November 16, 2010

Why does my customer think that?

Corey partner, Andrea Naddaff, recently wrote an article on customer perception in “Independent Agent” magazine, a publication whose readers include a national alliance of 300,000 business owners and their employees who offer insurance and financial services products.

A few months ago, it was revealed that a majority of consumers view Hyundai automobiles as unreliable. When it came to long-term dependability, they decided, Hyundai is nowhere near the top of the list, when in reality, it scored quite well in the 2010 J.D. Power and Associates Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS).  

 So how did Hyundai earn the mistrust of its customers?
To anyone who pays even remote attention to Hyundai’s marketing and advertising efforts, it’s obvious heavy emphasis has always been placed on the automaker’s budget-friendly car prices. The landing page of Hyundai’s official site, for example, immediately draws attention to “Special Offers” while links to learn more about new models come secondary.  And, when the VDS results were revealed, the news only seemed to be found on a one-page press release in the site’s News section.
The challenge for Hyundai and so many misperceived brands before it is clear:  How to integrate the well-known benefits with encouraging statistics and proven facts, especially after years of drawing attention to one particular aspect of a brand.
To determine why customers might find a brand one-dimensional, the focus of marketing and outreach efforts to-date must be examined.  What have been the primary messages, calls to action and highlighted benefits of the product?  In an economic crisis, emphasis on budget-friendly nature creates a sense of appeal, unless that has been the primary point of motivation all along – and until every competitor begins to stress cost, as well.  The typical consumer may interpret “inexpensive” as “poor quality.”  In these cases, straying from dialogue around price should be avoided, while the brand’s history, quality, dependability and return on investment are communicated.   Once these conversations obtain the consumer’s attention, it is more likely that they will seek further information on the brand and the product, including cost.
The same goes for the situation in reverse: When a brand has long been known for its quality but also its high expense, it can also suffer, regardless of the economic climate. In the best and worst of times, stale or repetitive messaging leads to a one-track-minded customer. 
Social media can serve as a strong foundation for the early stages of a re-brand with the introduction of new brand, campaign or image to a somewhat younger generation of consumers. In the ultimate era of real-time, this audience is constantly and eagerly waiting for a fresh perspective on everything, providing an advantageous opportunity for struggling brands to portray themselves as “the next best thing.”  Without the luxury of the household-name-status of many competing brands, companies with the challenge of dispersing an integration of new and old information can leverage such tools as Facebook and Twitter to reach audiences that are not only cost-conscious, but also privy to more information than any before them.  Messaging and promotional tactics can be tested through these venues.

Additionally, with the ever-increasing use of these social media outlets among Baby Boomers, older professionals and retirees, the utilization of these tools stimulates conversation within and among various generations.
In the midst of all these efforts, however, it become easy to abandon what originally drew a customer base to start.   In fact, the re-branding efforts may contain information that existed all along, but were never brought to the customer’s attention. While new tactics can always be explored, it is imperative to maintain a sense of authenticity: “We’re the same folks that won your heart years ago, only better.”

It is easy to know why your customer thinks what your customer thinks if you take the time to pay attention. And it is just as easy to persuade or dissuade perception. All of today’s do-it-yourself technologies have exploded and the customer has found their voice beyond the closed walls of the company. Yes, the customer has spoken and resumed his position on the throne. Yelp, Foursqaure, Angie’s List, Groupon, Flickr, Twitter, Facebook, You Tube, all have put the thinking man’s brand experiences in the hands of the people. So good, bad or indifferent, you will know what your customer thinks. It is like marriage-for better or worse.

Turn a deaf ear to your customer, and you will pay the price for a disenchanted and disengaged audience. Pay attention to the customer, and you will reap the rewards. During the days of the old guard, if your customer had a bad experience, you could control the reach of the complaint and snatch back the power from him. Now, fast-forward to the new school way of doing things, and the customer does not even have to gripe to you. He can give you a poor rating on yellow, Tweet about his disastrous experience with you, publicize to the world, your shortcomings and overpromising.

In the case of the insurance market, unfortunately, you’re often facing a brand perception simply by industry association alone. Although it’s often the carriers that customers are thinking of when they associate bad experiences, that industry brand reflects on agents as well. You have to consider this brand perception – and position against it appropriately – in everything that you do.

Here’s an example* that may help, from the great  Raymon Loewy of Exxon. A lady, sitting next to Raymond Loewy at dinner, struck up a conversation.

‘Why’, she asked ‘did you put two Xs in Exxon?’

‘Why ask?’ he asked

‘Because’, she said, ‘I couldn’t help noticing?’

‘Well’, he responded, ‘that’s the answer.’

*Source: Alan Fletcher, The Art Of Looking Sideways

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