How to know what the customer wants

“The customer is always right.” These words have been written in stone for American businesses for decades. Making sure your customer is happy is at the center of all great businesses.

So how do you know what makes customers happy? Or maybe even more important, how do you know when what a customer asks for is different than what they really want?

That’s right.

Every day, customers are asking for things that don’t ultimately make them happy. Customers are emotional creatures, and they are often coming from a place of emotional desire instead of rational thought. It’s up to us as business stakeholders to figure out how best to serve our customers to take care of their actual needs.

Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Good intention

It’s Mother’s Day. A husband wants to buy his wife a corsage before taking her and the family out for a special dinner. He goes to the florist and orders her favorite flower – a red rose. The florist happily makes up a beautiful corsage, which the husband takes home proudly. He arrives home and presents the gift to his wife, only to then find out that the dress she has been planning to wear is bright yellow, and feels that the color contrast would be embarrassing (my kids call this “ketchup-mustard”.)

She leaves the rose home on the counter.

Specialized service

When the family arrives at the restaurant, the husband asks to be served by their favorite waitress. This waitress has served them on other occasions, and has delivered fabulous service. Other servers at the same restaurant haven’t been so prompt with the food or been so warm and friendly.

Unfortunately, there isn’t an open table in their favorite waitress’s service area. So instead of wait, the host agrees to sit the family immediately, at the last open table at the opposite end of the restaurant, and they will still assign the waitress to them. After all “the customer is always right,” and they want to ensure happy customers.

On this night, though, the restaurant is busy, and the waitress finds it difficult to make it over to the family away from her assigned area. She is stressed from managing two areas so far away, it is difficult to provide quick service, and her professionalism isn’t quite what it usually is.

The family is disappointed as their food and service is taking longer than expected and their favorite waitress seems to be “off her game.”

Front of the line

Finally, imagine a company that repairs semi-truck engines.

Trucks can’t deliver products without engines, and if the trucks can’t drive, then the companies can’t make money. Therefore, when the trucking company sends in a part or engine to be repaired, it is important that the turnaround time is quick.

With each part that needs to be serviced, the customer makes sure to emphasize to the repair company how important it is that they get this urgent part repaired and returned faster than normal.

After all, they are a valued customer, and they can’t make their own customers happy if their part isn’t expedited.

Of course, the repair shop is happy to see what they can do.

Unfortunately, the customer service rep knows all too well that all of their customers want to be at the front of the line. They all want special treatment. All their orders are urgent.
What does one do when everyone wants to be first?

In this case, the repair shop tries to keep all of the customers happy by prioritizing all of the most “urgent” orders and putting them in front of the other orders. They agree to do this to keep a good business relationship.

Doing this, of course, pushes back the rest of the work, including parts from the exact companies that they are also doing a “favor” for. Everything becomes “urgent” in time. Staff is stressed, customers are burning up the phone with concerns, and there’s no end in sight to the cycle of putting out fires.

In the long run, it’s a negative game, where the majority of the parts suffer a loss in turnaround time, for the gain of a few.

What if what they say…

In each previous example, the customer can be clear and concise with the circumstance that will make them happy: a red rose corsage, a specific waitress, and a repair order to be moved to the “front of the line.” There’s no mistaking the customer’s intent.

In each case, the business provided exactly what the customer wanted. Why does this sometimes not turn out for the best?

… Isn’t in their best interest?

The problem isn’t that the customer is wrong. It’s just that what they sometimes ask for is different than what they really want.

The husband just wants his wife to be pleased with the corsage.

The family just wants great service at a restaurant.

The trucking company just wants consistent and reliable service when it sends parts in so that it can plan its business.

Even though each customer got exactly what they asked for, they all ended up unhappy.

What can be done?

So are we meant to see into the future? Read customers’ minds? No. The answer is not in what you do when the customer asks. It’s in preparation for the question.

If you own a flower shop, it’s probably not a leap of faith to assume that many people aren’t experts in flowers. Upon the order of any corsage or other “wearable” flower arrangement, staff can be trained to ask about the clothes that the recipient(s) is wearing. Doing so will help provide additional support to those who might not know to ask.

Customers at a restaurant want high quality and friendly service. If there is a single waiter/waitress who provides different and superior service than the others, then the solution is to spend time making the best service into your standard for all wait staff. Doing so will eliminate most special requests for specific people, and allow all of the staff to give great service and be highly efficient.

And like the repair company who deals with temporary gains and small wins now at the expense of greater losses and disappointments in the future, going outside of your established processes on a regular basis will only cause delays that compound the more they occur.

Instead, hard-wire your process so that your current turnaround times are consistent and reliable. Find ways to cut waste and shorten your turn around times. This is what your customer really wants.

This might cause some short-term frustration, but once your customer sees that your turnaround time and results are consistent, they will easily adjust and reward you with their loyalty.

What do your customers really want? Pleasing your customer isn’t as easy as always saying “yes.” Sometimes you have to help them understand what they want first.

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