What a Customer Wants

  • By J.D. Koch
  • 29 Nov 2019

Shared by Russell du Preez –

In virtually every kind of business, customer satisfaction is paramount. You, and every other employee worth his salt, wants to do everything in your power to build a growing number of loyal customers.

You want to take prospects, who have never tried your product or service before, and turn them into advocates. Advocates are customers who are aggressively loyal. They will not only withstand temptations to defect, they will actively sing your praises. These advocates are your largest unpaid sales force. These advocates, more than marketing, more than promotions, even more than price, are your fuel for sustained growth. So how do you create them?


Rules of Thumb

Over the last twenty years, Gallup has interviewed over a billion customers, trying to identify what customers really want. As you would expect, we first discovered that customers’ needs vary by industry. Customers demand a different kind of relationship from their doctor than they do from their cable repairman. They expect a more intimate bond with their accountant than they do with their local grocery store.

Our second discovery was more surprising: Despite these differences, four customer expectations remain remarkably consistent across various types of businesses and types of people. These four expectations are hierarchical. This means that the lower-level expectations must be met before the customer is ready to pay attention to the levels higher up. These four expectations, in sequence, show companies what they must do to turn prospects into advocates. 

Level 1: At the lowest level, customers expect accuracy. They expect the hotel to give them the room they reserved. They expect their bank statements to reflect their balance accurately. When they eat out, they expect the waiter to serve what they ordered. It doesn’t matter how friendly the employees are, if the company consistently fails the accuracy test, then customers defect.

Level 2: The next level is availability. Customers expect their preferred hotel chain to offer locations in a variety of different cities. They expect their bank to be open when they can use it and to employ enough tellers to keep the line moving. They expect their favourite restaurant to be nearby, to have adequate parking, and to have waiters who notice that distinctive “I need help now” look. Any company that makes itself more accessible will obviously increase the number of customers who are willing to give it a try. Hence the proliferation of drive-through windows, ATM machines, and, more recently, Web sites.

A couple of points about these two lower-level expectations: On the one hand, they are, fortunately, quite easy to meet. Both lend themselves to technological or step-by-step solutions.

On the other hand, these solutions are, unfortunately, quite easy to steal. Any restaurant succeeding because of its location soon finds itself surrounded by competitors hoping to cash in on the prime real estate. Federal Express’s innovative package-tracking system is quickly replicated by UPS, Airborne, and the post office. And, of course, ATM machines are now a dime a dozen. Any effort to meet these lower-level.

Level 3: At this level customers expect partnership. They want you to listen to them, to be responsive to them, to make them feel they are on the same side of the fence as you.

Service businesses have long realized the importance of this partnership expectation. That’s why Wal-Mart positions hearty senior citizens at their front door to smile a welcome and remember names. That’s why all airlines create loyalty clubs offering special treatment to frequent fliers. And that’s presumably why video stores offer a “staff picks” section: “We’re like you. We watch videos, too.”

But recently other businesses have zeroed in on the importance of looking at the world through the customers’ eyes. For example, in the spirit of partnership, Levi’s now offers you the chance to purchase made-to-order jeans. Furnished with your measurements, the retail store relays them to the manufacturing plant, which punches out a unique pair, for your size only.

Snapple has also cottoned on to the power of partnership. To urge its target market, college students, to drink more Snapple, it promises prizes if you are lucky enough to buy a bottle with the special code Rules of Thumb 131 under its cap. Rather than offering hard cash, Snapple decided to position the prizes to coincide with the priorities of their young consumers. Thus the first prize is presented as “Let Snapple pay your rent for a year. 12payments of $1,000.”

The second prize becomes “Let Snapple make your car payments for a year. 12 payments of $300.” Even the smaller prizes, with onetime payments, are described by the way a young college student might spend them—thus a prize of $100 becomes “Let Snapple pay your phone bill for a month.” Although few college students actually win, by presenting the prizes in this way, Snapple manages to communicate the same message to every young customer: “We understand what you are going through.” Most businesses, whether in the service, manufacturing or packaged goods sectors, now realize that a customer who feels understood is a step closer to real satisfaction and genuine advocacy.

Level 4: The most advanced level of customer expectation is advice. Customers feel the closest bond to organizations that have helped them learn. It’s no coincidence, for example, that colleges and schools are blessed with the strongest alumni associations. But this love of earning applies across all businesses. The big public accounting firms now place a special emphasis on teaching their clients something that will help them manage their finances more effectively.

Home Depot, the home improvement retailer, proudly advertises their on-site experts who offer training on everything from plant care to grouting. And Amazon.com, the online bookseller, continues to build a devoted following, at least in part, because they offer customers a recommended reading list based upon what other customers, who have purchased the same book, are also reading.

Everywhere you look, companies are trying to transform their tellers/salespeople/clerks into “consultants.” They have realized that learning always breeds loyalty. Partnership and advice are the most advanced levels of customer expectation. If you can consistently meet these expectations, you will have successfully transformed prospects into advocates. This is all well and good, but it does beg one question: How can you meet these higher-level expectations?

The answer rarely lies with technology or steps. For example, customers will feel a sense of partnership only when employees are responsive. Therefore, to meet this expectation you need employees on the front line who are wired to find the right words and right tone for each specific customer.

By its very definition, you cannot legislate this in advance. A sense of partnership develops in real-time. It is in the hands of the employees. The same goes for advice. Amazon.com may have found a technological solution, but they are the exception. Most teaching will occur between one employee and one customer.

Realizing this, managers can certainly encourage their employees to help each customer learn something new, but teaching/learning is a very sensitive interaction. It requires a special kind of retail clerk or bank teller to find just the right time and just the right way to educate each customer. Technology can provide support.

Suggested action steps can serve as guidelines. But the teaching/learning will happen, or fail to happen, based upon what transpires between each employee and each customer, moment by moment.

Gallup s research confirms what great managers know instinctively. Forcing your employees to follow required steps only prevents customer dissatisfaction. If your goal is truly to satisfy, to create advocates, then the step-by-step approach alone cannot get you there. Instead, you must select employees who have the talent to listen and to teach, and then you must focus them toward simple emotional outcomes like partnership and advice. This is not easy to do, but it does have one decidedly appealing feature. If you can do it successfully, it is very hard to steal. All of these rules of thumb help great managers decide how much of the role should be structured and how much should be left up to the employee s discretion. But even though some aspects of the role will indeed require conformity to steps or standards, great managers still place the premium on the role s outcomes. They use these outcomes to inspire, to orient, and to evaluate their employees. The outcomes are the point.

What Do You Get Paid to Do?

“How do you know if the outcomes are right?”

Getting focused on outcomes is one thing. Figuring out which outcomes are right is something else entirely. So how can you define the right outcomes? Of all the things your people could be doing, how can you know which are the few things they should be doing? Well, as you would expect, we can’t offer you a step-by-step solution. First, it takes a certain talent to hear the siren song through the clamor. Second, even if you have this talent, this talent to focus, to discriminate, then you will undoubtedly have your own way of deploying it. What we can offer you are some deceptively simple guidelines from some of the world’s great managers.


This is the first question you should ask. Whatever you happen to think, if the customer thinks that a particular outcome isn’t valuable, it isn’t. Since this is the basic tenet of capitalism, it is a rather straightforward guideline. Nonetheless, many companies, perhaps dazzled by their own habits and expertise, seem to have forgotten that the customer is the ultimate judge of value. Not to pick on the airline industry, but they are as good an example as any. Most airlines ask their flight attendants to focus on safety first.

Hence the captain s announcement “Please remember, the flight attendants are here primarily for your safety. If there is anything else they can do to make your flight more enjoyable, please don’t hesitate to ask.” Our flight attendants are professional safety experts, this announcement stresses, not glorified wait staff. Safety is paramount. Anything else, like friendly, attentive service, is an optional extra. These airlines forget that customers don’t usually choose one airline over another by comparing safety records. Whatever the airline, customers fully expect that they will arrive at their destination unharmed. They demand safety, but they are not impressed by it. It is the wrong outcome for airlines to emphasize.

Southwest Airlines again stands out as the exception. Their flight at tenants are experts in all the required safety procedures, but safety is not the point of their work. Fun is the point. Their passionate CEO, Herb Kelleher, instinctively empathized with air travellers.

He realized that air travel is inevitably stressful. He knew that he would never be able to remove everyone’s fear and frustration. All he could do was encourage every one of his employees to make the flying experience as much fun as possible. Hence the songs, the jokes, the games, the “colouring outside the lines.” Kelleher’s intuition means that every Southwest employee is focused on the right outcome.

Intuitions like this can be powerful, but there are other, more practical ways to see the world through your customers’ eyes. For example, Adrian P., the manager of two car dealerships, conducts focus groups with a selection of recent buyers every other month.

The Walt Disney Company’s Imagineers, the supremely creative individuals who design and build the theme parks, are constantly “on-site,” standing in the lines, mingling with guests, riding the rides. Customer surveys are an even more sophisticated way to delve into the mind of your customers.

If you have the time and the inclination, you can design a survey that includes questions on all possible aspects of the customers’ experience. To identify the most important aspects, you must work out which questions show the strongest link to the customers’ ratings of overall satisfaction, likelihood to recommend, and likelihood to repurchase.

Using this technique, Gallup has been able to help many companies zeroing on those few emotional outcomes that are truly important to their customers. A large insurance company wanted to hold its doctors accountable for the quality of service they provided their patients. The insurance company was interested in doing this for all kinds of reasons, not least of which was the fact that unhappy patients tended to stay in the hospital longer, sue more readily, and die more often. For an insurance company, these are rather important considerations. Thus you might have forgiven them if they had forced every doctor to run his or her practice according to a detailed procedures manual. But they resisted this tactic. Instead, they asked Gallup to investigate which core emotional outcomes patients truly valued.

We discovered that once you feel secure in your doctor’s basic competence, there are only four things you really want from your doctor when you visit:

  • You want to be kept waiting for no more than twenty minutes, (availability)
  • You want to feel as though someone cared about you. It doesn’t have to be the doctor. It might be the receptionist or the nurse. But someone has to care about you. (partnership)
  • You want the doctor to explain what your condition is in words that you can understand, (partnership)
  • You want the doctor to give you something that you can do for yourself at home to alleviate your condition, (advice)


If you can say “Yes” to all of these questions, you are much more likely to recommend and return and much less likely to sue or die. Using these four emotional outcomes as their measure of service, the insurance company could then hold each doctor accountable for quality of service without having to dictate how each doctor should run his or her practice.


Make sure that the outcomes you define for your people are in line with your company’s current strategy. Again, this sounds like motherhood and apple pie. But with the dizzying pace of change in today’s business world, it is sometimes hard for managers to keep track.

The key distinction here is between “mission” and “strategy.” A company’s mission should remain constant, providing meaning and focus for generations of employees.

A company’s strategy is simply the most effective way to execute that mission. It should change according to the demands of the contemporary business climate. For example, the Walt Disney Company’s mission has always been to release people’s imagination by telling wonderful stories.

In the past, they relied on the twin strategies of movies and theme parks. Today, however, faced with increased competition, they have broadened their strategy to include cruise ships, Broadway shows, video games, and retail stores.

As Bran Ferren, executive vice president of research and development at Walt Disney Imagineering, describes it: “Vibrant companies must put together five-year plans. But they must be willing to change these five-year plans every single year. It’s the only way to stay alive.” Although this constant reassessment of strategy is vital to the health of the company, it does place managers in a rather difficult position. They are the intermediaries, charged with explaining the new strategy to the employees and then translating it into clearly defined performance outcomes.

Often this can be as simple as telling your salespeople that with the new company strategy focused on growing market share rather than profit, each salesperson will now be encouraged to focus on the outcome “sales volume,” rather than the outcome “profit margin per sale.” However, sometimes the changes in strategy are more radical and the pressures on managers to refocus employees on different outcomes are more acute. For example, the most effective strategy for many high-tech companies used to be innovation. Hence the large R&D budgets, the hordes of disheveled but creative software designers, and the unpredictable, slightly unfocused work environments.

Recently, though, the strategy of these high-tech companies has shifted focus. For the major players who dominate the marketplace, critical mass—getting your product to be accepted as the standard—is now more important than innovation. Innovation can be bought from the smaller boutique houses. Thus these larger companies need to change the way they operate to ensure that virtually everyone’s efforts are focused on spreading the new language/platform/product into the marketplace.

This means that managers in these companies will have to hustle to redefine the desired outcomes and find new definitions of success. The number of users, for example, may now be more important than revenue per user. Of course, there are times when the change in strategy is so dramatic that no matter how clearly you redefine the desired outcomes, your current cadre of employees will be unable to achieve them.

Faced with this situation, you can’t rewire people’s brains, as high-tech companies found when they tried to turn software designers into marketers, and as banks discovered when they tried to retrain tellers to become salespeople. All you can do is try to find roles within the new strategy that play to their talents. If no such roles exist, then you have no choice: these employees have to move on.

Dennis Rodman is arguably the best rebounder ever to play the game of basketball. He is certainly the most bizarre player. With hair that changes colour every week, a fondness for women’s clothing, and persecution complex, he is an explosive, unpredictable man.

How do you manage him so that he is motivated to use his talents and to limit his outbursts? During the previous three seasons, the Chicago Bulls had lost Rodman to various infractions for at least twelve games per season, so for the 1997-98 season, they opted for a different strategy. Keeping in mind Rodman’s talents, and the challenges he presented, they drew up a contract built around some very specific outcomes. It was the most incentive-laden contract in the history of the NBA. Rodman was guaranteed $4.5 million. He would receive another $5 million if he stayed out of trouble for the duration of the season; another $500,000 for winning the rebounding title for the seventh time; and another $100,000 for having a positive assist-to-turnover ratio.

The numbers here are stratospheric, but the concepts applicable to every employee: Identify a person’s strengths. Define outcomes that play to those strengths. Find a way to count, rate, or rank those outcomes. And then let the person run.

It worked for Rodman and the Chicago Bulls. By the end of the season, Rodman had missed only one game for disciplinary reasons. He had won the rebounding title for the seventh time. He had 230 assists versus 147 turnovers. And the Bulls had won the championship. Of course, if you are managing a large group of people who perform exactly the same role, it may be more difficult to tailor the outcomes to each individual. But if your team is small and variously talented, then you must take each person’s unique talents into account when defining the right outcomes.

Bud Grant, stone-faced Hall of Fame coach of the Minnesota Vikings, described it this way: “You can’t draw up plays and then just plug your players in. No matter how well you have designed your playbook, it’s useless if you don’t know which plays your players can run. When I draw up my playbook, I always go from the players to the plays.” When defining the right outcomes for their people, great managers do the same. They go from the players to the plays.