You place an order with an online retailer who promises you will get all your grocery delivered to your home at a time convenient for you, for a nominal fee. You wait at home at the scheduled hour, and then you wait a little longer. Indeed, you kick your heels for hours but the delivery boy doesn’t show up. Then the grim realisation kicks in that if you don’t have enough food in the refrigerator, you’ll probably have to help yourself to the ready-to-eat dal fry that came free with your cooking oil and has been lying at the back of the cupboard for a week now. You will be lucky if you found some bread to go with it.
Nine out of 10 consumers, just to be on the conservative side in one’s statistical estimation, have faced delays in receiving home-delivered goods. Numerous calls and parroted responses from the retailer about the delivery boy being on the way don’t help. The result: a disgruntled customer. Worse, this customer will likely tell his family and friends not to touch that particular retailer with a 10-feet barge pole! Like interactive marketing expert Pete Blackshaw warns, satisfied customers tell three friends, angry customers tell 3,000.
The issue here is not just about failing to deliver on time; what this particular retailer ended up doing was fail on the consumer’s ‘assumed level of service’. The marketer could have been in any business. He could have been a soap maker, promising to make you fairer in 14 days, or an automobile manufacturer promising to cut your gas consumption by half. One of the best ways to have happy customers in any market is to make sure they know what to expect.
- Understand what customers want
- Customer education is key to managing customer expectations
- Exceeding customer expectation levels improves loyalty
- Make it easy for the customer to send feed back or even to complain
- Maintain a one-on-one relationship with customers
- Know where to draw the line
Now consider a real life example — that of city taxi service Meru Cabs. Alpana Parida, president of brand consulting and brand design firm, DY Works, who avails of radio taxi services regularly, says, “When Meru launched its services (way back in 2007), the message conveyed was that it would change the way we look at cabs. The service would be crisp, we would get clean cabs, the drivers would be courteous — the whole experience would be similar to travelling in your own car.”(Promise & performance)
Today, while the radio taxi service seems to be faltering on some of the things it had promised at launch — there is no guarantee that you will get a cab or a driver who knows the way — there are a whole host of services that have come up that offer comparable or better services to consumers. “There is no real distinction between a Meru cab and a regular ‘cool’ cab now. The fact that getting a cab is not assured and that short distance journeys are not catered to mars the brand experience further,” she adds.
Lesson for businesses: while meeting consumer expectations is critical to maintaining your relations with this rather fickle crowd, you also need to be proactive in ‘setting’ the level of ‘expectation’ right. And of course, meet them.
And nowhere is this lesson as critical in its applicability as it is during the launch phase of a brand. The risk of going overboard in one’s drive to hard sell a new product is much more than when the brand is, if we may use the term, on auto-pilot. Failing to deliver on promises made during the launch phase can scar your brand for life.
A glaring example of this would be the people’s car, the Nano. Around four years back, when the car was announced, the world waited with bated breath for the impossible to take shape: a Rs 1 lakh car. It was the launch that was meant to deliver the dream of millions of Indians graduating from a two-wheeler to a car. The emotions riding on this launch were unprecedented. But after the huge buzz around the launch came the equally scathing product reviews and criticisms.
There were issues about the long wait period for the car, about potential buyers not getting loans (a large chunk of the buyer profile didn’t qualify for auto loans) and even technical glitches with the car. But the biggest criticism of the car related to the price tag.
The Rs 1 lakh car wasn’t actually available at that price point. Post taxes and on-road costs, the price went up by at least Rs 30,000. While a car priced at Rs 1.3-1.5 lakh is quite a steal by any yardstick, the potential consumer felt shortchanged, and Nano’s sales began to dip from mid-2010.
More not less
Almost as a way out, brands are increasingly treading on the side of caution. Choosing to under-promise and then over-deliver. Take another Tata company, Infiniti Retail, the owner of the Croma chain of electronic stores. The chain forayed into e-tailing a few months back and like other e-commerce websites, there is a delivery time promise. But rather than touting the shortest possible delivery time, the company has chosen to under-promise, even add a disclaimer in case there is a stray incident of delay. “We may have the capability to deliver in less time (than the promised seven days), but why overstretch ourselves? It is better to surprise the customer with an early delivery when he is least expecting it,” says Ajit Joshi, MD and CEO, Infiniti Retail.
Now look at another example. The first Asha phones from Nokia hit stores in January this year, within two months of Nokia relinquishing its leadership position in smart phones to Samsung last November, and a month after the first Windows-based Lumia phone from Nokia was shipped to India in December 2011. Interestingly, the whole razzmatazz around the Lumia launch overshadowed the arrival of Asha. Remember that Asha is a key cog in Nokia’s comeback plan in the country. Priced between Rs 4,000 and Rs 6,000, the Asha series is positioned as a cross between a feature and smart phone. Till then, Nokia’s smart phone range started from Rs 11,000.
Now there are five Asha models in the market but still very little noise. Well, the Lumia is a whole new religion, a company spokesperson had told Business Standard during an earlier interview, and that Asha operates in a completely different category and therefore calls for a different treatment. “It’s possible that Nokia was merely trying to manage expectations going into a major product launch,” says an executive with a rival firm, “given that Asha arrived at a time when the media was agog over the Samsung versus Nokia rivalry and about how Samsung pulled the rug from under Nokia’s feet.”
In a completely different business, McDonald’s is hoping to achieve a similar effect. The chain, in accordance with its international partners, is going in for an image overhaul. The attempt is to keep up with its core customers-no longer just a bunch of kids but a generation that has grown up with this quick service restaurant chain. So there will be three new design formats-Allegro, Foam and Lim-each with its own design elements, varying seating arrangements (like community seating for families or booth seating for groups of friends looking for privacy or wall counter seating for single eaters), variations in lighting at the store and so on. It’s a McDonald’s as the customer has never experienced before. The design will be tweaked further as per the store’s location (mall, residential area, closer to business areas) as well as the expected customer profile.
And yet, the franchisees for the chain in India, Hardcastle Restaurants and Connaught Plaza Restaurants, did not advertise or even speak about these changes to the media. One fine day, the chain’s outlet at the Phoenix Mills compound, a marquee property in the popular mall and entertainment zone in Mumbai, downed the shutters with a board, ‘shut for renovation, opening soon’. So did its outlet in the Mumbai suburb of Bandra. There were a few teaser billboards speaking vaguely about a new and better McDonald’s, but no specifics.
The company was playing it uncharacteristically coy. Why? Explains Amit Jatia, vice-chairman, Hardcastle Restaurants (that manages the South and West operations for the chain in India), “We wanted the customers to come in expecting something but not know what. We wanted to not just surprise them but wow them.” Vikram Bakshi, MD, Connaught Plaza Restaurants (that manages the North and East franchises of McDonald’s) has a similar take, “The moment the consumers walk in, they exclaim how different their McDonald’s looks. It will surely be a conversation piece generating far more publicity than any normal advertising campaign could.”
Like management guru Tom Peters said, a simple formula for building trusted relationships in business is to ‘under promise and over deliver’. “Under promising and over delivering is a great approach for a brand to navigate the vagaries of the Indian market. It gives brands a tool to leave a lasting impression in consumer’s mind,” says Ankur Bisen, associate vice-president, retail & consumer products, Technopak Advisors, a management consulting firm. In a world where promises are routinely made to be broken, when we encounter such service or surprises, that are better than what we expected — or hoped for — we remember it above all else. And pass it on.
In a way, word-of-mouth remains the strongest vehicle of publicity even in this day of all-pervasive media options and possibly the most credible. Take the case of the Mahindra & Mahindra XUV 500 (pronounced as five-o-o), also considered one of the most successful launches of 2011 as per the Brand Derby study (published in The Strategist on June 25). In the pre-launch social media campaign, M&M tried to create excitement about the product but didn’t talk about its features or try to stoke consumer expectations. Various online activations asked users to guess the car’s name or price, revealing the car’s look in parts creating some amount of online buzz and conversation just before the launch.
The post-launch advertising too steered clear of speaking about functionality or price. It stuck to the realm of experience. “The consumer was kept at the centre in all the communication pre and post the launch and his interaction with the looks, the design, the feel of the car was the key,” explains Pravin Shah, chief executive, automotive division, Mahindra & Mahindra. Possibly because the brand’s unique selling proposition was its clutter-breaking design.
But are these marketers keeping a low profile by choice or because they are more cautious about the money they would want to spend on marketing and promotions? How much of this is a reflection of the overall mood of the economy? “To an extent this is a function of the budget and the risk appetite of a particular company,” say an public relations professional based in Delhi. “The same clients now tell us to do more with less and want us to push for ‘editorial support’ rather than spend money on, say, another print ad.”
Make or break
In academic terms, there is a point where marketers toss between accommodating and altering the consumer’s expectations. While in the former, you are giving the consumer what he wants, satisfying his product needs or even meeting his service standards, the latter would mean adjusting his wants to your level of expertise. That is because the consumers’ wants may range from unrealistically high or unrealistically low. As a marketer you need to adjust them to the level of your performance or bring it closer to a more realistic match. This may be the norm, but what brands like Croma or McDonald’s or the XUV 500 are doing represents the third alternative: do not quantify the standard, keep a low profile and just follow the basic rule of surprising and, as Jatia says, ‘wowing’ the customer.
But, what if the consumer is not amused? Or what if she prefers consistency rather than constant surprises, even if it means a later, rather than an earlier-than-expected delivery? Or worst of all, what if a brand fails to manage this tightrope walk continuously? Well that’s a chance you will have to take. “There will always be a section of your consumer base that will be too difficult to please,” says a Mumbai-based brand consultant. “You can adopt any path but managing the expectations of that particular section of consumers will be, in one word, impossible.”
And if you can’t meet the consumers’ expectations or manage them, then simply do a RaOne. The film has gone down in the annals of history as much for its content (or the lack of it) as for its mammoth marketing budget and the brand tie-ups. The producers spent almost a-third of the film’s production cost on marketing (Rs 50 crore). It was everywhere prior to its release and made RaOne into such a larger than life phenomenon that on the opening weekend itself it clocked clocked box office earnings of Rs 170 crore. A successful, commercial film and yet one that was panned by viewers and critics alike for the quality. “The film was a pure entertainer, made specifically for children. The curiosity generated around it through the pre-release activities drove in the numbers in a big way,” says Komal Nahta, a trade analyst. While it failed to generate positive buzz or repeat viewing, the early numbers ensured it was home without much trouble, and the brand affiliations ensured the producers had recouped their investments even before launch!
Sadly, that’s one strategy that businesses can only marvel at and not consider replicating, especially if they are looking for sustainable value. If you are looking for filmi inspiration, do a Vicky Donor instead, an unexpected but pleasant surprise for the consumer — one she wouldn’t mind watching several times over and tattling to her friends over umpteen cups of tea.