What Maslow's hierarchy of needs teaches us about customer experience
Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a periodically referenced theory in social sciences, but what role does it play in our understanding of customers?
In 1943, the psychiatrist Abraham Maslow introduced a theory of human motivation which proposed that people are motivated to satisfy several needs, and that some of those needs take precedence over others.
Maslow argued that human needs are arranged in a hierarchy, with basic physiological needs (food, water, etc.) at the lowest level, and self-actualisation at the highest.
The hierarchy of needs is usually depicted as a pyramid like the one shown below.
Maslow contended that people must satisfy lower level needs before they will be motivated to satisfy the needs on the next higher level of the hierarchy.
Maslow's hierarchy of needs has been widely used in the social sciences and in business to conceptualise important principles, and a version of the hierarchy can provide an effective framework for describing and organising the building blocks of customer experience, specifically in business-to-business environments.
The following diagram depicts the six factors that collectively define an exceptional experience for B2B customers.
Each element in the diagram is a type of need, or an outcome, or a condition that most B2B customers want to satisfy, achieve, or experience in their relationship with a vendor.
These factors or elements of customer experience are fairly self-explanatory, but here's a brief description of each.
- Functional quality/performance - The vendor's products or services provide the expected level of functional benefits and exhibit a high level of reliability.
- Economic impact - The vendor's solution was (or can be) purchased at a reasonable price. The solution has an acceptable total cost of ownership and delivers an acceptable return on investment.
- Ease of doing business - This element encompasses the functional aspects of the customer-vendor relationship. It includes attributes such as convenience and vendor responsiveness.
- Trustworthiness - Information provided by the vendor is accurate and reliable, and the vendor consistently keeps its promises and fulfills its commitments. In addition, the vendor consistently puts the customer's interests ahead of (or on par with) its own.
- Strategic insight - The vendor regularly provides insights that help the customer address major strategic challenges, sharpen its competitive differentiation, and/or identify new growth opportunities.
- Personal value - Personal value refers to the benefits that are experienced by the individuals who are/were involved in the initial purchase of the vendor's solution and those who will make or influence the decision to continue the relationship with the vendor. Some of the most important personal value benefits are enhanced self-esteem and professional reputation.
As the diagram indicates, these customer experience needs are arranged in a hierarchy, but as with Maslow's model, the hierarchy is not based on the absolute importance of the needs.
Instead, the hierarchy describes the sequence in which customers focus on and prioritise each type of need. As a general rule, customers will focus first on the needs at the bottom of the hierarchy. Once those lower level needs have been met, their attention will shift to the need in the next higher level of the hierarchy.
The hierarchy reflects the natural and common-sense way that most customers think about their experiences with a company, product, or service. For example, when customers first encounter a product or service, their attention will be on functional performance and economic impact. Once customers have determined that the product or service is providing an acceptable level of functional and economic performance, they will focus more on whether the vendor is easy to do business with.
As a general rule, customers will focus first on the needs at the bottom of the hierarchy. Once those lower level needs have been met, their attention will shift to the need in the next higher level of the hierarchy
It's important for marketing and customer experience leaders to understand that lower level customer experience needs don't disappear once they have been initially satisfied. They must continue to be satisfied, or they will again become customers' primary focus.
If, for example, a competitor significantly improves the functional performance of its product, customers may quickly decide that the performance of your product is no longer satisfactory.
Therefore, it's critical to constantly monitor your performance against all of the customer experience needs in the hierarchy.
G. David Dodd is a consultant and author who has been advising and supporting B2B companies for over 25 years. He works with clients to evaluate major strategic issues and initiatives, develop business and marketing strategies, create authoritative, compelling content, and design effective content marketing programs. He also helps clients...