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Is The Customer Still Right, Even When He’s Wrong?

Recently, I was reviewing a new advertising campaign from Airbnb cleaning service chicago for a friend who has a small chain of dry cleaners. His dry cleaners are the new, environmentally friendly type that uses CO2 rather than the chemical mixture used by traditional cleaners. As I was reading his materials, he casually mentioned that the most common remark his customers made when picking up their clothes was; “I like that there is no smell in my clothes. I hate that chemical smell.”

That was surprising admission, since it was nowhere in the copy of his ads. The written copy he was showing me emphasized the environmental aspect with a secondary message that the CO2 technique was gentler on clothes than the traditional method. I asked him why he was ignoring what his customers were saying.

“Because that’s not the most important feature of our method; the real value of CO2 cleaning is that your clothes last longer and it’s better for the environment,” he said.

I remember when Scope mouthwash took a large chunk of market share away from Listerine by the simple assertion that Scope mouthwash tasted better. They scored a marketing victory without any claims about their effectiveness. It just tasted better, and that was enough for consumers. Listerine, which had dominated the category for decades, never imagined how easily their market lead could be taken away.

My friend was acting very rationally. He’s probably right, too. The gentleness of the CO2 process and it’s ability to extend the life of clothes is a very valuable feature of this type of dry cleaning. When you know your business well, you have a good idea of what features makes it valuable. Your customers may not know your business at all. They may be making irrational purchasing decisions.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for a retail store owner is to balance his or her expertise in their chosen business and consistently bow to the collective wisdom of the business’ customers. Customers select products and services based on a wide range of criteria: convenience, habit, personal relationships, personal inertia, and personal, unscientific measurements of product quality. The customer is an idiosyncric animal.

In the history of business, there have been visionary leaders who have seen an opportunity that was unseen by anyone else. They succeed in spite of the prevailing wisdom of the times. These types of business tycoons are small in number.

The overwhelming majority of all successful retail business owners succeed by simply asking the customer what they want and provide that product or service at a reasonable profit. This simple transaction model is what drives most economies around the world. It’s the surest path to success.

Scope didn’t worry about the rationality of consumers – they just listened and followed their lead. An old maxim lives a long life because it is based on a solid foundation of truth. In this case it still holds true – the customer is always right.