Loyalty Strategy

Managing Customer Appreciation: One Friend at a Time

Photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash

Think about growing up in your neighborhood and the lasting friendships you’ve had since an early age. How much do you value those people who entered your life and maintained that connection? What created that bond? Why have you kept in touch and remained close either in proximity to each other or across the many miles separating you as your lives have evolved over time? Who do you value most and why? When was the seminal moment that established that bond — was it when you first met or were introduced through a friend or at a shared experience like sports or music or a class?

By: David Slavick

All of these memories, interactions, and emotions form a bond, an affinity even a love for that friend. You’ll never let go and neither will they. And if you have a friend or set of friends that in many ways make you the person you are today that lifetime of memories both past and hopefully present as well as what is to come in the future will forever be a part of your life. 

As consumers we either have short or long memories. An experience that was truly delightful and worth recognizing will stay with you for quite some time. Indeed, the same is true for a less than satisfying experience which may break the bond and cause you to not be friendly to that store, website, or service provider. Worse yet the consumer doesn’t inform you about the negative experience and instead shares it out to their social network and beyond.

In thinking about all that goes in to creating, implementing, and managing customer appreciation and recognition, or simply a loyalty program of some type or design, too often the bond between friends is taken for granted. The spark of friendship, that seminal moment happens when a customer makes the conscious effort to become a member in a program. That friendship then begins in many instances at the physical store where the associate is serving the needs of the customer. The associate is encouraged and trained to greet them with a smile, ask, and answer questions to establish mutual trust and understanding as well as have a thorough understanding as to how the program works. Over time, they learn about customer preferences from how a customer takes their coffee or tea to the colors they love to own fashion style and so much more across business industries or sectors. Even the call center associate with a warm voice and sincere tone/manner establishes a friendship with customers, especially in business models with dedicated account servicing.

What are the keys to an associate having the ability to make a friend for life when it comes to associate training, communications, and change management practices? How can you enable these practices so that the most important result in any business friendship creation can be both memorable and lasting for a lifetime? 

I visited with a truly inspirational leader that I had the pleasure to team with at American Eagle Outfitters, Joe Kerin former EVP, Store Operations/Real Estate and now Principal at his own firm True Potential Coaching. He and I developed an easy guide you can follow now and into the future:

1) Start by examining your existing materials relating to your program — how long has it been since a re-fresh, does it represent any learnings since you launched, is it up to date on what associates in the field or call center have shared with you about what they like about the program as well as its shortcomings relative to understanding how it works?

2) When was the last time senior leadership sent a message to the entire organization about the program, its importance to the financial health of the company, and/or what the program represents in terms of its mission or culture of showing appreciation for customers. Noteworthy still to this day is a memorable quote from Sam Walton:

“There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.”

3) A loyalty program is enterprise-wide.  Across all departments there are key dependencies. When was the last time you asked those areas for suggestions on improving the program and especially what they have heard from “voice of customer”?  Is there any reason to improve on member experience, how all positions that “touch” the program face, speak to and fulfill on member needs and wants? If you aren’t continually evolving on this dynamic you can be assured that your competition is and that can impact program performance.

4) Define “best practice behaviors” for your Brand. At AEO, the key was the customer is always RIGHT. This philosophy meant that if the customer has a problem, a return, a service issue — listen, acknowledge their request, and take care of it without question. No arguments allowed, not even a “but” or “we will get back to you on that” — not ever. Indeed, do you know now that the program has been in practice for several years what each of your tier segments or persona expect from the Brand and the program? If so, great! If not, find out and then make the efforts to exceed it! Importantly, and this is equally essential you must apply these practices uniformly and without fail; consistent application of best practice behaviors wins in any industry or sector. There is a reason American Express and its Membership Rewards program is considered one of the best and highest rated from a satisfaction standpoint along with outstanding cardholder retention — consistency in delighting its members. AMEX does not think of itself as a credit card company, rather as a membership company. Indeed, most cardholders will describe themselves as “members since” based on what is imprinted on their personal card. Here is a quote from an AMEX executive that says it all:

“We don’t really think of ourselves as a credit card company at all. We actually view ourselves as a premium service company. We are really in the services business. We happen to facilitate payments. But it’s the experience around those payments that makes what we do unique and special for our cardmembers.”

5) Do you really know your customer? Based on personality types or personas hire associates that best align and match to who is frequently visiting the store. Hire to those traits essential for store associate success — friendliness, great listener, energetic, clear communicator, and most importantly a brand ambassador.

6) It works both ways. A company that treats its employees with respect and care will do the same for its customers.  A loyalty program represents the company’s best effort to show appreciation for a shopper’s commitment to spend and as well as advocate for the brand. Do all you can to respect, care, surprise and delight your program members. If those aspects are not in place operationally, make it happen as soon as possible.

7) Program performance is a shared celebration. Clearly communicate program goals, objectives, and metrics to the associates at all levels of the organization. Let the organization know why those metrics are critical to program success. Commit to outreach to the field with the program owners having a regular, but non-disruptive presence at district or regional meetings. Make customer recognition consistent with company standards at the group and individual performance level with vacation getaways, prizes, and store celebrations amongst staff. Make a BIG deal out of a seemingly small, yet significant effort to engender empowerment at the associate level. A thought-leader in employee empowerment, Bill Fromm my boss at Barkley, a Kansas City based ad agency and author of The Real Heroes of Business – and Not a CEO Among Them way back in 1994, made the case that the front-line worker are the real heroes of business and that those who feel empowered to do whatever it takes to delight the customer is a store’s greatest asset. He also advised that only 7% of dissatisfied customers will share their experience leaving 93% to hurt a store’s reputation by not sharing, but rather telling their friends, family, and social networks how bad the experience was. Thus, training associates to look for signs of dissatisfaction, read body language, listen for verbal cues, and all the rest is essential for member retention and new customer acquisition.

8) All the talk in CRM circles is about personalization. Do you encourage your associates to remember member’s preferences upon return to shop? Do you encourage your associates to thank members using their first name and acknowledging their membership tier status (if one is offered)? Does your point of sale do a great job of informing associates about a member’s status, rewards they have in their profile that they can use on today’s sale, prompting for a deliverable e-mail in case the one they signed up with or updated long ago is no longer deliverable? Do everything you can to leverage data and technology to help your associates be the link to the member and help them enjoy all of their program benefits.

When launching a program or considering a re-fresh, commit your attention to supporting your associates. They have the power to create brand friends for life!

P.S. A future piece will address employee participation in a rewards program, what are the advantages as well as risks with this added benefit, and how to go about managing it effectively.

David Slavick is a world class expert at CRM/Loyalty business case development, program design/strategy, and global technology assessments. He has designed some of the largest, most successful loyalty programs in retail, restaurant & hospitality, department store, and e-commerce sectors. 

Managing Customer Appreciation: One Friend at a Time
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