4 Secrets Your Customers Are Keeping From You

Last Updated May 26, 2011 8:42 AM EDT

Like an old married couple, customers and companies often talk past each other.

Here's one woman who had a misunderstanding with Home Depot -- she thought they were calling to harass her about a bill she didn't owe, but the retailer insists it was phoning her to find out how she wanted to be refunded.

Seriously, you can't make this stuff up.

They're not telling you everything
And it all got me thinking: What are shoppers intentionally not telling you about how they approach your business? Here are a few confessions you're unlikely to hear any customer make.

I don't know what I want. Indecision isn't necessarily a customer's fault. Go to any big-box store, and you're overwhelmed by choices. And research shows that more choices make a purchasing decision more difficult, and even painful. That may be a bad kind of indecision, but at least it's looking for a solution. What's worse? Approaching a consumer decision and not knowing what you want at all.

Simply put, these consumers are clueless â€" and while that may seem obvious, that kind of indecision is not frowned upon at all in a "let's-go-shopping" culture. In fact, it's celebrated. You shouldn't be high-fiving your colleagues. Remember, your best customer is an informed one. Still true, in case you were wondering.

I'm in a hurry. Because time is a precious commodity in an "always-on" world, customers make decisions without first considering the consequences. Some decisions should be made quickly, to be sure, as Malcolm Gladwell suggests in his 2005 book, "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking." Even some consumer decisions made without much thought can turn out right, according to newer research.

But snap decisions like buying the first house you see or the first car you test drive can lead to disastrous consequences. You have to think before you buy, no two ways about it. Will your customers tell you they're skipping the basics? Probably not.

I didn't shop around. No one really knows how many customers comparison-shop before deciding on a purchase â€" estimates range from half to more than 90 percent. The best-case scenario is that roughly 5 percent of Americans don't bother to do the basic research. I suspect the number is far higher (at least half of us routinely don't comparison shop; think back to your last gas purchase if you have any doubts).

As a consumer advocate, I've dealt with more than my fair share of customers who failed to shop, and instead made an impulse buy or just shelled out perfectly good money for something without thinking about it. Businesses love these kinds of uninformed consumers, because they usually fail to ask other important questions like "What's in the fine print?" Indeed, as a sidenote to one of the comparison-shopping surveys â€" the one that said 96 percent of Americans comparison-shopped -- also found less than half comparison-shopped for a mortgage, which is arguably one of your most important purchases.

I don't care, as long as it works. Customer apathy is another problem plaguing today's consumer. You know that you care more about some things than others. For example, you might review your credit card statement regularly, but do you read your utility bills with the same care?

A British survey found 2/3rds of mobile phone customers hadn't taken the time to read their service plans. And 1 in 5 respondents thought they were on the wrong plan (but how would they know if they didn't read it?). The "I-don't-care-as-long-as-it-works" attitude is so pervasive that hardly anyone notices. These same customers then act surprised and even outraged when something goes wrong with their purchase. But how can they be when there was no due diligence?

These are just four secrets that your customers keep from you. Can you think of any others?

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He also covers customer service for the Mint.com blog. You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.

Photo: dawolf/Flickr
  • Christopher Elliott

    Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and journalist. A columnist for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the Washington Post, Elliott also has a nationally syndicated column and blogs about customer service for the Mint.com. He is at work on a book about customer service issues.