Understanding Consumer Profiles Across Industries

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Though he had many positive traits, my grandfather was the customer you wanted to fire. Not only did he monopolize everyone's time at the outlets he frequented, but he was also critical of any retail experience he had. Some would call him thrifty, but most retailers would call him trouble.

Despite our best efforts, there are customers out there who are just impossible to satisfy. Those who consistently evaluate products and services unfavorably could simply represent a form of response style. Alternatively, those who consistently evaluate products and services low across categories could also represent a type of consumer. I call them "Customer Experience Assassins." Likewise, we all know "Customer Experience Angels," who are unaware of the poor service and products they endure.

Who are they and what, if anything, can we do about them?

It's critical to understand whom Customer Experience Assassins and Angels are for a number of reasons. Knowing what proportion of your customer base is made up of Angels or Assassins is key to interpreting your customer experience measurement. Knowing about the characteristics of these people helps you develop products and service experiences that please people who can be pleased. Every customer base has some Angel- and Assassin-like customers. Catering to these customers to the exclusion of others is a bit fruitless.

What We Did

Maritz Research's CEBenchmarksTM study tracks 34 ongoing experiences in 16 different industries among 263 different brands. We interview approximately 3,300 consumers per month who evaluate one to five brands, yielding approximately 8,700 individual brand evaluations a month. The data in this analysis includes more than 14,000 respondents.

Based on a recent customer service experience, survey respondents can evaluate up to five brands on a scale from "Extremely Dissatisfied" to "Extremely Satisfied" on several dimensions. For Assassins, we identified people who consistently rated their overall experience across two or more categories as low (below a six on a 10-point scale on all categories evaluated). For Angels, we identified those who consistently rated their overall experience across two or more categories as high (a 10 on a 10-point scale across all categories evaluated). This yielded 523 Assassins and 1,877 Angels for analysis.

Who Are the Assassins and Angels?

Customer Experience Assassins are predominant in the Internet, cable, wireless, and mortgage industries. Angels grace the investment and insurance industries. But beyond that, who are these people? How do they differ?

Assassins tend to be young, educated, single, male, and ethnically diverse. They are likely early in their careers and personal lives. Having limited credit history, they expect much and are often disappointed. Also, about one-fifth of them moved in the last year, an activity ripe with service failures and botched recoveries.

Angels are older, married, more established, but less educated. More than a quarter are retired. These people have established long-term relationships with retailers and service providers. Moreover, they have weathered many past purchase experiences, providing context for recent experiences and motivating them to overlook minor service issues. (See top chart.)

Where Do They Live?

We have wondered whether geography influences customer experience evaluations: Are people in certain locations unhappier? Academia has noted that people living in cities are different than those in non-metro areas. We assessed the distribution of overall scores across the nation to find where our Assassins and Angels live.

People living on the West Coast and in lower New England and New York are harsher critics of their retail experiences, whereas those in the Midwest and South tend to be easier graders. One explanation could be that people who live in cities are more stressed and tougher graders. Therefore, the additional stress on individual retail channels in dense areas may drive lower evaluations and produce Assassins over time. Subsequent analysis revealed that urbanism does have an impact on ratings, but there are also geographic effects at play.

Are Assassins Always Assassins?

While these findings are relatively new, decades of automotive industry data indicate that Assassins might be associated with life stage. Maritz Research's New Vehicle Customer Survey (NVCS) measures overall satisfaction of new vehicle buyers in the U.S. and Canada. As you can see, across a 14-year period, the pattern holds true. (See center chart.)

Those between the ages of 20 and 34 tend to be less favorable about the purchase experience than those who are older. To be a cohort effect, we would have to see a dip move across time. Instead, we see a consistent dip in satisfaction with the car buying experience among 20- to 34-year-olds, with satisfaction increasing as they age. This pattern holds true in all industry categories in the benchmarking study. (See bottom chart.)

Assassin Management

There's no way around it: Assassins and Angels do exist. So what can we do about Assassins? For retailers, restaurateurs, hoteliers, and related companies, the question is how to manage Assassins. For those in the CEM trade on both the supplier and client sides, the issue is how to deal with Assassins in the context of your measurement system.

Each location, be it an auto dealer, a hotel, bank, or retail store, has a mix of customers, some of whom are Assassins and Angels. Is it fair to compare urban scores with those in a college town? Given what we've seen about the demographics between Angels and Assassins, probably not. We recommend that companies should strive to compare like units whenever possible. Alternatively, set goals based on improvement over current scores or comparison to peers.

It's impractical, hard, and ill-advised to toss Assassins out of your store. But there are a few things you CAN do. Be aware of Assassins in your data. How many Assassins are in your pool of customers? Can you identify them? If you can, consider dissuading (de-marketing) them from frequenting your stores. This will save marketing dollars and time. Some retailers have implemented this strategy successfully.

It's important to look at true Assassins, versus temporary ones due to life stage. True Assassins are consistently critical of all brands over time. A temporary Assassin may become an Angel later in life. We need to identify pervasive Assassins vs. temporary ones. This requires a longitudinal study using this data over time.

It's in everyone's best interest to help customers, and to provide the best possible experience. However, in some cases, you may be investing good money in a bad customer. This doesn't mean you should aggravate them. It just means letting patrons, like my grandfather, go to the store down the street, and not give them a reason to complain about you.


Dave Fish, Ph.D., has nearly two decades of applied strategy and market research experience. As vice president of client solutions at Maritz Research, he is responsible for developing and deploying client-driven products and services. Prior to that, he led the automotive sector of Maritz Research, with general management responsibilities for all automotive research activities in the Americas and global sales and operations.

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