What do customer's want?

Columns - Marketing

Customers want something that works, ideas and inspiration, value and surprise

March 9, 2011
Bridget Behe

Humans are fickle and not often logical. These two factors make “guessing” what they want a bit like predicting the weather. All of the data and sophisticated models, combined with years of experience, still have meteorologists making predictions that simply don’t come true. The other factor to keep in mind is that sometimes consumers don’t even know what they want.

Adjust expectations
Customers want something that works. That may be unrealistic botanically, but when they don’t know any better, they can still dream about it. Roses that last 30 days and never get blackspot. Perennials that weed themselves in flower beds. Annuals that can survive drought. No maintenance means that it can be planted and forgotten. Can you deliver that? Probably not. Can you work to adjust expectations through education and a relationship with customers? Probably so.

Adjust expectations by using teachable moments (not hours) and giving customers the resources to go back to when they have time.

Reminding customers to water hanging baskets daily (or whenever it is lighter than a gallon of milk) and then pointing customers to your website for more information can be highly effective.

Expectation management for plant performance, is an area which requires finesse. Too much information too soon is overwhelming, while too little too late produces dead plants and dissatisfied customers.

Help employees understand that a big part of customer satisfaction is managing those expectations by learning what they expect and how the situation really needs to be handled. What does no maintenance or drought tolerant really mean to the customer? What does it really mean to you?

We know plants and so many of our customers don’t. What works for them needs to be defined from their perspective and then tactfully adjusted (when possible) with the right amount of information at the right times.

Ideas and inspiration
Customers want ideas and inspiration. People love to watch others “doing things” and sometimes that is cooking, gardening or decorating with plants. Watching another’s success utilizes our mirror neurons and we “experience” success along with them. With their success, consumers may be inspired to replicate that in their own backyards.

Most of us need a nudge, idea, pattern, taste or recipe to emulate or adapt. Most of us aren’t scratch cooks or gardeners. Most consumers with the desire, assistance and tools can replicate a pattern.

Showing ideas in displays, television programs, websites or magazines can be quite inspiring. Some of us may have even encountered a customer shopping with a magazine in hand to recreate the look in her backyard. For the gardening demographic, colorful magazines and websites can be great venues for inspiration. Even in the retail setting, displays which integrate plants into gardens can be highly effective inspirations.

Customers want gardens, not plants. When you buy a new piece of clothing or shoes, you might think about what you’ll wear it with. That may be tough for some customers, but it is even tougher to imagine what plants go well together. Most of us wouldn’t plant something in isolation -- it would be with other plants. Customers should know the characteristics of the plants and what it needs to perform well. When customers know height and width attributes, they can space them appropriately and reduce weed problems or obstructing a shorter plant with a taller one.

Helping customers create gardens, whether hanging or in the ground, also goes back to expectations. They want plants that will work well (perform or grow or flower as expected) under similar conditions.

When professionals integrate plants, customers are shown what works well together. They expect those plants will grow well for them if planted nearby each other in one location. We can help them learn what works by showing them what to plant together.

Value and benefits
Customers want value. We may think customers are more focused on price as we rebuild the American economy, but what they are really focused on is value. Value is the ratio of what you get to what you pay. It is literally benefits:price. Benefits are what they get, price is what they pay.

How explicit are we on the benefits side? Do we talk about plants producing oxygen and taking carbon dioxide out of the environment?

I’d never advocate using the technical words “photosynthesis” or “carbon fixation.” Turn features like carbon fixation into benefits like producing oxygen. Customers can more easily relate to the benefits. If the consumers can relate to them, they may be perceived as a valuable benefit.

Consumers want more benefits, meaningful to them or valuable to them, in relationship to the price they pay. Too much emphasis on price devalues the real benefits of the plant, container or landscape service.

A balanced approach, addressing both price and benefits, delivers more value because customers can more easily see what they get for what they pay. The caveat to this is that not everyone will find the benefits valuable.

Consider a display that shows a finished, integrated container as well as the components in either a six-pack or four-inch containers. There is value in all three approaches. When the benefits of small, medium and larger containers are adequately conveyed, each customer can choose which container has the most value for them.

Don’t forget surprise
Customers want surprise. We may not articulate this as customers ourselves, but we can readily recall times that we were pleasantly surprised. We are managing expectations.

Customers used to stop and smell the roses. Many no longer expect (sadly) to smell anything when they sniff a flower and are often surprised when a flower has fragrance. Pointing out that certain flowers have a fragrance just might lead to a nice surprise—and to a sale.

Another surprise could be a warm cup of coffee on a cold day, a cold glass of lemonade on a hot one or a nice thank-you note for a customer who returned after a long absence or one who made a significant purchase. It could be a bonus plant (buy one and get one free), but not poor looking plants. Customers don’t expect these things, but think how they would feel to be surprised. These things can keep a business in the customer’s mind when it comes time to make another purchase.

Listen to customers to help you understand what their expectations are, and then work with your team to understand, meet and even exceed them at a price customers value with the profit you want.

Bridget K. Behe is professor horticultural marketing, Michigan State University, (517) 355-5191, Ext. 1346; behe@msu.edu.