Commentary: How to avoid losing customers' interest

Sept. 25, 2012

By Charlie Hopper

I think it's pretty easy to get customers to stop listening. Restaurant marketing types do it every day.

It's simple! Here are a few ideas for losing people's interest.

Approach One. Think in terms of "Best Practices."

Have you been in a meeting where someone — maybe you? — said, "We need to determine best practices on this before we continue."

Now, if that was a meeting about operations or construction or something that, once learned, can be repeated successfully into infinity, that's great. It's the best way to practice.

But if it was a meeting about how to manipulate the emotions of people who have every right to ignore you, then "Best Practices" are nothing but interesting anecdotes and thought starters.

Things have changed.

The whole idea of "best practices" is to repeat success. But (sorry, marketeers) people are fickle. If they've seen it before, it's less effective. It might work again, but it'll be less effective and probably take more money to get across. And next time, it'll be even harder to get people excited. Remember how much fun it was the first time you collected McDonald's Monopoly pieces? Remember how aimlessly you gave it a half-chance last time around?

Best Practices in a communications context says, "Our brand is a follower." "Our brand is out of ideas." "Our brand did not manage its timeline, ran against a production drop dead date, bailed, and did that thing you've already seen."

Those are all excellent ways to keep people from caring enough to pay attention to you.

Approach Two. Test the heck out of your idea.

This creates a safety net in case the person you report to says, "Why did this not work very well?" You can say, "I do not know because it tested well!" And you'll be off the hook. You did what you could.

Except here's what you did.

Instead of trusting your first reaction as a humanoid — which, depending whether you came up with the idea or had the idea presented to you, was probably either private delight or public laughter — you started thinking. And you began applying criteria and expectations and meanings that are lost on the audience, but not on your boss.

So you went ahead and tested it. And you got some quants and verbatims from people who were trying to give you $75 worth of their amateur attempt at marketing expertise or, worse yet, trying to predict how they would definitely react to your idea if they encountered it in the wild.

And those people ruined your idea.

They got all literal and tried to teach us marketing folks a thing or two and told you what to add or subtract from the idea. They told you exactly how they would react if they saw this idea. And you kept testing modified versions of your idea based on what these random strangers blurted out until you finally got the unscientific but defensible result you felt would satisfy potential critics.

Those "real people" botched it up.

Then you ran with the idea, knowing you at least had an inoculation against accusations that you exhibited hubris and behaved self-indulgently.

So the thing you did that tested well had no fizz, did it? Nope. Nothing new or interesting to tell people.

People didn't listen.

Those ornery customers of yours. Not listening, when they promised in the testing rooms that they would.


Approach Three. Make sure you tell people everything you want them to know.

I opened a menu at a restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, recently. The place seemed like a small chain effort, like someone went to O'Charley's and said, "Hell, we could do this."

That menu, I'm here to tell you, wanted me to get excited. But it couldn't decide what I should get excited about. There was an insert that attached by tucking in. There was an insert shaped like half a pizza that stuck up out of the top. There was another insert, maybe two, that were laminated and stuck in there. They all came sliding out.

Then I was handed a drinks menu. And on the table was a table card trying to get me excited about something else. The placemat might have been pitching me something.

Instead of feeling excited, I felt confused. Maybe I was even a little worried that the server would return expecting a decision.

I abandoned rational thought. I ignored the inserts. I ordered something I always order at those O'Charley's type restaurants. Sante Fe salad? Chicken fingers? I don't remember.

Certainly I was not guided to a strategically profitable or habit-forming entrée. I declared something uninspired to the server and, with relief, shoved the menu mess pile back at her. Her problem now.

Approach Four. Be inconsistent.

Let's say your coupons include nothing but a price and a piece of food, your radio is really clever, your social media is just a bunch of half-hearted promotional attempts, and maybe you have some TV that's got some beautiful food photos and a bunch of facts punctuated by a play on words. Then, someone comes in the restaurant and there are a couple of beautiful promotional entryway pieces with nice typography and more puns, but there are also unattractive table tents and a work-a-day menu.

Well, it's simple: your kitchen is positively infested with cooks. Too many people. Too many voices, each different from the next. You're not really defining who you are. Otherwise you'd talk like "you." However that is, no matter the medium.

Your customers are not stupid. They get it.

If you're talking like a bunch of different people, there's no reason to listen to any of "you."

So, really, there's lots of ways to prevent your customers from paying attention. These are just a few.

I'm sure if you don't try, you'll come up with others.

Charlie Hopper is a creative director for Young & Laramore, a full-service advertising agency based in Indianapolis, and founder of the blog Hopper may be reached at

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability , Customer Service / Experience , Marketing / Branding / Promotion , Operations Management

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