WE'VE all seen it before - a customer gets annoyed with long wait-times at a restaurant, and turns to Twitter to vent: "Service at @FakeDiner sucks. Been waiting for more than an hour for dinner - don't waste your time with this place!" Other customers who have had similar experiences chime in, corroborating the initial crummy review.
The owner of Fake Diner is indignant - "My service does not suck!" - and is anxious to rectify the situation immediately. His instinct is to convince these customers that their bad experiences were one-off encounters, and that his service staff are well trained and held to high standards.
Wrong move, says Danny Lai, country business manager of Acorn Marketing & Research Consultants. "It's basic human psychology - nobody likes to be told they're mistaken. People like to be right about what they believe about you, so telling someone they're wrong is a terrible way to start a conversation."
For that reason, Mr Lai says that companies shouldn't spend their marketing money on attempts to re-educate customers. "Many companies go down the path of wanting to champion some deeper truth that is directly contrary to the impression customers already have. It's a very costly exercise and it doesn't really work."
Instead, and perhaps counter-intuitively, firms that feel aggrieved by unjust public perceptions shouldn't get defensive, but begin a charm offensive. "Start by affirming their beliefs, and build on those positive things that customers already know and like about you . . . After all, there is bound to be something they like, which is why they're (patronising your shop) in the first place," says Mr Lai.
What's the customer thinking?
To find out exactly what customers like about Fake Diner restaurant - possibly an uphill endeavour, given the cloud of unhappiness swirling around the business online - Mr Lai recommends hiring a consumer research consultancy. Whether formally or otherwise, many companies already conduct their own surveys. But Mr Lai thinks that isn't enough.
"Many companies think they already know what is being said about them. Yet, consistently, we find that firms never quite get a full or accurate picture of themselves," says Mr Lai. Part of this has to do with the fact that it's hard to wangle honest (and sometimes unflattering) responses, especially if the company is the one doing the asking.
Mr Lai also says that companies often fail to ask the right questions, or those that will solicit the most useful information. "Research consultants have usable questions - ones that will allow you to ask something in a non-biased manner, so you can get the information you want. Sometimes, the most direct questions are not the most useful ones.
"Say you're testing a new product - the most obvious question to ask a customer is: 'Do you like it?' But the question misses the point, because how much someone likes a product is affected by how much they're familiar with it."
Indeed, there are many other indicators, apart from a customer liking a product, that can help to predict its success.
"Consultants can help to ask questions that will help you find out whether the product solves a problem (or gap) in (your customer's) life. Even if the consumer can't imagine it being useful right now, through the research process you might be able to figure out what needs they have," says Mr Lai.
He adds that asking consumers what they would improve is a popular - but rather useless - question. "Firstly, customers will always tell you that they want it cheaper - which may not always be the best route to take. But the most damaging thing is that customers will start to list things that your competitors are doing. It's only natural, because they've seen it happen elsewhere.
"The irony is that if you take their advice, you're making a cheaper product that mimics (those of your) competitors - so in the end there's no innovation from your side."
But what if Fake Diner's customers are so fed up with what they perceive to be poor service, that the consumer research shows there is nothing they like?
"There's no such thing as everything is bad," says Mr Lai firmly. Even if a company scores poorly on all fronts and ends up with lower scores than its competitors, he says that the firm can still draw useful insights from the data collected. "Fundamentally, every brand has strengths and weaknesses, and our job as consultants is to help companies spot the things they're relatively better at. We find the positive potential, and go and accentuate it.
"So after conducting the research and collecting the information, the firm can say: 'You told people we were not bad at this - and you were right! We're actually very good about that.' And then you (broaden) the conversation to talk about other things that you do well, which they might not already know about."
How much to spend?
Given the importance of building one's brand, Mr Lai believes that all firms should engage in marketing and consumer research activities, as long as they aren't in the red.
Based on his knowledge of industry rates, Mr Lai estimates that firms should plan to set aside anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000 when engaging a consultancy. While that might sound like quite a bit of money especially for cash-strapped small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), Mr Lai says: "The danger is putting in a small sum of money that will only do half the job, and make you very unhappy. And when (all is said and done), you'll think: 'I wasted my money, I'm never doing that again.'
"It's like staying in a $60 hotel room in Singapore; after your stay, you'll say Singapore is a terrible place for hotels - but that's because you only paid $60. The reality is that if you had been willing to pay more, you would have learned that Singapore has some of the best hotels in the world."
Despite the importance of brand building, Mr Lai notes that very few SMEs pay attention to such activities. However, with the government's push for higher productivity through automation, he believes this is bound to change.
"In the past, a curry puff seller could only make 50 curry puffs a day, because they were made by hand. But then he secured government funding through the PIC (Productivity and Innovation Credit) scheme, bought a machine, and now he can make 2,000 curry puffs in the same amount of time. That unwittingly brings the company to the next level - when you produce more, you have to find new ways to sell.
"So before, maybe branding wasn't so critical. As a neighbourhood curry puff shop, you (would have needed) to sell to just a few aunties every day. But now it's different. You have to somehow achieve the same kind of loyalty with a group of people you didn't grow with."
And that, he says, is what brand-building is all about.