How to capture loyalty: the consumer's view

5th Mar 2007

By Matt Henkes, staff writer

What is the secret to customer loyalty? It often seems like this is less a question than it is a riddle. But is the consumer really that enigmatic? Is the key to their hearts and minds really so elusive? As deputy chief executive of the National Consumer Council, Phillip Cullum has authored numerous reports about consumer-focused issues and has featured as a guest speaker at a variety of related events.

It is fair to say that Cullum has greater insight than most into the general public's motivations and concerns. And his key advice for businesses; his incisive insight into the complex psyche of the general public? He sagely suggests that companies should realise that customers are human beings. Cue raised eyebrows and/or rolling of eyeballs.

But this is no attempt to further muddy the waters. It is treating them as human beings, he clarifies, that is the key to winning their loyalty.

“Some customers tell us they feel like they’re in some kind of Kafkaesque nightmare at times, dealing with big companies. More than anything the key is to treat people as if they’re individuals,” he says.

“I think all too often, customers are left feeling as if they are in some kind of complex system. A lot of people complain that they feel like they’re fitting in with the company instead of the other way around.”

“The companies that people talk about with passion are the ones that make them feel like they’re a name, and not just a number. That kind of personalisation is the real key.”

Building a relationship based on human interaction is of massive importance. Talking to a chief executive the other day, Cullum was told: “Think of how many businesses you call up, and the first thing they say to you is ‘what’s your customer reference number?’”

“Over three quarters of the calls his staff were taking didn’t even require this information,” he says. “So why start of the phone call with the message that you are actually a number, not a person? Wouldn’t it be better to engage on a human level then ask for the information when and if you need it?”

Continuity and consistency

A quick poll of a small number of consumers turns up a range of answers that support Cullum's view. “I don’t like having to talk to computers on the phone,” says one respondent. “And talking to people who clearly do not care about my problems or have no knowledge of the service they deliver drives me round the bend.”

A perfect example is illustrated in a letter of complaint received by an unnamed but well-known telecommunications provider. A despairing user wrote that over the course of 14 calls in a month “I have been informed that a telephone line is available and someone will call me back, that no telephone line is available and someone will call me back, that I will be transferred to someone who knows whether or not a telephone line is available then been cut off, that I will be transferred to someone who knows whether or not a telephone line is available and then been redirected to an answer machine informing me that your office is closed, that I will be transferred to someone who knows whether or not a telephone line is available, then been redirected to some irritating Scottish robot woman, and several other variations on this theme.”

Continuity and consistency are both important factors when it comes to building a successful relationship with a customer, adds Cullum. “One of the things that people tell us irritates them is when they phone up call centres and speak to a different person every time. It can seem like they’re being set back to square one each time they call.”

Obviously, it’s not realistic to expect that large organisations will be able to perform such feats, but as one consumer respondent wrote, “friendliness goes a long way”.

“I’m not saying it’s easy, but for big companies, the Holy Grail is to try and marry this kind of personal touch, with really efficient systems,” Cullum concludes. “When you crash your car, a good insurance company will call you up to find out how you are, then ask what the situation and state of the car is.”

“It’s about cutting the corporate spin, limiting that very static corporate communication and making it a much more human relationship.”

Read more features, practical case studies and white papers about customer loyalty and how to improve your customer value proposition.

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