Childbirth and How We Delight Customers

This week Matthew Harrison thinks back to the nerve-racking day his wife gave birth, and reflects on what this tells us about the different ways in which we measure customer needs

We headed down a tree-lined avenue and arrived at the hospital, an imposing building in an aspirational Connecticut suburb. A team of uniformed, white-gloved octogenarians ushered us into valet parking, transferred our belongings into a silver trolley and delicately placed my wife into a wheelchair. Our vehicle was whisked away by a Dickensian character in a towering hat. I handed $5 to his fawning colleague and scurried inside the building, behind my wife-on-wheels.

The lobby of this hospital was a thing of beauty. Cherry wood-paneled walls met lush carpets; impressionist paintings vied for wall-space with portraits of benevolent local millionaires. One dry-cleaned footman after another escorted us through elevators and corridors and – finally and breathlessly – into a spacious labour room, our personal home for the next 15 hours.

I reclined on a chaise longue, like many a husband before me. The flat-screen TV piped cheerful music into the immaculate room. I tuned my laptop into the wi-fi system and emailed my family the latest news. This room had everything a man could want. My wife seemed a bit angry about something. Must be the hormones – I’d read about that.

The next days were the most miraculous of our lives, as our baby was born and our every need attended to by this most sumptuous of hospitals. The pièce de resistance arrived the night before we returned home, as the nurses served us a complimentary meal of filet mignon and champagne, before giving our new baby a trendy T-shirt and arranging for us to meet the ‘hospital photographer’.

One sleepless night a few days later, I reflected on how lucky we were to be in America at this crucial moment in our lives. Where else would we have received such 5-star service? The hospital had not only met our expectations, it had exceeded them. The hospital had delighted us.

Speaking to a friend back in England my view was confirmed. Jon’s wife had given birth in a West Midlands hospital, behind a flimsy curtain in a room full of caterwauling mothers and hyperactive visitors. No flat-screen TV, no chaise longue for anxious husbands. Nothing more than a clock radio chained to a concrete wall and a husband that was sent home to bed when visiting hours ended.

I told Jon that his treatment had been a disgrace. The once-great nation I was proud to call home was falling into disrepair. What kind of animal gives birth without champagne, filet mignon and an unusually lush carpet? Jon was quick to correct me, pointing out that his wife was perfectly satisfied with the medical treatment she received, and that he placed more importance on that than on some pretentious undercooked steak. For good measure, he informed me that the UK health service provides a superior service to its US counterpart when it comes to childbirth, with infant mortality 30% higher and maternal mortality 15% higher in America (CIA World Factbook, UN World Population Prospects Report) . Treatment in the UK was less likely to delight but more likely to satisfy.

Our discussion illustrated a frequent dilemma for market researchers and service providers. How do we measure customer needs? If we simply ask customers what their requirements are, they typically reply with top-of-the-mind requirements that any serious player must satisfy in order to survive in the market – in other words, hygiene issues or table stakes. A hospital, for example, must deliver babies and perform operations safely in order to remain ‘in business’.

The alternative way of measuring customers’ needs is to calculate derived importance by correlating respondents’ satisfaction scores on a range of issues against their overall satisfaction with the supplier. This provides us with the drivers of satisfaction. Requirements which correlate strongly with satisfaction are differentiating factors, the non-essential requirements that – so long as basic needs are satisfied – allow companies to pick up market share by distinguishing themselves from the competition.

In order to establish customer loyalty, companies must perform effectively against both stated and derived importance. The company that performs poorly against needs with strong stated importance will not be in business for long, because its offering is simply unacceptable. The company that performs poorly against needs with strong derived importance may survive for a while, but in a competitive market will become commoditized and see its margins erode over time.

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