Give 'em what they want (even if it hurts)

What a company wants to say and what the visitor wants to read are often as distant as the promises of the election candidate and the deeds in office and is a gap as old as speech itself. 

When Moses came down the mountain with the Ten Commandments, there were almost certainly some mutterings among the Israelites taking issue with this or that particular “Thou shalt…” History doesn’t record how Moses dealt with dissent but today’s consumers have many more options to vote with their feet than Israelites stuck in the desert.

Any company will, quite naturally, want to promote its particular version of sliced bread as The Best Thing.  Whereas visitors will want to know whether it is really as tasty as claimed and whether it can be bought cheaper elsewhere.  Over inflated claims are treated with a weary cynicism and a click through to the price comparison sites to look for a more balanced view – which it isn’t but that’s the subject for another column.

There is an old maxim in business – you sell what you got.  In other words you pitch the great features of your product and ignore any features it doesn’t have.  But the online consumer today, encouraged by meer cats and overweight tenors knows how to find what they want and treating them like naïve idiots will not get you far.

How often has this happened to you?  You go into a shop but it doesn’t have what you want. Instead, the sales assistant will direct you to a rival down the road.  By providing helpful information rather than trying to flog you something you don’t want, the shop assistant gives you a warm feeling about the store and you are much more likely to come back in the future.

So wouldn’t it be nice if an e-commerce site had a wizard that asked what you wanted, narrowed down the selection and then said – “we don’t provide that product but here’s a link to someone who does.”?  This would be so useful and so unexpected the customer would probably be amazed.  And if they did click and they did get the product they wanted, how good would they feel about your site?

Aviva tried this approach when it showed competitor’s car quotes as well as their own with a view to lure customers away from the price comparison sites. I didn’t look at the price comparison system at the time but either the punters were deeply sceptical of the idea or it didn’t appear to give a fair comparison.  Either way, it didn’t last.  I’ve no idea why Aviva dropped the service but clearly it didn’t pull the business the company hoped for. All the same, I would love to see the traffic for that period.

I once did some work for an organisation and was delighted to discover that it had its own forum which had a small but well informed and vociferous band of contributors.  I wrote an email to the site’s managers congratulating them on this enlightened approach and remarked that it was a shame that the forum was so hard to find on the site.  In reply I was told that the forum members were a pain, that the forum itself was made deliberately difficult to find and under no circumstances was I to enter into a dialogue with the forum as it would only encourage them.

Talk to any company site manager and they will be deeply suspicious of any soapbox that encourages customers to vent their spleen in full view of any other customer or make unfavourable comparisons with competitors.  Yes, you are more likely to get complaints on a forum more than praise but in my experience, people only tend to fire off rockets on a feedback forum if they haven’t got satisfaction from the customer hotline.  Get that right and you will defuse 99% of scuds to the forums.

And there are occasions when even bad reviews can be turned around.  If you look at a site such as registered users are encouraged to write reviews of products.  There, if a bad review is allowed to fester, it can poison the balance of favourable reviews.  But if that bad review is addressed promptly by the developer, it goes a long way to neutralise that review and even turns it round to a positive feeling that you will get a quick response to any problem you might be having.  By not answering the reviewer’s grievance, you are tacitly admitting they are right.

Treating customers as intelligent equals is a strategy for the long haul.  It is not (at least in the short term) about shifting product.  It is about building trust in the brand.  In the 21st Century, we are all used to the idea that companies will try and sell us their goods by any means necessary.  A company trying to build a reputation for straight dealing means that visitors may not buy from them the first or perhaps even the tenth time they come back.  But the fact that they keep coming back will be testament to the strategy and they will buy from you in the end.

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