Mark Hedley this week realises that listening to and understanding customers’ needs is always key to making a successful sale.
The last few weeks of my life have been dominated by what has to be one of the most stress-inducing experiences one can have in life – buying a house. Having lived in rented accommodation for more than a decade, I had always dreamed of escaping my world of cheap decoration, shoddy furniture, broken boilers and dodgy landlords, and to finally have a place of my own to call home. Not only that, but with the housing market still in the doldrums, what better time for the astute first-time buyer to pick up a great house at a bargain basement price!
Little did I know what lay ahead of me as my wife and I drove to our first viewing on one sunny Saturday morning back in May. Having made half a dozen appointments with eager estate agents the previous day, I was sure that we’d have found the house of our dreams that very afternoon and be home in time for Final Score. With so many properties on the market, I was convinced that we’d find a fantastic property in no time and that the vendors would all be on their knees begging us to take it off their hands.
The first house we went to visit set the tone for the day. On entering the house I was overcome by a strange and powerful smell emanating from the kitchen that I couldn’t quite place. When we entered the kitchen all became clear as we saw the dripping ceiling and column of mould running from the ceiling down to the sink below. The polite gentleman showing us round the house assured us that, although the house ‘needed a bit of work’, it had ‘real potential’. Suddenly, I had entered a world of oblique euphemisms that would need decoding to know what a house was really like. Over the next few weeks I would quickly learn that houses advertised using certain phrases were best avoided, such as:
‘Would suit contortionist with growth hormone deficiency’
‘Water tank still contains cholera bacterium’
Internal viewing recommended
‘Looks awful on the outside’
‘You can wash the dishes, watch the telly, and answer the front door without getting up from the toilet’
In need of modernisation
‘In need of demolition’
The next four viewings that day were almost as disheartening. Even when the house was relatively well furnished, there was usually something that let it down in our eyes. Either the rooms were too small, the location was wrong, there was no garden or the ‘newly fitted’ kitchen seemed to have been teleported from the mid 70s.
Our disappointment that day was to be repeated several times over the next few weeks, as we traipsed around weekend after weekend searching for properties that met our needs and budget limitations. By the time we finally decided on a house, we must have already viewed at least 30 or 40 different properties and inched that little bit closer to that mid-life nervous collapse. Having said that, the tedious process of house-hunting undoubtedly helped us to better refine and crystallise what type of house we were looking for, and forced us to think more carefully about what our real underlying needs were. For example, before starting hunting I had no idea that the thing I most desperately lacked in life was a fitted dishwasher rather than a slimline, and that I may well contemplate suicide if I am to go another day without a chrome-effect heated towel rail.
The whole experience also caused me to realise that fully understanding customers’ underlying needs is critical to success in any market, and especially one that is crowded with competitors and very little differentiation between suppliers. The estate agents that had now taken to harassing me on a daily basis to go and view this or that ‘fantastic little property’ seemed completely indistinguishable from one another, and despite their hard efforts none of them seemed to have properly grasped the type of property that we were looking for.
In markets where brand awareness is low and competition is fierce, fully understanding and meeting customer needs is paramount to success. In the case of buying a house, buyers do not particularly care about brand and are purely motivated by a house’s specific features and its price. Most estate agents had failed to properly appreciate our underlying requirements and had simply shown us around the houses that fell into the price range we had mentioned to begin with. Had these agents focused more on their level of service (i.e. in terms of fully understanding our needs), this would have distinguished them from the competition and would have been more likely to lead to a sale.
The house we finally decided to buy was well above our initial budget. The estate agent that eventually got the sale had only introduced us to a total of two properties. By listening to our comments when we looked around this first house and by asking the right questions, he had realised that our true needs did not revolve solely around price, and that we might be prepared to pay a slight premium for a property that satisfied our principle underlying needs. The agent had also shrewdly realised which property features we would be willing to sacrifice and what were the ‘must haves’. For example, while we were happy to forgo a garage or an open fireplace, the agent had picked up on the fact that modern decoration, proximity to public transport and a private garden were features that we couldn’t go without.
The need to properly assess and satisfy underlying customer needs runs strong in all markets, and companies should always beware of assuming that price is the only factor informing purchasing behaviour. In fact, consumer decision-making often relies on a myriad of different considerations, from product features, speed of delivery and return-on-investment through to after-sales support and customer service. For myself, although price had acted as the starting point, in the end it was the specific features of the house (such as decoration and location) that proved to be more important when making the final decision. Well, those things and that chrome-effect heated towel rail.