31/03/2011 - 00:00

Some assumptions can prove to be fatal

31/03/2011 - 00:00


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Some assumptions can prove to be fatal

A LARGE number of businesses I have dealt with begin by telling me that their business ‘meets and exceeds customer expectations’. There are two problems, here – one, they’re also telling me that this is their point of difference and two, that there is real doubt as to whether they actually know what those expectations are to begin with.

To briefly take the first point, everyone (including the competition) is making the same claim – so it’s hardly a point of difference. My suggestion is to stop right there; even if you are correct, your customer is hearing it from everyone so, even if they believe you, the claim will be falling on deaf ears. Final suggestion – don’t use it.

The assumption that we know what the client’s expectations are can be fatal; that fatality being borne out when we’re wrong. The client leaves us and, being dissatisfied, tells others that he/she is dissatisfied – so we get a double dose of fatality. The fact is it is usually our assumption that we meet (and exceed) expectations; do we actually ask our customers if we have done so?

Taking a step back even further, do we begin the relationship (even before it’s a transaction) by asking enough questions of our customer to ensure we’re on the same page? I have two (real estate-based) examples.

1) A potential buyer tells the real estate consultant that they want to live in a set location and the home must have four bedrooms. After not finding anything suitable for their buyer, the consultant later finds they have purchased – through another agency – a three-bedroom home in a location outside the original parameters provided. Why? Because, if sufficient questions had been asked, it would have become evident that ‘value for money’ (or some other motivation) was of greater concern than either the location or size of the home.

2) A landowner has a parcel of land that is suitable for subdivision and approaches a planner for a concept plan. Unless the landowner is quizzed regarding his or her motivations, the planner could well assume that the maximum number of lots from the parcel is required, as that will provide the greatest financial return. However, the landowner may have had the land from a family estate, it having been owned for many years. He or she may be looking to leave a legacy to the community by having large landscaped areas or to produce an environmentally sustainable development.

In both cases, the relationship has either ceased or is destined for trouble. The reason in both cases being that the expectations of the customer were not understood from the outset. It’s not the customer’s fault, because they knew exactly what they wanted, but the consultant (representative of the business concerned) to not go that extra step to ensure that expectations were understood. The ‘fatal assumption’ was at work.

What do you – and your people – do to ensure that you really know what the customer wants? How do you ensure that the stated rationale is, in fact, the one that is the primary driving force behind the purchase decision? Often, it’s the second and third questions that uncover the true purchase motivation. “So, why is that important to you?” “Can you tell me more about that?” “How do you intend to make use of ...?”

Do you have a standard set of questions that your customer service people ask? More importantly, how much training are they given to dig deep to ensure that an understanding has been reached?

Step one, at the very outset of a customer relationship, ask all of the questions necessary to fully understand their expectations. Step two, at the end of the transaction, check in with the customer to get their take on how well you measured up.

I recently had the good fortune to listen to the legendary Tom Peters give a presentation at a seminar in Sydney. In his colourful way, he asserts that it should be mandatory that everyone in business undertakes a course in strategic listening. While deliberately labouring the point, he further contends that listening should be the basic and most essential core value of every business.

Peters goes on to suggest an addition to your statement of core values: “We are effective listeners—we treat listening excellence as the centerpiece of our commitment to respect and engagement and community and growth.”

My point, in following on from this, is that we can only listen effectively if we have first asked the right questions.

(Tom Peters’ latest book, The Little Big Things, is highly recommended reading, as is most of his other highly readable work.)



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