Sign up to get full access to all our latest content, research, and network for everything customer contact.

Customers Don’t Know What They Want (aka How Do You Please the Unpleasable?)

Brian Cantor

Customer management professionals so often speak of the customer experience like it is an exact science, like there is a categorically-right and categorically-wrong way to serve customers.

In reality, customer desires are far less predictable. Customers are a fickle, contradictory, sometimes-hypocritical bunch who often find themselves victimized by a "be careful what you wish for" mindset. What they think they desire from a customer-facing organization often provides unexpected, undesirable consequences. What they think they hate about customer experience components is often necessary to deliver meaningful customer service.

This reality of the modern-day customer makes acting on the voice of the customer very difficult. Customer-facing organizations have to, all-at-once, consider (and appease) the unique, self-centered feedback of individuals and the more aggregate insight that would seem beneficial to the bulk of the target audience.

As difficult as that seems, these organizations often run into another hurdle—the feedback between the two parties can be conflicting. Ultimately, customers are going to base their loyalty on how well they feel they, specifically, are treated by the company—knowing the "holistic" customer experience is good might not be sufficient. So while it would seem that basing a customer strategy around the "greater good" is the right way to go, such a decision could have very negative consequences on the experience for many individual customers.

Below are some examples of situations that draw these mixed, conflicting emotions from customers. They are not all "new" and "unheard of," and yet, the proper response eludes many very successful organizations. There are also many more common and less common examples of the phenomenon. What would you, the customer management leader, do to address some of these challenges?

The Fast Service Dilemma

Lunchtime deals rarely go under-the-radar for the New York power lunch crowd. Sure enough, when a nearby deli recently offered half-off on its per-pound-buffet, the small establishment exploded with business.

The massive flow of volume risked creating a major crunch at the registers. If the cashiers were not ultra-efficient in measuring the customer’s food order and quickly accepting payment, the lines would have been unbearable to the many customers who demand speedy service and oppose long queues.

Luckily, the cashiers were lightning-fast, allowing the line to move as smoothly as anyone could have expected. Or, at least it would seem "lucky."

As it turns out, in order to keep the lines moving quickly, the cashiers had to table the idea of building relationships. Greetings like "hello" and "how are you" were absent from the cashiers’ vocabulary, and if a customer tried to initiate such a greeting, he would be ignored in favor of a curt, "$7.50" or "Do you need a receipt?"

Almost drawing parallels to Seinfeld’s famous "Soup Nazi" (who, by virtue of demanding perfection from his soup, could not tolerate any less from his customers), these cashiers demanded customers share their commitment to speedy, impersonal transactions. Any hesitation, such as stumbling to grab one’s wallet, deliberating over which credit card to use or asking the cashier to restate the price, was met with obvious frustration from the cashiers, who failed to hide their eye rolls, sighs and nagging hand gestures.

The result? Even though customers were getting what it would seem they most valued—a fast trip through the intimidating lines—the "rudeness" of the staff is often what resonated. So instead of leaving thinking, "this deli gave me the service I wanted," the thought process was, "Those cashiers have no people-skills."

"Can I Help You With That?"

A clear advantage of shopping in brick-and-mortar establishments, rather than online, is the ability to get real assistance and feedback in the decision-making process. Why buy a TV based on some random online reviews when someone who spends eight hours a day with the product can tell you whether or not it is bad? Why buy running shoes online when the in-store representative can assure you find a pair that fits and functions properly? Why not seize a staffer’s expertise in finding a pair of jeans that fits your body type?

Yet when it comes time to actually deal with these employees, customers often run for the hills. They offer the stock "I’m just looking" response (even when they are buying and could use some assistance). They avoid apparel stores with floor employees in favor of the generic establishments or department stores that leave customers on their own (even at the expense of product quality and customized-selection).

Until they realize they actually need the assistance—then, they express outrage at the fact that the employees they shunned are busy helping more-receptive customers.

The customer frustration is most commonly-linked to a fear that the employees will attempt to pressure them into a purchase, especially if commission exists (since that may prompt the employee to have a sell, rather than help, mentality). Short-sighted (unless a customer thinks himself to be the world’s biggest sucker, if an employee can talk him into a purchase, isn’t it probably true that the purchase makes sense?), this customer sentiment also seems spiteful (if the employee provides enough information to drive a sale, doesn’t he deserve his cut?).

Stores have tried to combat this sentiment (some major retailers, for example, assure customers that their workers are not on commission), but it is rarely successful at changing the perception of the "floor rep." To customers, these people are the enemy.

Bringing the Service to You

It is not uncommon for customers to complain about utilities, cable and telecommunications services. They wonder why fee structures are unclear and why advertised prices seem to randomly "expire" at given times. They wonder why they cannot get assistance from a representative who actually cares.

By enlisting third-party, door-to-door representatives, some telecom and utilities companies have attempted to combat this negative customer sentiment. The outsourced customer outreach programs attach a face to the business, all-the-while keeping subscribers up-to-date on whether their prices are about to move off the contracted "term" rate, whether they are paying more than the "unlimited" rate for their existing phone service and whether their current packages provide what they actually want from the provider.

Yet these representatives are, often incorrectly, flagged as "scammers" in online complaint forums (with no factual justification). They are deterred from businesses by "no solicitation" signs and security guards. And their product suggestions are often not given the time of day, even from those who do not immediately kick them off the premises.

Undoubtedly, a piece of mind comes from deterring door-to-door customer service reps and "solicitors" from accessing their home or business. But should it? If customers need these products and desire more personable customer service, why is a company "wrong," "shady" or even "unethical" for providing what they want?

The Right Answer versus the Popular Answer

It’s a simple, yet high-impact dilemma for customer-facing organizations: customers want transparency and honesty from companies, and yet they also want to be told what they want to hear.

Consequently, many organizations face "no win" situations when interacting with customers. If the truth hurts, the customer experience suffers.

Consider bodybuilding supplement manufacturers who develop products that impact hormones. While it may not always be justified by irrefutable science, these products, sans FDA approval and backed by companies without massive legal teams, often advise those under 21 to refrain from use as a "best bet" safety precaution.

When a nineteen year old who wants to take the supplement contacts customer service, he may frame his question under the guise of, "Why is this unsafe for someone my age?" But, in reality, the only thing many such customers really want to hear is, "Here’s why it’s probably okay for you to use this product." Whether the actual answer is comprehensive and backed by proven science or the generic, "It’s unwise to mess with your hormones while you’re still maturing," if that actual answer does not support the notion that the customer can take the substance, he is going to be unhappy.

This happens in many businesses—from companies who have to explain why product deliveries will be delayed to why one will have to pay a termination fee to cancel his cell phone contract. Customers hate getting ambiguity and "the runaround," but if the direct, honest answer is not what they want to hear, they will not shower the customer service team with praise.

How do you respond to these types of challenges? What other examples of customers not knowing what they want do you encounter? Share your comments below!

And if you, regardless of channel, need to assure you are consistently satisfying customers and building CRM, you definitely want to check out the agenda for the 7th Call Center Summit. It's not just for call center leaders--it's for anyone who wants to do best by their customers!