotten his customers' approval for his solution, he still might have faced challenges. Invariably, exceeding customer expectations has both benefits and potential pitfalls. If you complete a project in a way that exceeds customers' expectations, they may be delighted. But they may expect you to do the same next time around and each subsequent time after that. If you then complete these projects exactly as promised, they may be disappointed. After all, you've already demonstrated that you're capable of going beyond what you promised. So, the very process of raising customer satisfaction can result in subsequently lowering it below where it was to start with.

I'd rarely discourage anyone from striving to exceed expectations if they were eager to do so. But I'd strongly suggest that they consider the potential consequences and plan accordingly. Hopefully, Josh, now more aware of the consequences of his actions, will have many opportunities to strive conscientiously to create customer satisfaction.

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