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The only thing that matters is loyalty

The one thing, the most important thing that we seek in delivering great customer experience is to build loyalty. If our customers are loyal we have little else to worry about. But what is loyalty and how do we achieve it?

Loyalty is the unswerving devotion to something. At its strongest, loyalty cannot be broken. However, we know that loyalty can and frequently is broken. That is because something that we call loyalty isn't. If we drop by a sandwich shop on our way to work, and do so regularly, the owner may believe we are loyal. The sandwiches are good, the prices are right, and the shop is convenient. If another shop opens that is more convenient and has a range of sandwiches equally or even more attractive at a keen price, we may find that our head is turned. The loyalty we had with the sandwich shop was transactional. It suited our convenience. In the same way we regularly deal with the same bank, the same supermarket, and the same suppliers. They believe us to be loyal and yet they are mistaken because our loyalty can easily be prised away.

The loyalty that is enduring and that is much more difficult to break is that which is based on emotions. If we have an emotional connection with something and it is a strong emotional connection, it may be difficult if not impossible to break.

So what is it that creates strong emotional connections? Many factors play a part. The first thing to say is that a strong emotional connection is not something that is built by a one-off event. Forget the books that tell you that the customer has to say "wow" when you do business with them. It helps if they have a good and memorable experience but this is a road to nowhere. You cannot create a "wow" event every time you do business. Indeed, repeated "wow" events become expected and if you fail to deliver them your esteem will soon be punctured. Amongst car brands, Volkswagen has built considerable loyalty. It has done this by being boringly reliable. In other words, emotional connections are created over time and repeated with a level of consistency such that the customer trusts you completely.

Another important aspect of emotional loyalty is the need to connect with someone’s soul. Herein lies a problem. A computer or a website doesn't have a soul. The widget or product that you are buying doesn't have a soul. It is the person that you deal with when ordering and receiving the product that has a soul. It is the person who pulls out the stops to get you out of a fix who has a soul. If this personal relationship is strong enough, the customer will feel a strong sense of attachment because they trust you to fulfil their need.

Consistency is vital. You can damage loyalty by what seem like small things. If the customer cannot get through to you at a time when they are desperate to speak, it doesn’t matter about the past occasions when they were put through immediately, you’ve let them down and they will remember it. If you buy shirts from Marks & Spencer for years because you think the quality is great, but then buy a shirt which is missing a button, all that good stuff of the past can be jeopardised.

Perhaps the most important factor in building loyalty, especially emotional loyalty, is something that is simple in concept and yet difficult to control. It is your brand. A brand is the distinctive way in which your company is positioned in the mind of a customer. It is built up, usually over years, by advertising, repeated experiences, social media discussion, and recommendations from friends and colleagues. A brand changes over time. In the first instance it is simply a recognition symbol – perhaps the name style or logo which connects with you. As time goes on the brand begins to have a meaning, far deeper than its visual portrayal. In fact, as time goes on the brand stops being that of the company that promotes it and it becomes owned by customer. At an extreme level a football club is a brand. The people who support the club identify with each other in a tribal way. They have loyal support for the club whatever happens – a change of ownership, change in team or a fall in its position in the league. They will stick with the club no matter what. It is their club. They own the brand. A nation’s flag is a brand and, as we know, people will give their life in its support.

Coca-Cola is a good example of a brand that enjoys wide recognition and this surely helps its penetration of the global market. Probably less than 5% of people are truly loyal to the brand. If you ask in a restaurant for a diet Coke you probably use the word “Coke” in the same way people use the word “Hoover” when they mean vacuum cleaner. And when the waiter asks if you will accept a diet Pepsi instead, most people acquiesce. After all, Pepsi and Coke are pretty similar beverages. However, look at the problem that the small band of truly loyal customers of Coca-Cola created in 1985 when they were told that the recipe was being changed. For years they had been told their drink was “the only one”, “the real thing” and suddenly it seems this was not the case. The adverse press and poor customer reactions to new Coke resulted in the classic drink being reintroduced just three months later. This isn’t loyalty at the level of a country or a football club but it does indicate the power of a strong and positive brand.

We often say that great customer experience isn’t complicated – but it is hard work. It’s not that different to marriage. You have to be able to connect at an emotional level and you have to be able to build trust in spoonfuls rather than in huge ladles. And those spoonfuls need to be repeated again and again so the recipient feels that they would never want to be without them.

Scott Magids, Alan Zorfas, and Daniel Leemon published a paper in Harvard Business Review in November 2015. In it they listed 10 "emotional motivators" that can be used to drive customer loyalty. They are worth thinking about:

1. Stand out from the crowd.

2. Promote a positive mental attitude.

3. Create a stress free state.

4. Minimise the obligations and restrictions of doing business.

5. If possible, make the business experience pleasurable – even fun.

6. Make the customer feel that they are part of a group of similar minded people.

7. Show that you care about the surroundings and the environment.

8. Embrace self-improvement, not only with your products and service but also with your ideals.

9. Make the customer feel secure – that you will be there for them tomorrow, the next day and for years to come.

10. Make the customer feel that they are joining in something that is successful and that goes beyond financial measures.


Jan 01, 2023

Thanks for this timely New Year perspective on loyalty. Something that marketers should consider as they make their New Year's resolutions.

I agree that loyalty is frequently misunderstood, both in terms of what it really is, and how to build it. Consider all the "loyalty" programs retailers and credit cards employ. These offer percs--primarily financial--for usage. In effect, these are bribes, which really imply there is no loyalty to the store or card. Consumers will simply switch to an alternative offering when a better bribe is offered.

As you say, loyalty is essentially emotional, with trust being the most critical component. This encompasses consistency in quality and service delivery. It also implies a relationship with the offering (brand, store, etc.)…

Paul Hague
Paul Hague
Jan 02, 2023
Replying to

Thank you Fred. We agree absolutely with your comments. Technology is critically important in so many parts of our businesses in driving efficiency and very often improved services. However, it has its dangers. There is the temptation to remove human contact and it is human contact that drives emotions. As you say, we can be forgiving about the odd lapse in service as nothing and nobody is perfect. But, removing human connections does take our loyalty for granted and it does feel like a one-way street.

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