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Idea: The Following Is Free Advice That Can Be Extremely Costly When Not Followed

Recently, we read an observation by Seth Godin about how restaurant buffets can cause a kitchen staff to slide into mediocrity. The staff start thinking, “Oh, I won’t worry about how fresh the mashed potatoes are; after all, they’re free,” Seth observes. He warns that this kind of mindset ignores something very important: Many customers may have chosen the restaurant based solely on the quality of its mashed potatoes.

This reminded us of a long-ago client—not a buffet restaurant, but a company whose product could be used in so many ways that it was easy for the company to get confused about exactly what customers wanted when they bought it. The product was similar to a versatile item like duct tape and, like that product, had developed various tribes of customers, each of whom had his or her own notion about the product’s function.

The work we did for the client was a recurring series of publications filled with helpful how-tos and guides for using the product in various ways. The series was instantly popular and, over time, the client’s own research revealed that customers viewed the how-to publications as one of the most valuable premiums of purchasing the product.

Unfortunately, some people at the company began to think like Seth’s kitchen staff. Since they couldn’t move past their own perception that something “free” was an unnecessary and cuttable cost (even with research showing how much customers valued the publications), they convinced themselves that it wouldn’t matter if they replaced the how-to publications with some discount coupons.

You can guess the rest of the story. The discount coupons  have come and gone. And as with the  once-thriving buffet restaurant category that has fallen from popularity in recent years, most of our former client’s  customers have moved on, as  well. And their “kitchen staff”? Also gone.

The moral of the story: Customers never considered the publications as being free. To them, the guides had become a vital component of the solutions they sought when purchasing the product. For them, axing the publications was akin to doing away with instructions for how to use the product.

As the now-former employees of our long-ago client learned: There’s no such thing as free, especially if customers think they pay for it.

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