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The Key to Retaining Customers: 7 Questions All Marketers Should Ask

Here's a news bulletin for fans of the Newlywed Game and for companies with longstanding customers: predicting a partner's likes and dislikes gets worse with age, not better.

So say three experts whose study, "Older But Not Wiser - Predicting a Partner's Preferences Gets Worse with Age," compares how well older and younger romantic couples predict partners' preferences. Benjamin Scheibehenne, Jutta Mata of the University of Basel in Switzerland and Peter M. Todd at the University of Indiana, asked 58 couples to express partners' preferences on items with high, medium and low relevance in daily life. They reviewed 40 food dishes, 40 movies and 38 kitchenette designs.

The result: Couples together two years and one month, on average, predicted each other's preferences with more accuracy than couples together for four decades and longer. All of a sudden, twin rocking chairs in retirement look a little less peaceful.

There are plausible explanations. Maybe older couples pay less attention to their partner's preferences because they've been together so long, while new couples pay rapt attention to sustain the romance. Even so, swap "companies" and "customers" for "couples" and "partners" and the findings offer critical warnings to businesses that value customer retention. I pulled seven findings from the study that lead to questions that prudent marketers cannot ask often enough. The answers might rekindle that old spark.

1) After spending more time together in a committed relationship, partners think they already know each other well. As a consequence, they pay less attention to preference changes than will couples that have been together only a short time. Question: Are you taking your best customers for granted?
2) Typical older couples are less likely to differentiate between partners' strong and weak feelings. Question: Are you attuned to faint praise that really means trouble is brewing?

3) Long relationships increase mutual assumptions of similarity, leading partners to project individual preferences even when preferences do not match. Question: Do you assume you know your best customers too well?
4) The mere opportunity for feedback and learning over the course of a relationship is not sufficient to increase couples' mutual knowledge. Question: Are you proactive about learning what customers need?
5) The prediction gap widens in favor of young couples over items relevant in daily life, a sign that older couples are more overconfident about their ability to predict a partner's preferences. Question: Have you succumbed to overconfidence about knowing what your best customers like?
6) In long relationships especially, motivation to maintain a strictly objective view of partners might compete with maintaining a positive relationship. This loss of perspective might impair the ability to make objective predictions. Question: Are you sure that warm feelings are mutual?
7) To maintain a positive relationship, partners sometimes give false feedback or tell "white lies" that dilute the accuracy of their partner's knowledge over time. Question: Are you as candid as possible with customer at all times?

In the end, a fading romance can cost you business. Instead, remember this: there is no customer like a new customer, especially when it's an old customer.

S.L. Mintz covers finance and investment strategy and was a writer of the best-selling Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission Report.

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