Truly Understanding Customer Needs

August 6th, 2015
Steven Howard

Customer Needs and Concerns Need to be Fully Understood

I write and speak often of the need for frontline staff (and actually all staff as well) to fully understand and appreciate customer needs. And, simultaneously, I encourage management to develop flexible policies and procedures so that their staff can handle customer needs and concerns on an individual basis.

Here’s a true story that brings all these points succinctly together.

A man in Singapore applied for a Platinum MasterCard card from one of the issuing banks. His documentation proved that he earned above the S$150,000 per year, which the bank had set as the minimum income level for this premium product.

Upon receiving approval for his Platinum MasterCard, he requested a Platinum supplementary card for his wife and a Gold supplementary card for his 18-year old daughter who was about to depart for college in Melbourne, Australia.

The frontline customer service officer had no problem in approving the supplementary card for his wife, but told this customer that she could not issue a Gold supplementary card for his daughter as “It’s our policy that only Platinum supplementary cards can be issued for Platinum accounts.”

If one understands how the computer systems are established that support card center businesses, one can understand why this policy is in place. It has to do with the way account numbers and product codes are entered and stored in the system. Hence, I have no issue with the policy, per se.

The key issues, to my marketing eyes and ears, are two-fold:

  • the frontline person obviously took little effort to fully understand why the customer was making this particular request, and hence could not appreciate this customer’s particular needs and concerns, and
  • the bank did not allow any flexibility in its policies and procedures, and hence the frontline person was left with little  maneuverability in trying to satisfy the needs of this customer.

Now, if you are a parent, you can probably instinctively understand and empathize with a person who does not want to send his 18-year off to college with a Platinum credit card. This has nothing to do with the credit limit assigned to this card, for that can be controlled by the customer and the bank. But it does have a lot to do with how his daughter may be perceived by her peers and friends at a university in a foreign country (i.e. as a spoiled little rich kid?).

Unfortunately, the frontline staff handling this customer was not a parent and thus could not honestly fathom why the customer was insisting on an exception to the bank’s policy. (Note: it is often best to have your frontline staff mirror your customer base in terms of demographic composition, thus improving the odds that they will understand one another better.)   

As a result, the customer declined to accept the Platinum MasterCard card from this bank and went elsewhere in search of a satisfactory solution to his needs.

Even worse, as I later discovered, this particular bank did have a policy of waiving the annual Gold card fees for its Platinum cardholders. In other words, the frontline customer service staff could have issued a free Gold MasterCard card to this customer, in addition to issuing his Platinum card. Then, the wife’s supplementary card could have been linked to the Platinum account and the daughter’s supplementary card linked to the Gold account. And the customer would have had two products to use, or not use, as he chose.

Unfortunately, there was no “out of the box” thinking and a potentially very loyal and profitable customer was lost.

Can you read this story and honestly say to yourself, “there but for the grace of good fortune goes our organization?”  Or is there a likelihood that your customers and prospective customers may be facing similar situations of not being fully understood, and not having their needs fully appreciated?


Key Point: customer needs and concerns need to be fully understood and appreciated by all staff.

Taking Action: how flexible are your policies? Are you losing customers due to inflexibility?

Two of the most important skills for frontline staff are listening and empathy. How does your staff rate on these two skills? Is it time for a refresher course?

Put a mirror in front of any comments “our customers don’t understand us” and see if the opposite is also true — that your staff don’t understand your customers.



This article is excerpted from the book Powerful Marketing Memos, now available in paperback and Kindle formats at Amazon.

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