Why price matters and how it is tied up with marketing, service and customer experience


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In a recent post, I wrote:

“Bob Thompson shared the results of research he had been involved in some years ago. When customers were asked what constituted ‘customer-centricity’ they came up with: product quality/fitness for purpose; customer service excellence; being treated fairly; and price. Bob made a big play, as do others, about price only being fourth on the list. I will be writing a post on the price myth soon.”

Can you count on customers to tell the ‘truth’?

Before we can grapple with the ‘price is not that important, other stuff is more importantmyth we have to grapple with the customer/market research. Why? Because the people who make these claim – including on the matter of price – almost always refer to the results of customer surveys and market research – what customers ‘say’.

Research simply discloses how a specific bunch of people responded to/answered a set of questions given the way that these questions were worded/framed and how/when the research was conducted. ‘That is it – that is all it tells you! You cannot use it to make declarative statements of ‘truth’ about what matters to customers nor what they actually do when they are shopping in the real life shopping environment. Even if we assume that all bias has been stripped out of the surveying/research process we are confronted with this: people deceive themselves whilst being convinced that they are espousing the truth – neuroscience suggest that this is a fundamental feature due to the design of the brain, which is really many brains in one.

Asking about price and how much it matters or not is like asking about sex. Why? Because the question is laden with meaning which puts one’s identity, self-esteem and ‘social face’ at stake. If you are a woman and answer that you have had many partners and love sex then you are likely to be thought of as being ‘loose’ and looked down up. And you the woman that is being asked that questions know that. Now imagine that you are a man. How likely are you to say that you have had no sex at all in the last three months? I recently took part in a speed awareness course where only 2 people out of 23 claimed not to be ‘better than the average driver’ Was it because most of us in that room (including me) are deluded or is it some of us were not willing to admit that we are not good drivers in front of our fellows? Possibly and most likely both.

First the price question will be answered differently by different segments and you cannot average it out – to some people it might matter a lot, to others not at all. Second, there will be a ‘right’ answer (socially desirable) given the current circumstances – have you noticed how thrift is in and conspicuous spending out? Third, what people say (and even think they do and what matters to them) is often very different to what is so. And even when you educate them on what is so they tend to ignore it – they were blind to it for a very good reason.

In short the scientifically correct behaviour is to ignore what people say: you simply cannot count on human beings to have accurate insights into themselves or their behaviour. And you cannot count on them to tell the ‘truth’ as it shows up for them if their ‘social identity’ is at stake.

What is our relationship to price?

Take a look at what is happening on the high street. We go and try out products and get advice in stores and then go home and buy it online because we can get the same product cheaper. Is this why so many stores have closed in the UK and why high streets are littered with empty or boarded up shops? Remember Gateway – the online PC seller who opened stores and designed/delivered a great shopping experience? It ended up closing the stores. Why? Consumers tuned up at the stores got great advice and then they went home and bought online from Dell because Dell was cheaper. What was the fear with the internet? Ease of finding/comparing prices. Why? Because it would enable buyers to buy from the cheapest seller. Why do offline retailers fear smartphones? Because they enable shoppers to compare prices and either buy it online (cheaper) or head for a store down the street that supplies the same product at a cheaper price.

Look at Ryanair and Easyjet – these low cost airlines exist because they have come up with a low price value proposition for air travel that speaks to people whose first and foremost requirement is price – cheap. Look at IKEA – it had done the same for furniture. Then there is WalMart in the USA and Matalan in the UK – doing very well by selling merchandise at value prices. In short these players are doing well because they are playing the price card well.

Price can also be an indicator or quality and thus assuage our concerns about being swindle/making the wrong choice. For example, experiments show that if you have a high end product and a low end product then you can do better by introducing a ‘in between product’ in terms of price. When you do that what happens? You make more money because you help people to buy. Most people will buy the ‘in between’ priced product – these people fear buying the ‘cheap’ products (quality concerns) and are not up for buying the top priced product. Note: it is essential that the shoppers is uncertain about the quality of the products for this behaviour to show up.

What is my point of view on Price?

I say that price does matter especially in the current economic climate. We are all sensitive to price – our sensitivity depends on our sense of our financial well being. It depends on current savings, current income and how we see the future. If our income/savings are low then we will be price sensitive. Last summer I spent some time in the New Forest and in particular in a locale where only the rich can afford to live – property price are high. Yet, I was shocked to see ‘cheap stores’ nestled in amongst the expensive stores. Then I got that there are plenty of old folks who have retired there. They have used their savings to buy their homes and their incomes are limited. The future matters, if the future looks bleak then we are more price sensitive than if the future looks bright.

I say that we will not willingly pay more than we have to for the same product if all things are equal. A great example of this is insurance – most people buy on price as they assume that all companies, all policies are alike. Only those that have made a claim became wise to and factor in what the policy covers and the claims experience. That means that if store A wants to charge us more than Store for an identical product then the people at store have to invent differences and communicate these differences so that we can justify paying the higher price.

The central challenge of business continues to be: inventing difference – real and imagined – so as to get the customer to pay a higher price than s/he would otherwise pay. The factors that companies have to play with are: product and product development; marketing and the art/science of impression/perception management (notice the interest in neuroscience and neuromarketing); service (not the function called Customer Services) and in its broadest/modern sense Customer Experience; and business model design – what you charge for, how you charge…. Apple does it through great products. Zappos does it through great service. Amazon does it through the ease of the purchasing process. USAA does it through the ‘community’ and ‘integrity’ and ‘service’. Zane’s Cycles does it through the customer experience and ‘community’………

Put differently, the justification for investments in marketing, in service, in the customer experience are based on counteracting the buyers propensity to buy on price if all things are equal. That means that the purpose of marketing, service, customer experience is to ensure that all things are not equal in the minds of buyers. Manipulating perceptions – the role of marketing – used to be enough because only marketer had access to media. Media exists to shape minds – always. Marketing no longer works that well due to the democratisation of voice. Which is why there is pressure to actually be different: stand out products; stand out service; stand out customer experience. This requires a fundamental change in organisational behaviour: investments have to move from marketing (impression management) to the product and/or the operations that enable buyers to buy, own and use the product. Few organisations have made that shift in priorities and spending. Which is why much customer talk is simply empty talk. Now compare that with the likes of companies that stand out in terms of product-service-customer experience: do you notice that they don’t spend anywhere near as much on marketing as their competitors?

What is the good news? Whilst price matters it is not the only thing matters. Our dignity matters to us – we are selves who are aware of ourselves and who are driven to relate to ourselves as worthy/important/as mattering. And this need is as important as the need for a ‘good deal’. As such this provides an opening for organisations who honour or need for validation, for dignity, for wanting to feel there are good guys out there and that we live in a ‘good’ world. Which is why companies like Zappos and Zane’s Cycles are doing well – they charge premium prices in turn for honouring us ‘as the best of ourselves’ . And enough of us are willing to pay the premium price and talks about these companies as if they are our friends. Because they are our friends. Amongst friends, price is not the most important thing, it is trust, it is looking after one another, it is acting equitably/fairly. It is giving a helping hand now in the full knowledge that our friend will be there when we need that hand in return. And when that expectation is violated by our friend then we speak out – think Netflix.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Maz Iqbal
Experienced management consultant and customer strategist who has been grappling with 'customer-centric business' since early 1999.


  1. Maz, I agree with you completely. Price is usually discounted by loyalty researchers as not a “driver” of loyalty. Yet, my own observations are that price matters quite a lot — probably more than consumers admit in surveys.

    I think we’re all looking for a “fair deal.” That’s why I’m loyal to Southwest when flying in western US. Even if I book late, I get a good price (they don’t gouge me) and always can count on reliable service and friendly people.

    Target has built a great business with a price foundation, but created the “cheap chic” category with better in-store experience and merchandise than Wal-Mart.

    Still, Wal-Mart is doing just fine. And the plethora of “daily deal” sites shows that consumers like deals. JCPenney is struggling to wean its customers off price promotions. Not everyone wants an “everyday low price,” many also like the excitement of a limited time offer.

    As you said, if every product and service was exactly the same, then price would be the only thing that matters. Hence the critical importance to differentiate. But if the “difference” is not enough, the low price will win.

    The transparency of the Social Web means that high prices (compared to value received vs. other options in the market) and bad service have no place to hide. Consumers win, business leaders get a massive headache!

  2. ………are often quite profound, especially coming through lost/churned customer research. Agree that, when customers are asked about the key reasons for their defection, pricing or budget-related answers tend to be the most frequently cited. However, even accepting the importance of price in the value proposition, when identifying the real, driving motivators of churn behavior, results are often quite different.

    Here’s a quick example. In recent b2b lost customer advocacy behavior-based research for one of Market Probe’s clients, predictably price competitiveness and budget constraints were, by a significant margin, the most often stated reasons for defection. However, our unique 'swing voter' analysis approach identified four key negative behavioral drivers, i.e. those behind customer alienation and churn – usefulness of product delivery method, billing accuracy (a surrogate for lack of trust), corporate reputation (also a trust issue), and understanding the customer's data/information needs – which, combined, actually represented 78% (with some overlap due to multiple low value attribute scores) of what was driving defection behavior. So, the stated price issue was actually a red herring and could taken our client far afield of the prioritized improvements they needed to address.

    We will shortly be issuing a white paper about this, which I’ll be glad to provide on request.

  3. Hello Bob,

    I find myself in complete agreement with what your write. Yes, price matters a lot more than people say/acknowledge. And the customer surveys understate this.

    I’d go further and say that there is an incentive for people who commission these surveys to understate the importance of price in driving purchasing decisions. The marketing community want to, need to, believe that the ‘brand’ matters more than ‘price’. The same occurs for the Customer Service folks and now the Customer Experience folks. The same applies for customer strategists. Put differently, there is deep seated hidden bias against acknowledging the importance of price. This bias is fed by all the people that supply services to marketers…..


  4. Hello Michael

    I thank you for taking the time to comment and share your point of view. I do not find myself in agreement with you for two reasons:

    a) you are talking about defectors – what about the people who never signed up because the price was too high;

    b) rare is the person, at least in the UK, who will say that he did not buy or chose to defect because he was not willing to pay the price. Why? Because it makes that person show up as a person who does not have money, is not well off…..

    c) if you have signed up as a customer then clearly you were willing to pay the stated price. So for you price is not likely to be an issue unless there is a steep price increase (aka Netflix). So your reasons for defection are likely to be service related. When it comes to telcos churn is driven by handsets and price plans.

    Does that mean I totally discount your point of view? No, I suspect there is value in your position. I am also convinced that price plays a much bigger role than many want to believe.

    All the best

  5. …at the front end of the customer life cycle. If we think about the journey, i.e. the totality of a customer’s relationship with a supplier throughout the life cycle, price can often be a serious impediment to beginning that journey at all. It can also be a prime motive for beginning the relationship Once a customer, price resistance can also grow over time; and companies, however, can often commoditize themselves by relying solely on initial price advantage. In the end, these companies – which I call ‘one-trick ponies’ – will lose (major studies have supported this result) because they are attracting only price-motivated customers who will readily switch for a lower price. More sophisticated companies, such as Walmart, can always win at that game. In the U.S., one need only look at now-departed retailers like Bradlee’s, Value City and Caldor to make the point that overreliance on pricing can render a company vulnerable.

  6. Hello Michael

    I am not arguing that companies focus on price and nothing else. Yes, there are companies that have done and are doing great e.g. Ryanair, Easyjet, by focusing on price.

    There are also companies that are doing fabulously well by charging premium prices – Zane’s Cycles, Zappos, Apple, Starbucks……

    Then there are companies that do well by addressing a specific job that the customer does with the right price, service, experience mix. Amazon comes to mind. Amazon is not the cheapest and many of us, me included, continue to buy from Amazon because the value proposition – ease of use, price, delivery, service – is just right.

    My point with this post was to highlight that price matters more than many say. That is all. And as I say on my blog:

    “I am not 'selling' anything, not even my point of view. If you find my point of view useful – it stimulates original thinking – then use it. If my point of view does not create value for you then leave it where it is – on this website….

    I hope that my point of view inspires you to think afresh and that you will not take what I write as truth. Or as Zen masters might say: "believe nothing, test everything out for yourself.””

    I wish you well Michael and thank you for entering into a conversation with me. I can tell that we would get on – just with the tone of your commenting. So if you are ever over in the UK do let me know!


  7. Maz –

    As a variation to sayings of the Zen masters (I was a martial artist for years – third degree Tang Soo Do black belt – so I have great respect for their teachings), I’d offer Charles Dickens. In Great Expectations, Jaggers, the lawyer, said something quite profound to Pip: “Take nothing on its looks; take everyting on evidence. There’s no better rule.” Evidence of many studies over the years proves that, in evaluating overall value, price always matters to some degree. Sometimes it’s more, and may even be dominant in certain circumstances; and sometimes it’s less, such as situations where branded experience carries more decision-making weight than price (http://www.customerthink.com/article/customer_advocacy_and_the_branded_experience)

    All of that said, we’ve moved well beyond Gale’s and Kordupleski’s CVA precepts of the ’80’s and ’90’s, which stated that price was always an equal component of perceived value, measured against assessments of product/service quality. As you note, the importance of price is quite varied.



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