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Customer loyalty is great, but what about loyalty to customers?

"Brands need to stop thinking about how customers are loyal to them, but how we are loyal to customers."
Shelley Bransten, corporate VP of Retail and Consumer Goods Industries at Microsoft, speaking at the National Retail Foundation Conference on "Retail 2020: The Dawn of Sustainability"

Customers have lots of choices; and their loyalty can be easily lost. The Customer Experience Trends Report 2020 from Zendesk shows that half of customers will leave after just one bad customer experience, and 80 percent will leave after multiple bad experiences. But while many businesses spend a lot of time and money on strategies to strengthen customers’ loyalty to the company, they may be ignoring a big blind spot: their own loyalty to their customers. How often do companies chase new business, short-term sales, and ever-wider profit margins with little regard for the effect on their current customers? How often do they invest in marketing and promotions in pursuit of new customers, while allowing their customer service technology, training, and culture to fall behind? Companies pull people in the front door while the customers who were loyal exit out the back, feeling unappreciated. Maybe it’s time that businesses flip the question: Instead of asking how can they get customers to be more loyal, how can they be more loyal to customers?

If what exists between a customer and a brand is a relationship, instead of a series of transactions, both sides have to consider what they’re bringing to that relationship, beyond trading dollars for a product or service. Companies want customers to stick around through changes, hiccups, and interactions that don’t go well. They want customers to deepen their relationship by buying or subscribing to even more products and services. And they want customers to become brand ambassadors, essentially providing free marketing for the company. But what are companies willing to bring to the relationship?

If what exists between a customer and a brand is a relationship, instead of a series of transactions, both sides have to consider what they're bringing to that relationship, beyond trading dollars for a product or service.

Here are a few ways that you can begin to meet customer expectations and earn their loyalty.

Recognize your customer

In terms of recognizing your loyal customer, think about Cheers: “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name; and they’re always glad you came.” Customer loyalty programs can be great, but let’s face it, everyone knows they’re about keeping the customer loyal, not the company. If a customer has been loyal, they expect businesses to know it. They expect businesses to know how long they’ve been a customer, what products they use, and what issues they’ve had in the past. The 2020 customer experience trends report included surveys and interviews with 1,000 customer service agents, 300 customer experience managers, 300 sales leaders, and 3,000 consumers located across Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States. And it turns out that in asking for service that recognizes them as an individual customer, they actually don’t need a lot. They did want the company to connect with them on their channel of choice instead of making them use a different channel. And they wanted the agent they talked to know the details of the account. After all, if you had a conversation with a friend, and you shared some things that were important to you, you’d expect them to remember. This is key to a good relationship.

[Related read: How to use emotional data to build customer loyalty]

Respect your customers’ time

There is one asset no one can replace—time. You can replace money. You can replace stuff. You can even replace energy. But when someone has squandered your time with something needless, like putting you on hold or making you re-enter your information over and over as the minutes tick by and your problem still hasn’t been addressed, that’s time spent for no good reason. Not surprisingly, the thing customers said made them the most dissatisfied with customer service was all the time wasters: waiting on hold; having to repeat their information again; having to deal with an agent who didn’t have their information; not being able to use self-service options or having to adjust to a company’s timeframe for answering questions. Each one of these seemingly trivial things communicates that the company doesn’t value its customers’ time. Omnichannel customer service was supposed to prevent all of that, taking a digital-forward approach to customer service that includes offering a knowledge base, intuitive self-service options, and multiple communication channels. High performing companies use all the tools available to them. As the report explains:

“Companies offering omnichannel support resolve tickets more than three times faster, and their customers spend 75% less time waiting for agents to respond. These benefits multiply — omnichannel companies also handle significantly more tickets, 5.7 times as many requests on average.”

Despite the evidence for omnichannel, though, only 35% of the companies surveyed offer omnichannel communication. This means the field is wide open for taking a huge competitive leap forward by being the company that serves customers the way they expect to be served. The survey showed that getting issues resolved quickly was the top factor in customer loyalty. Time, after all, is precious.

[Related read: Would you pay for customer service from a human?]

Use customer data to customers’ benefit

Customers accept a business’s cookies, recognize they’re being stalked by that business’s ads online, and surrender to their data being widely shared. The tradeoff they expect is that companies will use this information to create a great customer experience (as the cookie notification always promises). When a customer contacts a business, no matter what channel they use or which agent they reach, they expect that person to have a 360-degree view of them at their fingertips to facilitate a fast and easy customer service experience. When that doesn’t happen, it indicates the company is only using their data to sell them more stuff, and not for their benefit.

At the National Retail Federation’s Big Show in January 2020, a session about using AI to make experiences more personal featured Jessica Murphy, chief customer officer of True Fit, a platform that collects data on how thousands of brands create and size their clothes so customers can find the right fit for them. After all, a size 6 isn’t always a size 6 and one size 6 person may be a very different shape from another.

Not surprisingly, the thing customers said made them the most dissatisfied with customer service was all the time wasters: waiting on hold; having to repeat their information again; having to deal with an agent who didn’t have their information; not being able to use self-service options or having to adjust to a company's timeframe for answering questions.

Murphy and the other panelists noted the numerous data “ponds” that have to be aggregated to get a true 360-degree view of this customer, including site data; transactional, online and offline, product data; returns data; and customer service data.

Carrie Tharp, vice president of retail and consumer with Google Cloud said, “It’s about working on that relationship. It’s not just 10 different algorithms. It’s making the customer feel like you really know them.”

This includes keeping track of the details of what customers like and using that knowledge to inform your post-purchase relationship, creating multiple customer journeys and timeframes based on what you now know about the customer.

“Post-purchase can be easy to forget,” said Boden’s Phil Lewis, head of digital experience. So Boden uses retail intelligence to make recommendations and bring in branding. “You’ve got to get that balance right between not being creepy and being relevant.” Use tech to try things and then scale out what works, based on what’s actually resonating with customers.

[Related read: 5 trends from retail's 2020 Big Show]

Invest time and resources in providing easier, better experiences

A better experience doesn’t have to involve extremes. It’s about getting the simple things right. Customers know the technology exists—because they’ve experienced it elsewhere—to be able to solve problems for themselves, get answers without waiting on hold forever, communicate via text if they’re going to be in a meeting and can’t take a call…. They know these options exist. They know that some companies’ agents can see their entire purchase history and make personal recommendations, and that some agents are empowered to get their problem solved so that they can get on their way. If they’re having these experiences elsewhere, they expect it from every company they deal with. Bottom line: In order to keep a customer relationship, businesses have to invest in the relationship.

Bottom line: In order to keep a customer relationship, businesses have to invest in the relationship.

Listen, like Amazon does

When it became clear that Amazon was taking over the retail world, people wondered what powered this juggernaut. Some of it, of course, was technology. Amazon used AI to recognize what customers were looking for before anyone else. But more importantly, as CEO Jeff Bezos explained, the company was “customer obsessed.” The company was constantly focused on the customer experience on its site and constantly tweaking and iterating on that experience. This kept them perpetually ahead of the competition. Today, the rest of the world seems to be recognizing that the point of business is to focus on the customer. According to Zendesk’s research, more than half of companies started in the past five years have a Chief Customer Officer that owns the customer experience. Companies are using Voice of the Customer with Natural Language Processing, creating customer advisory boards, and talking one-on-one with customers to find out how they feel about their relationship with the company.

Customers have had to adapt to the changing ways that companies have delivered products and services, and provided service, just as businesses have. But these aren’t the days of yore, in which customer loyalty was undying or based primarily upon personal relationships. And yet, strangely, they still can be. We’re circling back to a time when we can honor our old paradigms of loyalty and relationship using the very technology that changed it all. In the end though, we can’t expect loyalty from customers unless we’re willing to advocate for those who’ve given their loyalty to the business.

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