The Westin Portland was once quite a place.
A long-term consulting project brought me to Portland, Oregon every week for several months. It was tough being away from home so often, but the hotel staff went out of their way to make me feel welcome.
Ali would greet me by name at the entrance, using my first name rather than calling me Mr. Toister since I prefer a more informal greeting. I'd chat with Liza at the front desk for a moment as she checked me into my preferred type of room. Once I got settled, a room attendant would arrive at my room with a glass of my preferred Scotch.
It was an awesome arrival experience.
Perhaps you'd expect this type of service at a nice hotel like a Westin. But I'll let you in on a secret: you can easily give customers the same type of treatment without breaking the bank!
It's all about learning their preferences.
Why customer preferences matter
Using customer preferences to tailor your service allows you to serve customers with less friction, offer them a better experience, and ultimately drive more revenue.
Friction is anything that makes a customer's experience difficult.
You can use customer preferences to eliminate friction and make service easier. For example, Amazon now lets Prime members pick their preferred delivery day. This can make receiving packages more convenient (while also reducing Amazon's delivery costs).
Preferences also drive better experiences.
In-N-Out Burger has a pretty simple menu: hamburgers, cheeseburgers, fries, milkshakes, and drinks. It also has a "secret menu" of different ways you can customize your meal based on your preferences. (I like my cheeseburger animal style.)
Preferences ultimately drive revenue.
Guess what Amazon, In-N-Out, and the Westin Portland all have in common? I'm a loyal customer. These businesses understand my preferences, so I choose them over other options.
(Sadly, the Westin Portland closed its doors a few years ago when the building owner decided to do something else with the property.)
The danger of ignoring customer preferences
It can be frustrating to customers when their preferences are ignored. This creates extra friction, makes the experience less pleasant, and can ultimately drive customers to competitors.
Here are a few common examples:
Ignoring your customer’s preferred communication channel
Ignoring your customer’s preferred options
Asking for a customer’s preferences, then doing the opposite
I once took my car to a new car wash and the employee writing my ticket recorded the services I requested. After he wrote the ticket, he "upgraded" my wash to include air freshener without my knowledge.
The big problem? I really don't like the air freshener scents they use at car washes.
Instead of a pleasant surprise, the employee created a service failure by making an assumption about my preferences. He added air freshener after I had specifically declined it. Even worse, I was reminded about my poor experience every time I drove the car for the next few days.
Three ways to discover customer preferences
There are a number of ways you can discover and act on a customer's preferences. You can use these techniques to keep an eye out for anything from preferred communication channels to what options your customers prefer when using your product or service.
The easiest method is often the direct one. Ask your customers directly what they prefer.
How do you prefer to be addressed?
What's the best way to follow-up with you?
What time do you prefer I call?
This is how the Westin Portland discovered my favorite Scotch, the type of room I prefer, and even how I like to be greeted. When I started staying there a lot, I was simply asked.
Pay attention to the way your customers act and communicate. This will often reveal subtle and not-so-subtle cues about how they prefer to be served.
Is your customer formal, or informal?
What kind of mood are they in?
What do they ask a lot of questions about?
My wife and I went out to eat on a hot day, and it seemed like we were asking for more water every few minutes. Our server noticed this and brought a carafe full of water that she left at our table. We were so relieved!
Repeat customers often order the same product or service, or go with the same options. Knowing your customer's "usual" is a great way to use preferences.
Computers can make this really easy.
I'm a big fan of Mountain Mike's Pizza. I've gotten into the habit of calling to place an order rather than doing it online. It's probably because when I call, the employee recognizes me by my phone number and immediately asks if I'll have my usual order. I love it!
You probably remember a few things about your repeat customers without a computer.
This past spring, I had to go to physical therapy for a shoulder injury. My physical therapist quickly learned that I like to document all of my at-home exercises, so I remembered how to do them. So each week, he’d either give me a printout or remind me to film him demonstrating my assignments. This helped me stay on track and sped up my recovery.
You can start by figuring out what preferences would be helpful to know. These are just a few examples:
What are your customers' preferred methods of communication?
What aspects of your service can you customize?
How can you adjust the way you interact with people based on what they like?
Next, think about what you can do with that information.
How can you store it?
How can you access it?
What can you do with it?