Chris Moerdyk

Customers are not morons

2013-06-10 10:56

Chris Moerdyk

I decided to engage in a little online conversation with a couple of big brands a few weeks ago just to see if anyone actually looked at customer queries emanating from the interweb.

I got onto motor manufacturer's car site and clicked on the "contact us" button which I assumed meant "ask us a question".

I asked them something simple about the service intervals on their one of their new cars. I got a very prompt reply saying "thanks for your query, please contact one of our dealers." Which made me wonder whether that person at head office was lazy or just clueless.

I figured probably both, but I decided to contact a dealer anyway. I couldn't really see anywhere I could ask about service intervals but I did see a link where I could book at test drive.

So I duly filled it in, working on the basis that as there is surely nothing like a potential sale to make someone respond, I could get to ask my question by subterfuge.

Eternal optimist

They seemed to need quite a lot of information which was a hassle but I figured that this was all computerised and that I would get a return e-mail saying that they would deliver a test car for me on the day I had selected.

What an eternal optimist I am.

All I got was an automated e-mail saying that one of their sales consultants would contact me. A week later, I hadn't heard a word. Which doesn't surprise me because much of the motor industry has pretty much always been like that. So many of them seem to have a company that goes something like: "we will do you a huge favour by selling you a car..."

But, it's not just the motor industry.

Apart from the advent of the supermarket about 30 years ago, there really haven't been any significant changes in the retail business in South Africa.

Sure, it has got a lot more competitive, massive shopping malls have largely replaced the corner store, but the shopkeeper's attitude to the customer does not seem to have moved at all.

In a few isolated areas the service ethic has managed a tenuous foothold but generally speaking the retail industry still considers customers, at best, to be about one point of IQ above the level of moron.

Apathetic customers

Maybe South African consumers deserve to be treated this way, having proved themselves to be the world's most apathetic.

Look in any shop window or retail ad. Without exception you will see products advertised for R9.99, R399.99 or R3 999.00. Surely, the consumer is not still stupid enough to keep falling for this old ploy? In fact, the more people I speak to the more I am convinced that consumers are becoming highly insulted with retailers who try to kid them that somehow  there is a whacking great difference between R3 999 and R4 000.

Look at almost any advertisement these days. What is it saying to prospective customers? Frankly nothing more than: "We are the best in the business, because we say so. Our prices are the best in the business because we say so. Our quality is the best because we say so."

My guess is that the modern consumer is fast becoming less inclined to blindly swallow that self adulation that is inherent in advertising. To be convincing in the future, ads are also going to have to be used as a vehicle for the retailers or manufacturers to publicly put their necks on the line. To promise the consumer some form of action, restitution or incentive if services or products do not live up to advertising claims.

What happens today, for example talking about the motor industry again, is that a car manufacturer will advertise claims of his particular car being the best in the business in terms of quality, after sales service and so forth.

Ads invite the prospective customer to call in at a dealer and test drive the vehicle.

More often than not when the customer arrives at the dealership he has to prize the salesman off his backside with a crowbar, beg on bended knees for a brochure and if he is lucky enough to get a test drive (more often than not the model he wants to try out isn't available for more reasons than there are for the meaning of life) he gets to do one lap round the block. After which the salesman expect him to part with hundreds of thousands of Rands.

I was once told by a Toyota salesman that if I wanted to test a Fortuner I would have to buy one.

Establish customer loyalty

Right now South African marketers still seem intent on the old fashioned system of grabbing a customer's attention, getting him or her into the store by fair means or foul and flogging the product without too much attention being paid to how sloppily the process happens or what sort of backup there is afterwards.

It is horrendously expensive getting a customer in the first place and therefore extremely costly in marketing terms to use a process that involves every customer being the equivalent of a new customer.

It makes so much more sense, both in marketing and economic terms, to concentrate on establishing customer loyalty so that one keeps that customer for life.

It also makes sense to reward a loyal customer.

Manufacturers and retailers have got to start treating customers as intelligent partners and not as moronic and gullible targets.         

- Follow Chris on Twitter.

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