3s through 8s

by David Heitman

It has become conventional wisdom that most national elections are decided by swing voters, not the party extremists on the far right or far left. Those two groups may control which presidential candidate wins in the primaries, but inevitably the winner moves to the center to court swing voters to prove that he or she is not too extreme. The 2012 election will be no different.

There’s a business corollary to all this: the customers who, when surveyed about a company’s performance on a scale of 1 to 10 would rank the company somewhere in the 3 – 8 range. They are the all-important swing voters who make or break a company’s success.

The 1s and 2s who have been angered by poor service or inferior products can be pretty vocal. And they have an arsenal of tools to register their dissatisfaction: Yelp, Angie’s List, Trip Advisor, Google, Amazon…the list goes on. A few of these folks will get mad enough to contact the company and complain, but most find it easier to just vent online.

The other group that companies hear from are the happy—dare we say delighted—customers who reward excellent service and products with 9s and 10s on surveys, five stars on Yelp, and may even write a letter of gratitude that can be used as a testimonial.

But here’s the problem: 1s and 2s and 9s and 10s represent a small minority of the audience. It’s those swing-voting 3s through 8s who determine whether a restaurant or a software company or a realtor will enjoy sustainable growth—a silent majority that constitutes the lion’s share of the business.

The 3s through 6s will tolerate a business for a while because it’s easier than seeking out a new provider. The 7s and 8s? They’re fairly happy, but would never take the time or effort to refer a company online or off to another person.

Thus, a moderately happy customer base is a losing proposition.

A Harvard Business Review article a few years ago revealed the simple truth that the one and only survey question that can be correlated to revenue growth is this one:

How likely would you be to refer ___________________ to a close friend or family member?

Very Likely – Likely – Not Sure – Unlikely – Very Unlikely

And you know what? The only answer that correlates with financial success is the number of people who check the box for Very Likely. None of the other survey respondents will bother to recommend you, so you have to keep pumping money into more advertising or direct marketing.

While it may not be good for someone in my profession to say this, the plain fact is that good service, good product quality, and knowledgeable, empowered employees have a far greater impact on the bottom line than marketing does.

Sure, if marketing can make more introductions, and you can deliver a 10 in service quality, then all the better. But without a sufficient number of 9s and 10s, your business is on life support.

In fact, company leaders need to see anything less than a 10 as failure, and anything less than a 9 as abject failure.

It all starts with getting accurate, objective insight to how beloved, trusted and referred your organization really is. Talk with the 1s and 2s and win them over. Talk with the 9s and 10s and find out what they dig so much about your company.

And the 3s through 8s? Definitely talk to them. Don’t let them be too silent of a majority. If half of them become 9s and 10s, then that’s the ticket to profitability and sustainability.

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