Global Trends 2020

Contradictory consumers: be careful what you promise

Consumers are fantastically contradictory creatures. Just look at the way they inform their purchase decisions. Two-thirds will try a product or service if it gets lots of good reviews, but almost as many (63%) worry that most online reviews they see are fake. Meanwhile, 63% (again) say they only trust recommendations from people they actually know.

In fact, consumers only reach consensus over distrust of business. Just two-fifths (38%) have a high level of trust in businesses in general (51% disagree); and stated influence of official communications is low – 80% of consumers agree that personal experience with a brand means more to them than advertising, while 13% disagree.78

Given the manifest contradiction in the way consumers react to reviews, and the apparently limited influence of official communications, deciphering what consumers think a brand will deliver – what it promises – is no easy task. But failing to do so makes it virtually impossible for businesses to deliver against their customers’ ‘perceived’ brand promise. Delivery failure puts customer-supplier relationships in serious jeopardy.79

However, Ipsos’ UK Captains of Industry 80 report indicates that businesses do not feel confident in this area. Just 27% rate their organisation as good at understanding their customers’ needs, and fewer still – 19% – believe their organisation is good at delivering a customer experience that matches their brand promise.
The findings of Global Trends 2020 support this pessimism. Globally, for all sectors surveyed,81 only slightly more than half of consumers report that the experience matched the promise at best.

There is significant variation by country. Great Britain, the Netherlands, Canada and Australia all fare well, featuring as one of the top two countries for experience-promise alignment at least once across the sectors surveyed, with figures for those who said the experience matched the promise ranging from 64% and 74%. In contrast, Saudi Arabia is at the bottom for every sector with its highest alignment figure for airlines (31%) and its lowest for banks (19%).

If globally experience-promise alignment doesn’t paint a picture of unmitigated success, then looking at experience-promise misalignment (where the experience is better or worse than the promise) is even more alarming. 82 For all sectors except airlines, more consumers say the experience was worse rather than better than the promise. Airlines achieve quasi-parity (17% say the experience is worse than the promise; 16% say it is better). In contrast, telco providers fare particularly poorly (26% rate broadband internet providers ‘worse’, 12% ‘better’; while 25% rate mobile phone providers ‘worse’, 12% ‘better.’)‘Worse than the promise’ experiences set off a chain reaction of negativity:

  1. Customers are more likely to say they had one/a few minor issues or a major complaint or problem (a negative critical incident). Here again telco providers fare worst: 66% of both mobile phone operator customers and broadband internet customers suffered a negative critical incident when the experience was worse than the promise versus 28% when the experience was better.83
  2. Failing to meet brand promises is not just associated with higher levels of critical incidents. Focusing on broadband internet providers alone, when the experience is worse than the promise and a negative critical incident happens, customers react emotionally (73% do not feel valued, 68% feel treated unfairly). Previous research shows that both negative critical incidents and unfair treatment are key triggers for customer churn and bad-mouthing.84
  3. This year’s Global Trends bears out this priming for churn and bad-mouthing. Continuing to look at broadband internet provider customers whose experience is worse than the promise and who have suffered a negative critical incident: 35% have advised against the brand or company, 28% have stopped using the brand, 26% would be critical of it without being asked, 14% have shared their views online and 13% have written a bad review online.
  4. Finally, these behaviours feed into the plethora of influences (seen at the start of this article) that consumers reference as aids to their decision-making. Thus, a vortex of negativity surrounds any brand that fails to meet its promises.

The conclusion is a simple double standard. Consumers can be as contradictory as they like. But businesses cannot be. Businesses need to put out clear messages (promises) about their offer, and make sure that their promises are aligned with what they can deliver now. Failure to do this leads to higher risk of consumer bad-mouthing and churn. Moreover, it’s only by ensuring alignment between the promise and experience that businesses can enter a virtuous circle where the brand promise, experience, and all the influences around them reinforce each other, ensuring happy, loyal customers.

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