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Do your customers have a life without you?

“Do you have customers who can’t live without you? 
Because if they can, they probably will. The researchers at Gallup have identified a hierarchy of connections between companies and their customers, from confidence to integrity to pride to passion. To test for passion, Gallup asks a simple question of the customers they query on behalf of clients: “Can you imagine a world without” this product or brand? One of the make-or-break challenges for any organization is to become irreplaceable in the eyes of its customers. That’s why it’s not enough to satisfy customers rationally. You have to engage them emotionally, to conduct yourself in ways that are unusual and unforgettable.”

WILLIAM C TAYLOR Practically Radical (2011)

I hold Bill Taylor in very high regard. I have used his co-authored book Mavericks At Work extensively in my executive programs and seminars, simply because it brings great zest and energy to its examination of business. His new tome, Practically Radical, also does not disappoint.

Here’s the first thought that caught my eye: “Do you have customers who can’t live without you?” Well, do you? That question was much easier to answer in the affirmative in the 1970s and 1980s, was it not? In Kenya, many of us probably felt then that we couldn’t live without the local Uchumi supermarket, say; or Elliot’s bread; or Tree Top juice drink. Here’s the thing, though: all those brands had fatal or near-fatal experiences. So it turned out we could live without them after all.

Indeed, the only thing bonding us to those businesses or products was the lack of options we faced. They were about the only credible game in town in those days, and so we naturally felt dependent on them. They felt irreplaceable was because we didn’t have anything else.

That is certainly not true today. Supermarket shelves are heaving with choice; dozens and dozens of equally attractive options. Supermarkets themselves are dispensable; in big cities, certainly, you are unlikely to have just one place you can shop. So how do we make ourselves stand out from the crowd?

The key, as Bill Taylor points out in the excerpt, lies in emotions, not rational calculations. If your sole bond with customers is rational or economic (“look at our features/price/deal”) you are unlikely to make any lasting impact on their consciousness. Sure, they’ll buy your product when the deal is right, when your combination of product quality and price hit the button. But they will abandon you without a moment’s hesitation when someone else offers a better deal – because there is no emotional basis to their loyalty. They’ll come to you for the deal, and they’ll leave you for the deal.

So what makes customers think they really, really need you? Layers of emotion. Very few companies command emotional loyalty in today’s hyper-crowded marketplaces, but those that do really clean up. Why does Apple make most of the profits in phone handsets? Simply because, in a world of me-too clones, its brand signifies difference. People don’t really BUY the Apple brand; they JOIN it, like it was a club or a movement (or even, judging by some of the looks on the faces of diehard fans, a religion).

So, if you told the typical hardcore Apple customer they would have to do without their iPhone/iPad/iMac tomorrow, you would be met with consternation. These products are so entwined into the lives of their users that a life without them can indeed appear grim. That loyalty is not enshrined in the hearts and minds of the customers of most Apple competitors, who have fallen into the trap of competing on features and value (rational), rather than design, look-and-feel, usability, coolness, service warmth (emotional).

If you’re not offering your customers an emotional reason to buy you, they are likely to dump you on rational grounds very soon.

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