Saturday, March 21, 2009

Understanding the customer. A true life experience

Organisations spend huge sums of money in market research to understand the customers. There is a whole industry involved in what is called customer analytics and profiling where customer behaviour is dissected in every possible way. The ultimate objective being, a more competitive offering which the customer wants. A friend of mine who used to manage a store once told me a story in this context and said how all these reports cannot substitute an hour of standing in the store.

In that context retail is the most interactive and customer insightful industry. One can get instant feedback and make corrections if they choose to.

This is during the early days of mobiles and one mobile company had tied up with a chain to give a hand set free as part of a contest. Needless to say the interest was high and I remember filling in the various forms I was eligible for hoping to get the phone. One such elderly lady like me was also hopeful of winning the phone, excepting that she expected or rather was waiting for the phone to be given to her. The store manager would be asked every time if the contest was over and when can she collect the phone! She claimed that God has told her that she was going to get the phone.

It was a Saturday and I was shopping at the store when the store manager informed me that someone else had won and the message had just come from the office and he was to display the winners name. He was hoping that he would not be around when the elderly customer came to the store and found she was not the winner. Just as he was telling me this, an elderly lady walked up to him and asked when she can get the phone!

As diplomatically as possible, the manager explained that someone else had won and better luck next time. The customer suddenly became abusive and hurled the choicest of abuses and not content with that made a gesture of spitting to indicate her disgust. I watching this and almost expected the security to lead the customer out.

To my surprise and appreciation the manager walked up to the lady and calmly apologized for disappointing her and gently asked why she was so upset. It was after all only a contest. The lady calmed down, broke down and told her story; Her husband was very critically ill and they had applied for a landline phone which was getting delayed. When she heard of this contest, it was like a sign from God and she had started believing that if she won the phone, her husband would get well as they could summon medical help whenever they wanted.

I was very touched by the story and wondered how often we react to anger with anger, when it actually hides sorrow and fear. Kudos to the manager for understanding customers with more insight than any report can provide.

Retail trivia – Almost every contest works on a probability theory and the prizes are planned for assuming only a certain number of people participating. Also, they are usually a method for data collection, to be used for future marketing efforts. Next time you fill in a coupon remember that apart from the prize you could also get a lot of calls and mails!!

-- This article is part of a series, I wrote for "The Hindu, Retail Plus".


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