• July 31, 2015
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

Success in Spite of Itself

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We look for a number of different things beyond price when we go out into the world of commerce. We want a product that does what it's supposed to do, and does it well. We want it to appeal to the senses, unless we're talking about a purely mechanical item, like a No. 4 washer. And we want the process of acquiring and using it to be pleasant and/or memorable—we want a positive customer experience.

All these factors are present to some extent—picture them as the vertices of a triangle, and no product will be centered on any one of them. But it's clear that some businesses stray further in one direction than the others. As big a proponent of customer experience as I am, I still marvel at those cases where the great experience overrides the mediocrity of the product.

I will take some heat for this, but my pet example is Starbucks coffee. Starbucks has built up an immense amount of goodwill because of how the brand feels, but the coffee sucks. I'm not talking about the coffee-based drinks, because they're pretty darn good if you're into that, but the coffee itself ranges from meh to nearly undrinkable—yet the business thrives. I want coffee, good black coffee, and the Seattle Swill doesn’t cut it.

I still buy at Starbucks from time to time. The brewed iced tea is very refreshing, the pastries and other items are kinda nice in a bad-for-me way, and friends occasionally want to buy me a cup of coffee and it would be rude to make retching noises at them. I totally get the experience, though. The shops are pleasant, even cushy, places of relaxation and unhurried consumption. The feeling of personalization, of interaction with the baristas, even of patronizing an environmentally and socially conscious business almost makes me forget the sludge in the cups. Almost.

The next example—possibly the quintessential example of experience trumping quality—is The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I assume you've all seen it if you grew up in the 1970s or later. If you haven't, don't worry; it will be playing midnight shows on select screens until the sun burns out. As a movie, it is terrible, but nobody cares, because if you're there for the cinematic quality and high production values, you have missed the point.

RHPS is like a joke that only some people get, but gets funnier with every telling. You can't get the experience of going to see this colossal turkey (which I absolutely love) by renting it at home, even with a group of enthusiastic friends. The audience participation is at least as important as the flick—in most showings, you can barely hear the dialogue for all the people quoting it or shouting it back at the screen, never mind the floor show. And the costumes. And the simple sense of community, where fans of all ages, from all walks of life, are brought together by the sheer fun of attending a showing. The movie is almost incidental, and if the screen got torn down halfway through I expect the party would continue unabated.

At the other end of the spectrum are cases where the product completely overshadows the experience. Peter Luger Steak House is one with which I'm familiar by reputation, not personal experience. They take cash only, unless you have an account. The staff often go out of their way to be rude and obnoxious, living up to the worst expectations of a Brooklyn restaurant. And as often as not, they'll tell you what you want (the porterhouse) and how you'd like it cooked (medium rare). And nobody cares, because the steak is that good. The staff are likely playing up the attitude, making good-natured abuse a part of the experience, but it'd take only one sensitive patron to ruin the night for a lot of people.

On the topic of New York mainstays, I may as well mention B&H Photo Video. This midtown electronics mecca (can a place run by Orthodox Jews be called a mecca?) has a stellar selection of high-end photography and home entertainment products at low prices. Shopping there can be a great experience, but the actual buying process is like something out of Metropolis: You are shuffled from salesperson to pay line to product reception to sidewalk like a bottle in a brewery. It's almost unnerving how they hustle you along. Still, it's been the first choice of professionals and consumers since the mid-'70s, so they must be doing something right—price alone isn't enough.

These are just some of the instances I've encountered, both of experience trumping quality and the reverse. I would love to hear readers' own favorite examples. Send them to the editor, or to me, and maybe we can make something of this phenomenon.  

Marshall Lager is the managing principal of Third Idea Consulting, dedicated to finding the best way to move businesses and customers forward. Engage him at www.3rd-idea.com, or www.twitter.com/Lager.

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