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Stop Surprising And Delighting Customers—Just Solve Their Problems!

by Linda Ireland  |  
July 20, 2011

What brings customers back to a brand, creates loyalty, and strengthens financial performance? Price incentives? Loyalty programs? Big investments to build brand awareness?

As much as creative marketing and promotions can help a product, service, or company stand out, it always comes down to a simple premise: Did you solve the need that triggered the customer to act in the first place?

Said simply, did you solve the customer’s problem?

One reason that question may be difficult to answer is that marketing leaders get lost in trying to “surprise and delight” customers with the latest in technology and gadgets, or the most liberal service policies. All those additional features and options are bound to make customers happy in the moment, but if you don’t solve the problem that triggered them to act in the first place, their satisfaction–and your business performance–will fade quickly. This holds true across industries. Customers are looking for companies that can simplify their lives by providing quality service without hassle. A great Harvard Business Review article on customer service highlights two key takeaways that should remain top-of-mind for businesses:

  • Delighting customers doesn’t build loyalty, but reducing the work they must do to get their problem solved does. (A win for your customers!)

  • Acting deliberately on this insight can help improve customer service, reduce customer service costs, and decrease customer churn. (A win for your company’s bottom line!)

The second reason this question may be difficult to answer is that marketing often doesn’t have complete accountability for solving the customer’s problem. As the old African proverb and a former First Lady have taught us, “it takes a village.” Marketers must work across, up, and down the organization to solve customer needs. Your organization needs a shared view of the target customer experience that solves your customers' needs, and focus in each area of the company making the right daily decisions to make that happen. Marketing typically sets this direction; everyone plays a role.

Who Is Succeeding?

If you’re looking for examples of companies that are living the mantra of solving every customer’s need, start with Amazon. The company does consistently well in customer surveys and performance rankings because of a strong, unwavering focus on fulfilling customer needs. If there is a problem, it is quickly rectified with the goal of getting the right product to the customer ASAP. Technology investments are high for Amazon, but they’re all matched to things customers’ value. When Amazon was ranked the most trusted brand in the U.S. in a recent Millward Brown study, I thought it was a great testimony to the effectiveness of its ability to use technology to solve customer needs in a personal way. The model at Amazon is simple: Create a place where customers can find or discover anything they can imagine buying online.

Other companies that rank well in terms of solving the customer’s need include:

How Does This Change the Role of Marketing?

Make no mistake about it, marketers’ roles are changing. The link between marketing performance and effective customer experience is now unquestioned. Joe Tripodi of the Coca-Cola Company is a great example of a leader that is adapting to the expectations of customers while protecting one of the most well-known brands in the world. By remaining supportive of loyal Coca-Cola brand advocates, Joe and his team are reaping the benefits of customers who fill online channels with positive messages.

The flow of information is no longer just company-to-customer. Information now flows both ways, sideways and diagonally. The marketing team has switched from measuring impressions (views or reach) and now measures expressions (a comment or other kind of action that demonstrates engagement). What Joe’s figured out at Coke is that if they can provide exceptional experiences that solve needs, then those experiences can be multiplied and shared time and again—online and off.

6 Simple Tips

By following some simple principles, most businesses can minimize the risks of negative “buzz” while ratcheting up the likelihood that positive experiences will be shared. Here are six tips to keep in mind:

1. Do what you said you would do to eliminate the customer problem. Seems simple really doesn’t it? Deliver on the promise you made to address that particular customer’s problem in the time period agreed upon. Poor customer experiences arise from a failure to deliver on that initial promise or when surprises in the process pop up that were not communicated.

2. Don’t make your customers jump through hoops. Customers are not seeking another task on their daily to-do list. The reason they reach out for help is an understanding that there is someone out there more qualified to do this job than they are. They are seeking help. The last thing they want to do beg for it.

3. Don’t try and deliver added benefits the customer doesn’t need. Keep it simple. Don’t try and oversell how wonderful you are. Bragging about those 20 new features you just added (that are more about extending your sales or helping your operation than they are about moving your customer toward a need solved) isn’t going to convince anyone to be an advocate for your brand. Keep it simple. Fix their problem. Then stop. Then solve another one.

4. Be emotional. While the tangible product or service itself (and process steps a customer follows) must directly solve a customer need, the emotional elements of the customer experience best inspire loyalty and satisfaction. The trick is balance, a focus on both in a way that solves your customer’s need better than anyone else could. Ideally, what should your customers feel at each step of their experience? Match your actions to that.

5. Be helpful. Any experience must be accessible. You’re the expert. Your customer is hiring you to solve a problem or desire. Focus on how you can be a trusted source by providing the insight, explanation, and resources needed to solve the customer need. This is one area where your website, social networks and greater peer connectivity is a tremendous asset. Another (and often overlooked) opportunity is held by leaders whose customers use their company’s products or services over time (rather than in a moment, like an ice cream cone). My use of Windows software as I type is an example. How can you design your customer’s ongoing experience to give your customers the ideas and support they need to feel good about the process and decision to hire you, buy, and use your product or service?

6. Lead the village. Think about the interactions most critical to solving your customers’ needs as customers learn about your product, try you out, buy, use your product or service to solve their need, and even evolve over time. Which departments, processes and people have the biggest impact on making those interactions successful? Marketers have a key role in defining the target--or most ideal--experience customers should have at each step, and then engaging others in the company to aim at the same target. Building alignment can turbo boost the efforts of smart, well-intended people across your organization.

Ultimately, it’s not what customers accept, it’s what they value that matters most.

All aspects of marketing, promotions, and engagement should be working toward the goal of solving the customer need. If---and how well---a need is solved is your customers’ measure of success. And it’s a key measure of performance for you, your brand, and your organization.

Note: Photo is courtesy of featureset1 via FlickR Creative Commons.

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Linda Ireland is a partner at Aveus, a strategy and global operational change firm based in Minneapolis. Before joining Aveus, she was CEO of FORWARD I, a strategy and marketing consulting firm. She has also held executive positions at several companies, including Wilsons Leather, Digital River, Genesis Direct, PaperDirect, and Deluxe Corporation. Linda is also the author of DOMINO and blogs regularly at the Customer Experience for Profit Blog and contributes to a number of other industry websites.

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  • by Michael Perla Wed Jul 20, 2011 via blog

    This is a good piece - I think it goes back to meeting the prospect or customer "where they are." Boil the ocean solutions can easily get lost and sidetracked.

    I have seen lots of technology solutions, for example, which have an amazing feature-set get beat by solutions that are simpler, less complex, and can be understood by the majority of users. In our world of compounding data, the ability to be crisper and simpler and target the problem (not symptom) is highly valued and builds the trust to deliver more value in the future.

  • by Cathy Burrell Wed Jul 20, 2011 via blog

    This was such a well-written and information-rich piece. I love the line: 'Keep it simple. Fix their problem. Then stop. Then solve another one,' People are busy. Most of the time all they have time for is: 'what?' and 'How much?' An elaborate song and dance is not what they are interested in hearing. Thanks for the reminder...

  • by Kanika Wed Jul 20, 2011 via blog

    Very interesting. Just to add...solving problems at the point of the statement of concern might not always be possible.

    Problem solving for an irate customer could be the top most agenda but before that comes the psychological need of the customer to be comforted. In the entire jog of long song and dance ( rightfully mentioned by Cathy) and getting the solution for the customer...the solution givers forget the " guest etiquettes".
    The words" sure Sir, will do the needful right away" " Thanks for going through an effort to find the solution" just reduces the stress for the customer.

    I do buy that, moments of truths don't state that each time like a magic wand we create wow and delights for the customers. The whole idea is make it simple for the customers, by reducing his stress and pain

  • by Linda Ireland Wed Jul 20, 2011 via blog

    "Song and Dance." That certainly says a lot about what too often happens! (I know for certain my customers would not pay for less than valued entertainment.) Appreciate your thinking Cathy.

  • by Linda Ireland Wed Jul 20, 2011 via blog

    Michael, It's true that smart, well intended people lose focus on the customer's need. Sometimes it can simply be a timing problem.

    Your comment brought to mind a software company who pushed all x100 of the product's features early in the experience. When they switched to focus only on the top 3 things the customer needed first -- then as the customer's needs evolved they demonstrating how the next 5 could help them do more and leverage the initial investment -- customer and financial performance improved.

    Thanks for your comment! LCI

  • by Mark "Chief Alchemist" Simchock Wed Jul 20, 2011 via blog

    Thank gawd someone else finally said it :)

    It's really pretty simple. Just ask yourself, "so what?" That's what your customers are going to do. So you might as well beat them to the punch. Hoops, etc. start look pretty silly when you realize that the receive of your message is laughing at you, or worse - ignoring you.

  • by Eric Walters Wed Jul 20, 2011 via blog

    In a period of steep learning in the 'new media' space this is simple, but great advice. Thank you for reminding us to keep our eye on that most prized of clients - the existing one!

  • by Anthony Congdon Wed Jul 20, 2011 via blog

    I have worked in the IT industry for the past 20 years now and have seen dozens if not hundreds of great "solutions" that were looking for problems. Generally those that succeeded had a simple easy to comprehend value proposition to the customer. they fixed one problem the customers really needed fixed and did that well.

    The more complex they became, the more esoteric the value proposition, the less likely they were to succeed.

    We all like to fix our most pressing problems first and these are almost always at the top of our buying criteria

  • by Shrirang Abhyankar Thu Jul 21, 2011 via blog

    Excellent piece. This entire business of "Customer is King", "Customer delight" is hype. Barring a few exceptions, it all changes, when the actual crisis arises. Even calls to the toll free numbers become a pain what with Press 1 for ... etc".

    Companies generally try to force a solution on a customer. The need is find their pain and give them a solution. The buzz word should be relevant technology and affordable solutions and that's it. The rest takes care of itself.

  • by Isy Thu Jul 21, 2011 via blog

    Lovely article, and very well said. This is basis of my entire approach with my clients and always the best place for companies to start no matter how innovative they believe are. There's nothing wrong with delighting the customers. As a customer I love being delighted I admit it. I'm even more delighted when a company offers me a way to do what I need to do, when I need to do it, in the most efficient way possible.

  • by Pete Thu Jul 21, 2011 via blog

    Hey Linda,

    This is a great post. Solving a problem should always be the first action taken, but I don't think it's unreasonable to strive to go above and beyond that. In fact, I think you have to. If my competition is also solving the customers' problems, it's not enough for me to just do the same. I need to solve the problem and also stick out in their mind. They need a great experience on top of having the problem solved.

    Coincidentally, I wrote an article with the opposite title last week, based on an experience I personally had, where I was so taken with a company's efforts that I keep coming back to them. They did what I needed them to do, but they went well above and beyond. It's because of the "surprising and delighting" that I bring the next problem and the next one after that back to a company. (Here's the post I wrote, called "Surprise and Delight -- Or, Getting The Closest Shave Possible":

    Certainly, I think the core of what every business does is to solve problems, and we can't lose sight of that. You're *absolutely* right. But if you can solve problems and surprise and delight, why not do both?


  • by Linda Ireland Thu Jul 21, 2011 via blog

    Thanks Mark. Ever notice that customers ignoring your organization is an overlooked leak of financial performance?

  • by Linda Ireland Thu Jul 21, 2011 via blog

    If I had a dollar for every feature added by a product manager or engineer "because I had my hands in the code anyway." Multiply that few hours of investment by the burden on your organization to (find a reason to) sell, price, support...

    And customers? Building on the complexity problem you note Anthony, that un-valued feature becomes white noise, or a rock on the road toward their solved need that they must walk around. Let's just not go there!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. LCI

  • by Linda Ireland Thu Jul 21, 2011 via blog

    What great thinking in this comment string! Love your ideas and feedback.

    This was one of the lessons in Domino I had the most fun - and took the most time - to write. Because in every organization I've been in, every group of leaders I'm with...we all agree that staying focused on solving the need that triggered customers to act is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Downright hard. Maybe the most difficult part of a leaders' job.

    Why are our customers' lives different, or better because we're in them? What do we help them do, or be differently or better? That's the job they are paying us to do. Build features, service policies, marketing strategies to solve that need better than anyone else.

    Appreciate your thinking! LCI

  • by Lisa Stewart Sun Jul 24, 2011 via blog

    Great article, Linda. Certainly great for both service and product companies alike.

    However, given the economy and the strangling of the middle class, we creatives find it difficult to sell art at this time. Because I equate art as a luxury product, I turn to articles like this one that addresses, 'solve the problem.' Art really doesn't 'solve' a problem based on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, so how do we creatives overcome this issue? Sure, people want to be happy and art seems to provide a 'happy factor' but then it becomes a catch-22.

    How can creatives continue to thrive without sounding like they're whining?

    Thanks, Lisa

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