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Think Like Your Customer

Could you be completely missing the mark in what your retail customers want? This is what Avis discovered. In 1995, after ranking a dismal third in the rental business, Avis management decided to experiment with applied experience techniques, essentially tapping into their customer’s emotional experience instead of usual “what-do-you-want-from-us” survey-type customer research questions at their Newark airport location. The results were dramatic. The office moved from last place to first place in customer satisfaction in a survey of more than sixty airports. Plus, the company achieved a 9% increase in employee retention. Here’s how.

A research team comprised of a futurist, a psychologist and a cultural anthropologist studied every stage of the customer experience including body language, voice inflection and word choice at critical points through videos and pinhole cameras, plus in-depth interviews with customers and employees. What this research revealed was that speed of service, cleanliness of cars, or even convenience were not the primary need. (If you own a retail location, bells should be going off in your head!) What Avis customers wanted most was to reduce traveling stress and anxiety!

With this knowledge in hand, Avis went to work pinpointing exact stress points then taking an active role in their reduction. Departure gate and time was the biggest traveler worry, so Avis installed video monitors in their lobbies where customers could see easily information as they departed. Doors were enlarged to accommodate oversize luggage. A business center was installed –phones, faxes, and laptop plug ins. Gate guards were coached to talk to customers in stress-reducing manners. Providing directions became equally important to verifying driver licenses. Uniforms and workstations were reconfigured. It worked!

With the successful Newark pilot under their belt, Avis rolled out the prototype to 65% of its airport locations. By 1998, they achieved first-place in customer satisfaction and loyalty. Avis was ranked first two years in a row for its ability to consistently meet customer expectations in another study of 147 top worldwide brands. An Avis executive interviewed commented “Areas we beat ourselves up for years to try to improve turned out not to make any difference. A whole new set of items…have become key drivers in our ability to generate preference.” Do you wonder if you are beating up on your staff about non-critical issues?

Our challenge is to think out of the box to discover our retail customers’ emotional needs. The Avis case shows we should be asking: How do our customers feel? How would they like to feel? What can we do to produce that feeling?   You may not have access to a futurist, psychologist and anthropologist, but your own employees could suffice for getting in touch with customer emotions. For additional insight into applied experience management, pick up the book “How Customers Think” by Gerald Zaltman published by the Harvard Business School Press. It will impress you to think differently.

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