B2B marketers constantly dig in to understand how customers think, judge, and determine what’s important to them. All this to create better messages and engagement.
They pull qualitative insights from “Voice of the Customer” (VoC) and Focus Group interviews, and draw quantitative data from web analytics, Net Promoter Scores (NPS), and customer satisfaction (CSAT) surveys.
However, these techniques don’t provide great insights into what drove customers to feel or act that way in the first place; these are insights into their current state of mind.
While some inputs may shed light on the difference between customers’ attitudes and their future behavior, e.g., NPS, it rarely uncovers how customers got to where they are.
That’s where Gap 5 comes in. While not a complete reveal of all conditions that create customers’ opinions, it does provide a model for understanding what shaped their opinions.
First, a little about Gap 5
Gap 5 is the final gap in “ServQual,” a model for assessing service quality, which was first published in the mid 1980s in “Delivering Quality Service” by Valerie Zeithaml, A. Parasuraman and Leonard Berry.
While not the only model for understanding how customers assess service quality, ServQual’s longevity may be due to its application for insight into almost all customer experiences.
So consider this, that wherever SerQual uses the word “service,” it can be replaced with “customer experience,” or “product.” It’s close enough for actionable, powerful insights.
Take a look.
What Gap 5 Says
The distance between what customers expect and what they perceive is Gap 5. The closer the gap, customers decide quality is higher; the bigger the gap, customers decide quality is lower.
And the antecedent gaps, Gap 1 through 4, illuminate where suppliers contribute to Gap 5 and customers’ final assessments.
Insights from Gap 5 and the entire ServQual model help marketers, even sellers, analyze customers across almost every marketing or sales situation.
Let’s focus on the top part of the model; those factors contributing to customers’ expectations, which are Word of Mouth Communications, Personal Needs, and Past Experience.
Add Gap 5 to how customers’ expectations are shaped and you have a powerful insight into customers for B2B marketing and selling.
Gap 5 is the First & Foremost Takeaway
Customers assessment of their experience takes place inside their own head; their comparison between their expectations and their perceptions of what they’ve received.
Not what suppliers believe they provided, or what some third-party claims that they were given. There is no objective reality.
Customer experience, satisfaction, and quality takes place in their heads.
Nothing is “objective,” all is subjective.
If you ever forget this truth, you’ll find yourself or your staff in knock down, drag out fights with individuals or corporate customers where no one wins.
TAKE AWAY: Sometimes B2B marketers and sellers miss the forest for the trees: Gap 5 is the forest and its borders are between customers’ ears.
Past Experience is an Unfair Contributor
The past is past but in customers’ assessments it moulds their expectations for the future.
Imagine you’re in retail and a number of your customers are former Nordstrom customers, who have experienced Nordie’s generous return policy.
They show up in your store to return items they’ve bought from you, and they’ve obviously used those items roughly, to the point where they can’t be returned to your shelves.
Those customers may be expecting a full credit from you. Their expectations now clash with your store’s return policies, and they’ll judge your brand, reputation, fairness, quality on how you deal with their return.
Fair, no. Happening inside their head; Yes.
TAKE AWAY: As marketers and sellers, wouldn’t it be lovely to seek out, investigate, and try to analyze customers’ past experiences as they shape their current expectations? How might that help us craft better messages or customize offerings? And to get those messages out ahead of the customer experience curve?
Word-of-Mouth Communication: All Talk
What customers hear from others, even if untrue or from questionable sources, influences their expectations. It pre-colors their thoughts when they come to judge their experience with you.
In the age of social media, it’s easy to understand how misinformation and lies impact reputation – long before customers experience it firsthand themselves.
While the negative side is cause for damage control, Word-of-Mouth (WOM) is also a powerful influence when the communication is positive. B2B opportunities often tip into the win column based on strong, reaffirming WOM.
TAKE AWAY: Understanding WOM is essential to gauging expectations ahead of the B2B interaction, whether messaging or in the sales cycle. Seek out “word on the street” about one’s self as well as the competition in social media and from customer insiders willing to share closely-held information.
Personal Needs & Expectations
One would think a customer’s need would be the primary creator of their expectations. After all, if a customer needs to get from point A to point B regularly, don’t they want to buy a car?
Personal need maybe the weakest of the expectation drivers.
For example, the fact that I need a haircut doesn’t stand alone in my expectations. I want to hear from someone else that the cutter I’m about to entrust my appearance with is good. Because all my past haircuts are sitting on the top of my head, ready to tell me, after the haircut is done, whether I’ve been fleeced or coiffed.
TAKE AWAY: The danger here for B2B marketers and sellers is to get too caught up in believing the personal needs of customers are all important, which may overshadow the other expectation contributors . Tick the “personal needs” check box: Yes. But only as part of a larger look into what shaped customers’ expectations.
External Communications to Customers
Back in the days when interruption (outbound) marketing was the norm, marketers believed the way to customers’ hearts was through messaging inundation, that ad volume alone would trick customers into a trance and they’d buy.
Social media and inbound marketing now create continuous streams of customer engagement and interaction, connecting with and nurturing customer relationships throughout buying lifetimes.
Both outbound and inbound marketing raise customers’ awareness to unrecognized needs, suppliers’ existence and their advantages over competitors.
TAKE AWAY: While the information age has done away with basic buying ignorance, B2B marketing is now a lifelong activity with multiple touchpoints and channels, lasting throughout the entire customer lifecycle.
Of all the insights from Gap 5 and ServQual, the most poignant one for me is this: customers’ perceptions are the one and only king.
No matter what suppliers believe they have placed lovingly, graciously, generously in front of customers; if customers don’t perceive its presence, or how it was served – then all was for naught. Nada. Zip. Zilch.
Simply put, what’s not perceived doesn’t exist (in customers’ eyes).
TAKE AWAY: Knowing customers’ expectations before their B2B interactions is worth billions. Making sure customers perceived the intended experience – Priceless.