There’s a theory in psychology called Relative Deprivation. A technical definition of the theory by Richar Schaefer is "the conscious experience of a negative discrepancy between legitimate expectations and present actualities.”
In the real world, it means that we set (consciously or unconsciously) expectations in every situation we encounter and when those legitimate expectations aren’t met we get upset.
This is VERY important in marketing. It’s the psychology behind value. What we expect to get for our money and time versus what's delivered.
I've had this post written for a while, but while at the Social Media Strategies Summit in Las Vegas this weekend, the keynote touched on the deadly move of lying to your customers with a line about McDonalds: "Clowns Lie." Hating clowns myself, and agreeing vehemently with the speaker I decided to polish this post and publish.
Unmet expectations at dinner ruined the weekend
Let’s make relative deprivation in a marketing situation simpler to understand by using a real-life, negative example.
The other night my wife and I decided we were hungry and I didn’t want to cook. Living in an extremely suburban area, our restaurant choices close-by are painfully limited to the usual chain offerings. So we decided to pack up the kids and hit the Texas Roadhouse.
Texas Roadhouse touts “Call-ahead Seating” in which you call the restaurant and find out how long the wait is, get on the list and do your waiting at home.
When I called, I was told the wait was 55 minutes and to show up then. No problem. I had a seating number and I had set my expectation. It was based on information from the process I was wrung through, and the variables assigned by the restaurant.
The expectation Texas Roadhouse set:
- I can show up at the restaurant and be seated shortly thereafter
- I must wait 55 minutes before showing up for #1 to be true.
So we waited our required 55 minutes and walked into the restaurant. Once inside, we were told it would be another 15 minutes before a table was ready.
Although not by major margins, I experienced my first negative reaction due to relative deprivation. The expectations that were set above were not met completely. But we were hungry, and it was only 15 minutes. Plus, they have free peanuts. So we waited.
40 minutes later we asked again when we could expect to be seated. We were told just a few minutes. My expectations were again adjusted, but relative deprivation had started to cause strong negative emotion to arise – especially in my wife.
During this time, we were standing near the hostess desk (because Texas Roadhouses foyers are DREADFULLY designed) and the hostesses continued to tell people walking in that the wait was around 30 minutes.
They were bold-face lying. To everyone. And it resulted in a restaurant full of people angry because their expectations weren't met.
To end an already long story, we ended up waiting over two hours to be seated (55 minutes at home, 75 at the store) and gave up eventually when the kids and wife were so surly due to relative deprivation that I thought us better off grabbing thai food and cutting our losses.
My wife was so furious at the whole situation that it nearly ruined her weekend. She fumed about it. Posted negative comments on social networking outlets. And in the process, transferred her relative deprivation-induced negativity to hundreds in the direct customer-base of the restaurant.
Lying to your customers brings serious relative deprivation consequences
For marketers, there’s a very important lesson here: Lying will create negative relative deprivation responses EVERY TIME.
At Texas Roadhouse, the issue wasn’t the waiting. The issue was the effect of the lie. The gap between the expectation of the wait and the actual wait. The restaurant knew it could never meet the expectation they set but for fear of giving up business to competition, they continued to lie.
What resulted was a ton of negative response for the restaurant.
I don’t know if this is corporate policy to prevent people from leaving, or just bad management. But the point is that kind of behavior destroys your customer base. My wife will never go back to Texas Roadhouse because in her mind, the restaurant fails to meet expectations. Same for the hundred or so people who waited with us that night. And those people will influence others. In the end, it won't be worth the lying.
And that’s the worst thing that can happen to a business in the minds of its customers.
Set realistic expectations and always be honest
When you communicate with your customers through marketing or direct interaction, always, always ALWAYS set very realistic expectations.
It’s important that the expected outcome of the customer is met to avoid the negative reaction that always comes from relative deprivation.
And never, never NEVER lie to your customers as Texas Roadhouse did. You’ll scorch your customer base like a petite sirloin left on the grill.
And no amount of free peanuts will mend the relationship.