Facing stiff competition from a rival chain? Here’s a quick tip: Don’t alienate the customers you’ve already earned.
Remember the introduction of New Coke? The 1985 fiasco is still cited as a prime example of a marketing disaster. Coca-Cola spent decades becoming one of the most recognizable brands in the world, but they hit the panic button when facing a surging Pepsi brand. The result was the full weight of the Coke brand applied to a new, retooled recipe.
The marketing hype pulled in millions of people, but the drink itself drove them all away. Within months New Coke was pulled from shelves and the company resigned itself to the old, preferred formula. It was a classic case of a product not meeting customer expectations, and it was no one’s fault but Coca-Cola. If they had listened to their loyal customers, they would’ve heard, “Leave Coke alone. If we want Pepsi, we’ll go buy Pepsi.”
The truth is that the best marketing tools you have available are not the brilliant minds working in your marketing department or the market research firms that are paid so much to analyze and investigate. Your best marketing tools are guests who visit your business every day in every city—your most loyal customers. After all, who knows your brand, including your strengths and weaknesses, better?
By engaging your customers in a direct dialogue that captures their honest feedback, you’ll be equipped with the best information with which to refine your marketing and define your brand. By simply listening to them, you can learn who your most lucrative target market is and exactly what it is they’re looking for. You can also find out what is driving first-time visitors to give you a try. Everything else—including how you need to act—will be straightforward from that point.
Too many businesses are trying to re-invent the wheel when it comes to building their marketing campaigns. They invest piles of money into market research to try and learn things that their existing customers would readily tell them, if asked. No matter how many focus groups or demographic surveys you do, none of it will be as useful as getting candid opinions from someone fresh off a visit to one of your stores.
Most customers won’t give up this information without effort on your part. In fact, if their feedback is negative, chances are it’ll never see the light of day because most people are conflict-averse. The smartest companies have figured out a method of collecting feedback directly from guests, and it’s simple and affordable. Most importantly, it gives guests a private forum in which to voice their true feelings.
Here’s how it works: A business retains a specialized customer feedback vendor to set up customized surveys that can be taken by phone or through the Internet. The most reputable of these vendors operate “purpose-built” systems, requiring no software or hardware installation that can be accessed directly from the Internet anywhere in the world. Each survey question can build on the previous response, so the information received goes beyond simple “yes” or “no” and dives down into the “why” of their feelings. Such surveys provide real-time, actionable information, yet are still short enough to keep the customer engaged.
These same systems also offer guests the chance to leave verbal or text comments during the survey, which are often the most revealing and powerful form of feedback. This is likely the best place for comments that can be integrated into a marketing plan.
The key to these systems is that they give you integrated qualitative and quantitative feedback immediately after the service experience. Traditional feedback methods, such as response cards, either fail to go in-depth or they don’t occur in a reliable window following the initial customer experience.
You will generally have to offer an incentive to get customers to talk about their feelings, whether it is frequency points, a chance to win a free meal, or a discount off their next visit. Then, after providing the appropriate incentive, respect the guests’ time and privacy by making the surveys as unobtrusive and user-friendly as possible. This includes making the surveys available on the web as well as by telephone.
The benefit? Hundreds of guests offering frank, candid feedback that is then plugged into a customer feedback tracking system. The information is then analyzed and presented in sophisticated charts and graphs that highlight action steps for local managers. What’s working and what isn’t will be made blatantly obvious. There are other obvious benefits to these systems, including incident management (instant alerts sent to accountable managers for immediate resolution) and trend tracking over any period of time. All in all, your volume of feedback will be exponentially bigger, and you will spend less on this method than in engaging market research and mystery guests.
The point is, anything else will only leave you with an educated guess. This isn’t saying that all educated guesses are wrong, as mystery shoppers and market research have their purposes. But why settle for an educated guess when you can receive multiple instructions directly from the actual target market?
Now that you know where to focus your efforts—courtesy of your customers—you can build your brand around those concepts. There are a few ways to take your strengths and spread the word to the masses about how great you are, but the main thing is to keep your customers in mind.
Start by identifying the profile of your strongest customer demographic. Then, see what it is that they appreciate about your operation and what part of the experience they most enjoy. Now, you have a message already developed for you that can easily be applied in the most relevant channels. Alternative target demographics can also be discovered by looking closer at the feedback stats, and not just the positive feedback.
Look for clusters of negatives and work to turn them into positives. Take the message of your improvement to the world and you’ll likely see the tide shift for your operation. A great current example of this is restaurant chains who are switching away from trans fats—a change driven by customer complaints. Those chains that acted quickly on the customer demand to remove these unhealthy oils gained an improved public image because of their quick and direct response.
Another great tactic is to use the data for internal marketing, as some of the best branding occurs during customer-staff interaction. Use positive feedback to motivate and retain staff, while negatives can be used for training and refinement purposes.
Is the customer always right? Lots of companies declare it to be true, but not many actually practice it. The bottom line is that without the customers, your business doesn’t exist. So whether or not they are precisely “right,” you’re better off doing what they’d like you to do.
Of course, it’s easy to say so now, but if Coca-Cola had used this approach back in 1985, they might have discovered that their customers didn’t desire a complete overhaul of the secret formula. Maybe it would have just been a simple tweak of the recipe, or a suggestion about how to present the product. Regardless, it would’ve saved millions of dollars and some brand dilution.
You can lay logical claim to ownership of an industry trait—if your customers tell you you’re the best. Let’s say you continually receive positive feedback about the responsiveness of your staff; why not proclaim that to the world? Some of the greatest marketing campaigns have stemmed from overwhelmingly positive feedback—think, “four of five dentists agree.”
In the end, your best bet to build a successful brand is to execute flawlessly. Engaging your existing customers and finding out just why they return to your hotel will direct you on what to execute against. Educated guesses will only lead you to create New Coke, but listening to guests’ specific feedback will provide clear instructions on what you need to do to win the battle.
This is how I see it.