A THEORY OF CUSTOMER MOTIVATION

Psychologist Abraham Maslow gives us a model for making every customer’s wishes come true.

“Picky” is not a word I would use to describe myself. “Perceptive,” maybe. “Incisive,” most definitely. But “picky,” never. And yet there I was, in the dining area at the hotel where I was lodged, picking at my breakfast while I picked apart my stay experience. The property, I was deciding, had not lived up to its brand name. The front desk staff was undertrained, the public areas were under-cleaned, the breakfast was undercooked, and the hotel rooms were, quite incongruently, overpriced.

As I sat there not being picky, I overheard a woman one table over describe her breakfast as “not too shabs.” She added: “And the selection is pretty good, too.”

My attention now pricked, I listened on as the woman’s tablemate (her husband, perhaps) concurred with her assessment of the hotel’s buffet. He then made a statement I thought was a little too sweeping if based solely on our breakfast service: “Not a bad place to stay.”

Suddenly feeling like Mr. Persnickety, I decided to forcibly insert myself into the couple’s conversation in the hopes of getting at the source of their perfect contentment with our accommodations. The explanations they offered were so simple, they boggled my mind.

“The staff is friendly enough,” the woman said.

“The rooms are clean enough,” the man said.

So why hadn’t all this been “enough” for me? Were my fellow breakfasters blissfully ignorant to the kind of service owed to them by this particular brand of hotels? Or was I just being overly critical of my stay? I finally reached the conclusion that certain customers simply operate on more basic service needs than others. This wasn’t to say, however, that customers whose needs are more advanced don’t deserve to see their expectations realized, as well; a need is a need, after all. But then, what are the various needs of customers, and how can businesses work to meet them?

Psychologist Abraham Maslow believed that all humans are motivated to satisfy certain needs by order of priority. These needs he categorized into five different levels, from the very rudimentary to the transcendental, in a model that came to be known as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. A quick review of his model reveals how it easily could apply to customers.

1. Physiological Needs

The first level in Maslow’s hierarchy comprises the physiological needs that all humans must achieve for their very survival. Access to food and water is an example of just such a need. Similarly, customers have physical requirements they seek to fulfill. They require that a business’ products be of a certain quality necessary for the preservation or restoration of their comfort and convenience. Just as food and water contribute to one’s overall standard of living, the products consumers buy must prove to do the same. If customers deem your products to neither improve nor maintain their material comfort levels, they will see no reason to continue doing business with you.

2. Safety Needs

With their physiological needs met, humans look to satisfy their safety needs. This refers to physical safety, but also to one’s sense of financial and emotional security. Businesses can encourage financial security for their consumers by offering good bang for the buck. They can promote peace of mind by keeping the quality of their products consistent over time. Customers also feel safer doing business with you if your products or services live up to marketing hype—or, for that matter, to any promises made by a representative of your organization. You also can inspire trust in your customers by ensuring that your staff is trained to answer queries and sell offers confidently and knowledgeably.

3. Love and Belongingness

The next set of needs that humans share fall under the category of love and belongingness. We all yearn to feel close to others, and customers are no exception. Their loyalty to a business often is dictated by the strength of their relationship to its employees. Customers form an impression of your organization as a whole based on their interactions with a few of your people, and in this way, rarely see the forest for the trees. By stark contrast, businesses tend to treat customers as just faces in the crowd, often forgetting to customize service to the specific requests of the individual. Demonstrate to your customers that you see them as people, and not just as dollar signs, by taking the time to understand their precise needs and matching them up with a personalized solution. Always exhibit a friendly and enthusiastic attitude that conveys your interest in accommodating them. And if certain customers have a bone to pick with your company, empathize with their complaints and show them they’re not alone in their feelings.

4. Esteem Needs

The fourth level in Maslow’s model houses the esteem needs. These concern our requirements for respect and appreciation. Customers will not throw money at an organization that treats them with disrespect. Customer service personnel must watch their verbal and nonverbal cues to avoid insulting anyone. People become insulted if their self-concept, or the manner in which they view themselves, is compromised. You can diminish an individual’s self-concept by doing something as subtle as rolling your eyes, crossing your arms, or staring. Other more blatant forms of disrespect include making offensive jokes, using demeaning language, or raising your voice. Always be courteous and professional in your dealings with customers, providing fair and equal treatment to all.

5. Self-Actualization

The final level in the hierarchy deals with self-actualization and the human need to realize personal potential or a sense of fulfillment. A business can contribute to the fulfillment of its customers by striving to always deliver a little more than is requested. It also can exceed expectations by rewarding its loyal customers with exclusive offers. In going the extra mile, you suggest to your customers the many benefits that are possible to them, thus, giving them license to dream.

I never ended up telling the couple at breakfast how I really felt about our hotel. After all, here were two people who had achieved fulfillment on nothing more than the most basic of needs, somehow skipping past all the other requirements in between. That’s the funny thing about needs: You often don’t need them until you realize you can have them