There are brands that have been around since, it seems, the beginning of time. These are the big names in the ads that fill those convenient sandwich-making-refill-the-soda-trip-to-the-bathroom moments during our favorite TV shows; the ads blaring at twice the volume of the show itself to tell us these products are new, improved, bigger, better, faster, more! They tell us these things yet these are the same brands that our parents hauled into the house when we were kids and told us to buy when we left home for college. Our folks were loyal to these brands and for a long time so were we.
According to a new survey, though, those times are over. A new study by the Chief Marketing Officer Council and Pointer Media Network found that fewer consumers were staying with their traditional consumer packaged goods brands in 2007 and 2008 with a third of the respondents reporting that they completely abandoned their traditional favorites. Among the findings:
- 52% of highly loyal customers strayed to some extent from their favorite brand in 2008.
- 33% of these customers stopped buying the brand at all while continuing to buy the same kind of items.
What in the world happened? More to the point, does the unfortunate experience of these consumer brands say anything about the relationship your customers have with your brand? If we assume that these results show a shift in the mindset of today’s American consumers away from the kind of brand loyalty seen in previous generations, then the answer is that it probably does.
What it says is that today’s consumer is looking for the “better deal” and that when they come across it; they are very likely to jump ship. You simply cannot count on knee-jerk brand loyalty to see you through. Like a good husband does with his wife (and vice-versa), you have to remind this most “significant other” why they are with you on a regular basis, make them feel important and give them a reason to stay. If your customers feel that you have forgotten about them, they will forget you.
So, how have these major brand names forgotten their customers? There are all sorts of ways, ranging from offering products that are not really wanted (General Motors is notorious for that) to charging more for less (breakfast cereal anyone?) to changing formerly included services into fee-based services (the airlines perfected this art) to offering ridiculously sub-standard customer service (Comcast, Dell, AT&T…the list goes on and on and on…). Consumers are feeling ignored, they are feeling neglected and frequently insulted. They have developed a level of cynicism regarding how businesses treat them, usually expecting the worst, so is it any wonder they are going across the street?
What does that mean for you? It means you have to take stock of how you and your staff are treating your customers. After all, they are not coming to you for the lowest price in town. That’s at the area big-box store, where apparently the major hiring criterion is that the applicant be some sort of primate (or at least a mammal, or maybe a marsupial). No, your customers are coming to you because you offer them a better shopping experience and provide a significantly higher level of service than the proboscis monkey in a logo-bearing polo shirt who doesn’t know one product from the next (except for what’s on the product information card that you just read for yourself). However, thanks to a morning sales meeting reminiscent of an early scene in Glengarry Glen Ross, and armed with a buzz-word or two, he utterly committed to convincing you that the other, more expensive version of whatever you are looking at is the perfect “solution” for your “problem.”
This is not a great customer experience, but places like that trade only on price. Customers are only dollar amounts on a spreadsheet to them.
So, assuming that you are different and that your customers are coming to you for the service, how are you treating them? If you are satisfied with an answer such as “Well, they are being treated alright,” then you need to back and think about this more. If you have been tracking customer retention on any level—and you should—then how does that match-up with your belief that they are being treated alright? It doesn’t matter if you are gaining new customers every month; if you are losing customers it’s because they are not being treated alright, you need to know where the problem is and you need to solve it.
There are two reasons for customer loss. The first is price. There is only so much you can do about that. You don’t have the buying power of the big-box stores so you cannot compete with them on that. You can, however, compete with other small competitors, but you are constrained by your own expenses. The best you can do is price your goods and services fairly and justify the price you ask by addressing the second reason for customer loss: Poor customer service.
You can turn your customer service efforts around by remembering that:
- Good customer service is everyone’s business . From you, the owner, through the management to the people on the floor and behind the counters, good customer service has to be everyone’s top priority.
- Good customer service is a top-down affair . That means it all comes from you, the boss. If you are going to engender an atmosphere where good customer service is the norm, then you must lead by example.
- Good customer service is an investment. Don’t consider any small additional expenses you might have to incur to make things right for your customer to be losses. Look at them as investments in retaining that customer.
- Good customer service means taking responsibility . Things go wrong, even with the best of us. Customers don’t like it when things go wrong, but they tend to care more about how you deal with problems. Take responsibility, make it right (at least as right as possible) and generously compensate your customer for the trouble your mistake put them through. The expense of doing this, plus the possible loss of future business that you are working to save, are reminders to strive to do better. Heed that reminder.
Solid customer service, the kind of customer service that gets people to stick with you; to shell out a little more even during a recession, comes from a customer-centric business philosophy. If you want your customers loyal to your brand, you must make satisfying the needs of your customers—as much as a partner as a vendor—your top priority. After all, that is why you are in business in the first place.