The Customer Pendulum

Customers are interesting things. They are the source of all business’ survival. They are hard to find and easy to lose. Many times they don’t know what they want and are almost always not willing to pay for what they need. They are fickle with their allegiance and occasionally are not entirely forthcoming about their preferences. They are part of and are sometimes caught up in a changing environment that most of the time they may not be prepared for. It would probably be possible for a vendor to solve the customer’s problems, if only those problems would remain unchanged for any sort of measurable time.

But they don’t.

Customer’s problems change. The very act of solving one problem invariably creates, or at the very least reprioritizes another problem.

Please don’t get me wrong. This is the way of business very much in the same way of Darwin’s Theory of natural selection. I’ll use the evolutionary speed race between cheetahs and gazelles here.

Faster gazelles mean that only the fastest cheetahs are selected to survive as they are the only ones that can catch the gazelles. This means that the next generations of cheetahs are based only on the faster bloodlines.

Now, the next generations of faster cheetahs mean that only the fastest gazelles will be selected to survive as the slower ones will fall victim to the cheetahs. This means that the next generations of gazelles will be based only on the faster bloodlines.

Now only the fastest of the faster generation of cheetahs will survive.

And the pendulum continues to swing from one side to the other.

I am going to focus on business services here because I think it best illustrates the changing focus, and the swinging pendulum of customer desires. In the business world of services there are no gazelles and cheetahs, but rather there are prices and service levels. There may be those that may try to interject other variables into the service customer equation, but the reality remains primarily associated with these two variables. The interesting part of this price and service level relationship is that only one of them seems to vary at any given specific time.

In the initial stages of the vendor to customer relationship the primary variable will be price. (There may be times where this relationship may be referred to as a “partnership”. This would be inaccurate. Partnerships of the sort implied here take time to evolve. Particularly when there is an ongoing service based relationship.) When a customer is looking to enter into a business services relationship, they are initially looking for a vendor.

This is due in no small part to how most customers go about entering into a services relationship. They will invariably set a minimum required performance level for the services they want, and then look to the vendor that agrees to provide them the greatest cost reduction from their current spend level at the selected service level. That means they are looking for the vendor that bids / quotes them the lowest price.

Of the two variables previously noted, price and service level, they have fixed the service level and are trying to vary the price to the lowest level possible. If the price for the desired services is low enough (as opposed to the total attracted cost that they are currently paying) they will select the vendor and sign a contract. If it does not return sufficient savings the customer will usually stay with the service arrangement that they currently have and avoid any service provision change event issues.

Once the service contract is signed, the price for those services is now fixed. The customer focus will now shift to the service levels associated with the service. Requests for incremental service or services and faster solutions to issues and problems will become the focus.

It is at this point that a relationship can begin to become a partnership.

Businesses want to help with and solve their customers’ problems. That is the value they bring and why customers buy their services. One of the things to remember is that customers associate value with that which they pay for. That means if you give them something for free one of two things will happen. They will either associate no value with what you have given them (since it was free) or you will have established a new service baseline where what you have given them will be incorporated into what they expect going forward. You will in effect raise the service baseline performance expectation going forward.

And once the new increased service level baselines are set the next generation of discussions (or contracts) will once again be focused on the price of the new service level.

And the customer pendulum will continue to swing, price, service, price, etc.

The point here is that despite their best intentions, vendors need to resist the urge to provide quick and cost free solutions in an effort to engender customer gratitude. There will always be times where quick support decisions will need to be made to support the customer, but it is always in everyone’s best interest to go back and revisit them after the issue has passed. Providing “freebies” provides some credence to the customer perception that once the price is set, they can continue to push for a greater scope of work to be provided.

A partnership has to have more of a connotation of a peer to peer relationship instead of a customer to vendor relationship. That means that there is a give and take instead of just an ask and take oriented relationship. If something is provided, then something should be asked for in return. It does not need to be strictly quid pro quo, but there needs to be some sort of cost or consequence associated with each request and action in a business services relationship.

Contrary to what we might feel, without some sort of cost consequence for their requests, many customers will only more deeply ingrain their vendor type perception of the relationship. The customer asks, the customer gets and it is up to the vendor to figure out how to provide it and continue to survive in the relationship. Businesses need to remember that making a customer happy by giving them things does not create a partnership. It usually just creates an expectation that more can and will be given in the future.

One of the best ways to stop the customer pendulum from swinging and creating a business partnership is to focus on the customer’s business service needs while remembering your own business needs. Being responsive as well as empathic regarding the customer’s issues will go a very long way in this regard. It is also necessary to educate the customer on the supply side issues in the service equation and the requirements that are required for a viable business relationship going forward.

I don’t know that you can ever get a customer to be fully empathic about the issues and costs associated with solving their service problems, but educating them about what it takes to provide them service can probably go a long way toward getting them to acknowledge and accept the bill that should be presented to them after the issues have been solved.