Business buyers do not want to be delighted

Matthew Harrison this week lets off steam about the airline industry, arguing that organizations must concentrate their efforts on satisfying core needs before attempting to delight the market with extras.

I left the office three hours before my flight, having cut short an important conversation with a client and having left a report incomplete.  On my way to the airport, I called the office 3 times to discuss all of the things I hadn’t done that morning.  This was becoming stressful.

Thankfully, I arrived at the airport two hours before my flight was due to leave.  Surely this wouldn’t be necessary?  Surely no airport, no matter how inefficient, needs two hours to get a passenger from the front door of the terminal to the door of the plane?  At the age of 7, I remember myself and a classmate completing the 100 metres three-legged race in one minute and 20 seconds.  If this place was run even half as efficiently as that Sports Day back in 1983, then I should be at my gate within 30 minutes, even if I tied myself to another passenger.

Unfortunately yet inevitably, it quickly became clear that most of the next two hours was going to be spent lining up with other naïve, unfortunate souls, being hurried, harried and heckled by the uniforms and droning announcements that inhabit these awful places.  I joined the first of many line-ups and tried to suppress my rage.  One faceless lump of dejected humanity, we trudged through aviation hell.

90 minutes later, my misery seemed to be coming to an end.  I had checked in my bags.  I had removed and put back on my coat, jacket, shoes, belt and watch, and brushed the dusty foot-print from the back of my coat.  I had thrown my newly-bought Coca-Cola into the bin.  I had bought another Coke five minutes later and drunk it before the Fizzy Drinks Police could stop me.  But most of all I had stood and waited with my fellow travellers, wondering why it had to be this way.

But now I was free!  Just half an hour until my flight!  Time to stroll down to the gate and experience the wonders of 21st-century air travel!

If only.  I looked up at the screen and almost self-combusted.  Glaring at me, taunting me, was the 7-letter word dreaded by anyone who wants to extract a little enjoyment from their short time on this planet: D-E-L-A-Y-E-D.  I treated everyone within earshot to an old Anglo-Saxon word with rather fewer letters and decided to head to Borders for a magazine.

As I stomped angrily towards my favourite retail outlet, it struck me that I could spend days in this sorry ‘transport’ hub if I had wanted to (in fact, knowing my luck I probably would be doing).  I could buy a suit from some of the finest designers in the world.  I could wile away the hours in one of the several bars, or indeed each of the several bars, like many Englishmen before me.  I could choose from 50-odd of those things that girls put in their hair to make a pony tail.  I could buy a football kit, a hideously expensive hideous watch, my own weight in donuts, a pink iPod, the national flag of 10 different countries, a plug adapter, a mobile phone, or a haircut.

But as I wandered through this neon-lit abomination, it struck me that this airport and the aviation industry in general have got it completely wrong.  Rather than making business travel the stress-free, time-efficient process it should be, all they want to do is sell me things I don’t want during the ever-increasing time it now takes to get anywhere.  You see, when I go to an airport I don’t want to buy a Ralph Lauren suit.  I don’t want to be massaged by a faux-leather chair.  I don’t want to add to my music collection, win a Lexus, buy a bikini, have a romantic meal for one, or go to the pub.  At most, I want a café that sells cheap coffee and sandwiches quickly, clean washrooms, something to read, and a socket for my laptop.  But I’d be more than willing to forego even these small luxuries in exchange for an aviation industry that didn’t waste days of my time each year.

In short, I don’t want to be delighted with extras.  I want to be satisfied with the core offering, and air travel is the perfect case study of an industry that has – in my view – lost sight of its core offering and core objective.  The key purpose – to transport customers to a given place, by a given time, and for an agreed price – has been supplanted by an altogether less ambitious one: to provide money-spending opportunities to those who are still waiting, holding their fun-sized toothpaste in a transparent bag, for a satisfactory core offering

The industry reminds me of a flashy sprinter limping down the track in gold shoes, waving flamboyantly at the crowd before coming in last.  Or, to use an example from my own industry, a market research company that turns up late for the final presentation but organises a lovely dinner for the clients whilst they are waiting.

It seems to me that business buyers are simple creatures with simple requirements.  OK, we may make decisions in a complicated way, involving the views of all and sundry before arriving at a decision.  We may even have technically complex needs.  But our requirements are essentially pretty simple – good quality, competitive price, timely delivery and availability, from a company we can trust before, during and after the transaction.  We don’t seek novelty, we tend not to be impulsive, and we are focused on what we want.  The simplicity of our needs, combined with the fact that others in our organizations are expecting us to make the right decision, makes us quite unforgiving when we don’t get what we paid for.

We all like to delight our customers, but this is an extremely difficult thing to achieve in the unglamorous world of b2b marketing.  Far better to focus on meeting the key needs of the key customers.  Only once that has been achieved should we spend time and resource on measures that at best delay frustration with your core offering, and at worst simply irritate and alienate your client base.

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