Customer Approval Beats Customer Acquisition

Like serving borscht, an Eastern and Central European beetroot soup, it is best to consume market research, especially about customer relations, with a healthy dollop of creamy common sense.  I recently had dinner with several close friends who happen to be marketing mavens and my business associates. I was quite surprised when what I had intended to be a lighthearted joke brought the four of us into passionate disagreement.  I had been discussing an article written by a market research service and summarized my feelings in a simple sentiment – just because you lead a horse to water doesn’t mean you can make him drink TWICE from the same trough; he has to like what he is drinking for him to take a second sip.

Two of my friends immediately pounced; they joined together in a spontaneous lecture that reiterated market data from panels and focus groups about customer acquisition; lead generation through pipeline to close. They had research data that a behavioral psychologist would admire! Both my other friend and I told them that they missed the point – good marketing is about big-picture perceptions rather than a funnel-shaped sales process transitioning from an initial contact to counting sales receipts. Our point was that especially in today’s marketplace you must continually win a customer’s approval, you don’t acquire and hold them like so many shares of stock in an investment portfolio labeled “goodwill”.

Valued concepts of price, product, place, and promotion have undergone a paradigm shift. The emergence of the Internet has helped to democratize business. Mom and Pop businesses can compete on equal ground with multinational conglomerates now. In fact, the sales funnels now have even wider openings to suck in prospects. But “old-timers” often have difficulty recognizing paradigm shifts. What has democratized the Internet storefronts has also democratized Joe and Jane Customer!  The sales process once defined by the Four P’s has been digitized and now, in virtual space, finds itself also democratized. In a medium that travels at the speed of light, digital word-of mouth and concepts, like online product or service reputation, rule. Market research points to growing amounts of consumer-generated media as determining customer choice, not to mention customer loyalty. Studies suggest consumers seek out this information before they make a purchase and consider it advice without bias or ulterior motive.  You don’t “herd” people into funnels anymore; the savvy shopper more than likely “surfed the web” prior to “selecting” your product or service rather than you “acquired” them through place or promotion!

Besides all that, I reminded my friends that our thirsty horse doesn’t really show its “approval” until it returns the third time!  The first sip was the test based on curiosity, the second was a test reaffirming the initial experience; but the third is not only reaffirmation but proof that the water reliably satisfies a need. Finicky horse? Not really. It’s an adaptive survival trait called “conditioned taste aversion” (also known as bait shyness or the Garcia effect).  This apparently “hard-wired” behavior protects most mammals from too much of a novel “offering” (for example, poisoned bait) without testing its “safety (or reputation)” value over a short period of time.   In truth, even though people do mimic a herd and sometimes even stampede, they are even smarter than horses!  Your products, services, or business hasn’t ever really acquired your customers; your customers have chosen you!  Reputation has always and will forever rule!

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