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Products fail.

That's a fact—and one that's especially true as relates to technology-based products. The solution? Making products that don't have problems is a noble idea, but a very unrealistic (and perhaps unnecessary) one.

A better solution is understanding how your customers deal with product failures, to ensure they are happy and satisfied even when your product does fail.

Just recently I was at my sister's house as my brother-in-law was setting up a new printer. He readied it, and with a flourish clicked to print a query letter he planned to send a client the next day.

The printer hummed appreciatively, and in no time at all out popped out—well, a whole bunch of meaningless garbage. He picked up the sheet of paper, gave a barely audible “hmmm,” and merrily went about clicking various control panels.

I was incredulous. Not because the printer failed to work, of course—no surprise there. But because he remained calm. I would have fumed, maybe pounded on the thing a bit.

Then my sister walked into the room, looked at the “query letter,” and said, “Why don't you call tech support?” I looked to my brother-in-law and we exchanged a quizzical look—neither of us had thought of that! The point here is that people respond differently when products fail to work. If you're like me, you've been chastised by others for reacting to a product failure in a way others deemed “not helpful.” Or perhaps you're one of those people who have done the chastising.

How does this relate to marketing? Well, we're all quite familiar with the idea that customers can be segmented into different targets depending on their product preferences. They can also be segmented by how they handle problems with products.

Want to know what segment you are in? Click here to participate in my 20-minute survey and I'll immediately email you personalized information about where you fit. (Plus, you'll be helping me—a PhD student—finish his dissertation in marketing, for which I'll be most appreciative!)

The implications are significant for marketers. If as a maker of the latest e-widget you know that some of your customers deal with a problem by yelling and complaining, while others are likely to immediately call on your tech people, you can design marketing communications tailored to each.

Even better, you can design your marketing to help each of these people deal better with product failures before they even occur. In effect, you can improve customer satisfaction in the face of problems by guiding them towards better handling problems, and by providing just the type of service (or even lack thereof!) they prefer.

Before you can do that, of course, you first have to understand the different ways people handle problems. Research in this area shows there are four broad ways in which people respond to stress caused by product failure (which of course can be further broken down into at least 12 more detailed ways. But I won't bore you with such detail here).

  • Behavioral/Goal Focused: People who take action to solve the problem
  • Behavioral/Avoidant: People who take action to avoid the problem
  • Emotional/Goal-Focused: People who use their emotions to solve the problem
  • Emotional/Avoidant: People who use their emotions to avoid the problem

What determines which of these four basic types of responses is front-and-center depends not just on the person, but also on the given situation. In short, it depends on how one feels about their own abilities combined with the information they have about what is happening, and what will happen.

So what can marketers do? There are four main areas in which to take action:

1. Admit to imperfection.

Companies spend lots of time and money convincing customers about the reliability of their products. They make direct claims about durability and ease of use. They provide extensive warrantees. They advertise and do product placements in which their products are shown working perfectly, and making everyone happy in the process.

Great marketing, huh? Well, not necessarily.

By depicting products working so well all the time, customers come to expect perfection—or something close to it. And that may be just what you want for some products that really do work near-perfectly.

But that isn't usually the case with technological products, nor many others. Products that are inherently complex—as technological products are—will have problems from time to time, or the people using them will use them incorrectly.

If a marketer is upfront about these potential problems consumers will have more realistic expectations—and fewer shattered ones.

2. Build customer self-efficacy.

Use your marketing to make customers feel they have the ability to handle problems when they arise. No, not by providing “troubleshooting” sections advising users to “check to ensure the device is turned on,” or “make sure it is plugged in.”

A better approach is to use a variety of means to remove the mystery of the product, provide simple ways for the customer to research problems (and solutions) on their own, and provide positive reinforcement about their ability to solve problems.

3. Provide service based on response type.

Even when you follow the above recommendations, people will still respond differently to the same problem. Some will act, others will emote, some will tackle it, others will avoid it.

How do you handle that? You provide service responses appropriate for each type. For people that cope by venting (complaining, etc.) let them—that's what helps them feel better (read: satisfied). Don't argue with these people. Don't get defensive. Support their type of response—tell them you hear them, and you understand.

For those people who want to take action and tackle the problem, give them the resources they need—guidance, parts, reassurance—whatever.

And for those who want to avoid—do your best to take care of things for them, as handling things themselves is not what they're up for in the situation.

4. Conduct research.

Engage in research to help you better understand how consumers respond to product failures, and why.

How? By participating in my research survey, of course! (You knew that was coming again, didn't you?)

Thanks for your consideration in advance…!

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Matthew Lancellotti is a contributing editor of MarketingProfs staff and a prior journalist for several publications.