The Customer is always proud. (Mostly because you told them to be.)

File:Don Draper Wiki.jpg

Will you be drinking with Don or Snooki this evening?

Approaches to sales have evolved a great deal since the 1980s and 1990s. Smart customers today prize the delivery of real value over the yes sir, no sir model of the traditional servant-master relationship. Robust relationships that allow for honest two way feedback are far more likely to deliver genuine benefits.

There is one element of the customer mindset that remains entirely unchanged, grounded as it is in pure human nature. The customer wants to be expert in what they do. They can be disagreed with, even argued with, but they can never, ever be told that they are not what they thought they were. It’s very dangerous to move the goalposts on your customer’s self perception. It was most likely you who gave them that perception when you were selling to them.

Enter Makers Mark. The bourbon brand distilled by Beam Inc announced this week that it would reduce its proof from 90% to 84%. As demand outstrips supplies of the drink, they are looking for a way to extend sales. This is a move born of necessity not strategy, but all the same, it is going to hurt their brand. But that’s not the worst of it. If the dilution is self harm, then their approach to explaining the decision is pure suicide.

Chairman Bill Samuels is on solid logical ground in his statement. It’s a minor change, he’s tested the new proofing with experts. None of them could notice the difference, so it’s unlikely to register with the buying public, certainly not with the vast majority that drink it on the rocks anyway, or in cocktails. Nothing to see here. Move along.

You can’t tell a bourbon drinker that they won’t notice if you water down their bourbon. They have their pride after all. You just told them that they were not the thing that they thought they were – and what your advertising has been telling them they were since day one – refined connoisseurs of fine bourbon. You’ve just taken that away from them. You have relegated them from sitting in a leather armchair at the lounge bar of the Metropoliatan with Don Draper and Sean Connery, to standing third in line at the club on the corner behind Snooki and J Woww.

If you’re not reinforcing the self image they enjoy, they will simply go and find someone else who will indulge them. Makers Mark have handed Jack Daniels and the others an instant differentiator. Our whiskey may not be your usual favorite, but at least it’s not watered down.

Don’t mess with your customers’ pride. Whatever you do to your product or service in the name of profit protection or even survival, you must be able to sustain the customers’ self image. Being your customer gives them a good feeling of some kind. They are entitled to this feeling.

Another more hypothetical example. The world class Opera singer who was supposed to be singing at the Houston Grand Opera this weekend is unwell and will be replaced by an understudy. What do you tell customers with tickets?

Here’s Makers Mark’s version: A press release: We’re changing the Soprano, which will save us money. There will be no discount. But it’s ok, you won’t notice the difference.

  How much better it would be to let the customers know directly that the soprano they expected will not be performing. Focus on promoting the understudy as a phenomenal singer, and offer them the chance to see a rising star before she becomes famous. Offer a discounted price for their trouble. Ask them to consider attending the performance as planned and to continue to support the Arts in Houston.

Look what you’ve given them: (1) A fair deal with the discount (2) An apology (3) an opportunity – to see someone new – with the inference that the quality may not really diminish (4) A reinforcement of their pride – that they are loyal ‘Arts supporters’ and that they are doing more than just buying a ticket for the concert.

Put all this together and you’ve got reasonably happy customers, egos intact, coming to judge your new soprano and support the arts.

The bottom line – you attracted your customer by putting them on a pedestal. You have to leave them up there. Any change in your service must come with an explanation and proposition that allows them to retain the emotional feeling that led them to join you in the first place.

Makers Mark should have declared an intention to let the whiskey run out, announced it was in short supply, put the price up and said – well if you want the best stuff, so does everyone else I’m afraid – you’ll have to pay a little more to get it. The prestige pricing and scarcity, combined with the validation of its popularity would have been ample to sustain sales. And most importantly, the customer is back at the table with Don and Sean, only now in a more exclusive club.

Know your customer’s emotional motivation for being your customer and protect it as if your life depended on it. Because ultimately, it really does.

    Richard Spragg writes on a variety of subjects, including engineering jobs, global engineering staffing, business and marketing 
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