How to be a Customer

Sure, most marketing efforts aim to influence consumer behavior. But consumers can also market themselves to influence vendors, says Professor John Quelch. Want to get a little extra whipped cream from your neighborhood barista? Here are tips to become a valuable customer. Key concepts include:
  • Customers should market themselves to sellers to obtain an advantage over their competition—other customers.
  • Vendors appreciate customers who are demanding, respectful, reliable, surprising, and engaging.
by John Quelch
Harvard Business School professor John Quelch writes a blog on marketing issues, called Marketing Know: How, for Harvard Business Online. It is reprinted on HBS Working Knowledge.

99 percent of marketing focuses on how to sell to customers. Very little attention is paid to why and how customers should sell themselves to marketers. As a customer, do you ever think about how you can get a leg up on your competition—the other customers competing for the attention and goodwill of the seller?

We all know that not all customers are treated equal. Big customers get better treatment than small ones. Frequent customers get better treatment than occasional customers. Most of us recognize—and accept—such discrimination.

The marketer has to choose which customers get priority.

But how can you punch above your weight as a customer to get better treatment than your importance to the seller deserves? How-to books targeting customers often focus on how to game the system, how to return the cocktail dress on Monday after you've worn it once on Saturday, how to exploit manufacturer warranties and satisfaction guarantees (often, ironically, at the expense of other consumers), how to pay late or not at all.

Here are five behaviors that, in the eyes of vendors, make for a good customer:

Be Demanding. Make sure the vendor knows you have other options, that you're going to seek out more than one bid. Ask for references; a good supplier will be glad to provide them. Don't be afraid to negotiate and pin the vendor down, but don't overdo it.

Be Respectful. If you want your vendor to do a good job, respect him (or her). Treat him as a professional. Don't be haughty. Be on time. Ask his opinion. The golden rule applies to customer behavior as well as vendor behavior.

Be Reliable. Do what you say you'll do. Don't keep the salesperson waiting if she's come to your office for an appointment. Pay on time. Don't try to nickel and dime the seller. Don't ask for free value-added services that weren't part of the original deal.

Be Surprising. Reward a job well done. Leave a tip. Pay a little over the contract price if the seller's costs clearly exceed expectations or promise to refer the supplier to a friend. You may want to do business with the same supplier again. (Why waste time on selecting another vendor from scratch?) If you leave a good impression you're going to enjoy more timely and more customized service next time.

Be Engaging. Differentiate yourself as a customer by engaging the seller in some friendly conversation. You may get an extra shot of whipped cream in your café mocha if you're nice to the barista. Treat the seller as an equal, as a problem solver rather than a mere order taker. The seller may be able to confirm or broaden your perspective. In some cases, you may even have expertise that can help the seller do a better job for you.

Obviously, when demand exceeds supply, customers know they're going to have to get in line, perhaps pay more than list price or wait longer than usual for service. The marketer has to choose which customers get priority—and good customers are going to be higher up the pecking order. What's your experience? Are there additional behaviors you think make you a more valuable customer in the eyes of vendors?

Join the discussion on Harvard Business Online.

About the Author

John Quelch is Senior Associate Dean and Lincoln Filene Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.