Are Your Customers Smiling, Stable, Sour or Stuck?

by Jan Johnson
July 22, 2014

I had just finished a presentation detailing a product’s performance and suggested some improvements in order to turn customers from sour to smiling. Everyone in attendance mulled some ideas over, until the manager of the division asked me, “These are kind of captive customers. They don’t need to be really happy, do they?”

Well, I thought for a moment, I’m not sure what he’s focused on, but it’s not maximizing his product performance.

So I asked him, “Are you married?”

“Yes,” he replied.

“What’s the difference to you if your wife is happily married, or just married?”

The look on his face was one of dawning comprehension.

That’s pretty much the way it goes with product performance as well. In our years of experience, we’ve learned that customers can generally be categorized as Stuck, Sour, Stable or Smiling. How well products do in the market is a direct result of how customers feel when they use it.

Investment Products

Mind you, I’m talking about high-investment, long-purchase and use cycle products, not necessarily toothpaste. These products are directly related to the customers’ ability to make money, to thrive in their business, and often these products must satisfy purchasers for years, sometimes decades. Markets are often very small, so repeat sales are imperative.

Take a look at our descriptions, and see if you can place your product’s customers into one of these categories.

Stuck Customers

I’ve had customers tell me a product was “like being handcuffed to a cactus!”

These customers are stuck. Stuck with a product that doesn’t perform to their requirements and they have no way out. If they are your customers, they are rarely going to buy any of your other products, and they are going to go out of their way to tell others about their experiences.

Before Twitter and Facebook, stuck customers told as many as 15 others about their bad product. Now who knows how many people hear about a bad product. We see all the time where one irate customer can make life really challenging for a company.

Unfortunately, with high-investment, long-term purchases, a stuck customer can stay that way a long time, and their frustration and resentment can grow with each passing day. Without intervention, stuck customers go away as soon as they can.

Consequences of having stuck customers are: greater sales costs, more discounting required, unsold inventory, uncooperative dealers, poor cross marketing … the list goes on and on, and none of the consequences are good.

Sour Customers

Another one of my favorite comments was, “I get so angry every time I see it, I just want to use it for target practice!” That’s a sour customer.

Sour customers are customers that aren’t as happy with a product as they need to be. The product might work well enough, but doesn’t have all the features they want or need. Or it may have the features needed, but isn’t reliable enough. These customers make do until they can unload the product on someone else, then switch to a different brand.

They may not tell a dealer or anyone else about the product’s shortcomings, they just walk on over to the competition.

Consequences of having sour customers are: sales that don’t meet projections, higher product support costs, more customer churn and customers that never come back.

Stable Customers

Stable customers are those who are happy with a product’s features and benefits, and the product delivers these consistently over time. The product meets the needs they have identified, and it functions consistently well. These customers have no cause for complaint.

When you ask them about the product, they say things like, “It’s okay. It does what I bought it for.”

They do business with you until they find something that meets their needs even better.

If there is little innovation in your industry, stable customers may be with you for a long time. You rarely talk to them, because everything is stable.

Consequences of having stable customers are: stable sales, maybe with a little attrition from year to year, cross marketing may or may not be successful, advertising and sales costs may be higher because your product does not cause excitement in the marketplace, so you have to create buzz yourself.

Smiling Customers

Smiling customers are customers who are so delighted with the product they purchased that they can’t help but smile.

Many times their sentences start with “I just …” as in “I just touch this button here and ….”

They may turn into an unpaid sales force because they tell people about how happy they are and how well the product works for them. Generally speaking, these customers have purchased a product that meets their stated needs, but also anticipates their unstated needs, and delivers a product experience that is high quality and consistent over time.

For high-value investment products, to achieve a smiling customer means consistently high performance repeated over time. These products make customers’ lives substantially easier or more pleasant because they reduce problems, perhaps almost to zero, and increase productivity, all the while providing a pleasant interaction.

Consequences of smiling customers are: increased orders, greater profits, happier dealers and higher market share. In fact, a product with smiling customers may make sudden sweeping gains in the market, because all those stuck, sour and stable customers migrate to it as quickly as possible.

There’s plenty of market feedback to illustrate the point.

The thing is, a lot of times it doesn’t take much more money to have smiling customers than it does stuck customers. It just takes more conversations with customers aimed at understanding their needs and situation, not necessarily how they feel about your product and more relentless pursuit of the ideal product.

I’ve seen instances where a product has gone from market leader to almost zero sales because of one cost saving change that totally ruined the product’s ability to do the job it was purchased to do.

Millennium Research helps companies avoid big mistakes like those. But mostly it works with companies to dig into identifying the ideal. We’re not scientists, engineers or designers. We are relentless need seekers. We spec out the why, which leads to identifying the ideal what. Your team then implements the how.

If too many of your customers are sour or stuck, you feel it in your sales. Astute customer insights and need analysis can make them smile, and most importantly, buy again.

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