Illusions of Customer Loyalty

October 3, 2009

As I read a WSJ article on the European grocer Asda’s new customer loyalty program, I was impressed to be learning about an actual loyalty program.   Most organizations create customer retention programs and then mistakenly call them loyalty programs.  This wouldn’t be a big deal, except that a mislabeled loyalty program can prevent a company from creating a real one.

Let me explain.  When companies pay customers to try out their products and services, it’s part of a customer acquisition program.  When companies pay customers to remain customers, it’s part of a customer retention program.  When companies invest in activities that increase customers’ willingness to pay, they have a customer loyalty program.  When a loyalty program works, it increases the chance that your customers will choose you over a lower-priced competitor.

European grocers have been touting their “loyalty” cards for years, with Tesco claiming the largest one.  These are effectively retention programs, where customers earn future discounts based on their current purchase behavior.  Companies like Tesco are bribing their customers to remain customers.  This is a classic retention tactic.

I was struck by the following quote in the article, which revealed that Asda might really be going after a loyalty and not retention program:

Making a dig at rivals’ customer-loyalty programs, Asda Chief Executive and President Andy Bond said he thought customer loyalty couldn’t be bought with plastic points or discount vouchers.

Asda is experimenting with a very different set of activities then its competitors.  Instead of offering discounts, it’s involving its loyal customers in strategic decisions such as which products to offer and how they should be arranged in the store.  Some customers will be given early access to products so that their opinions will have more influence.  Good customers will effectively earn the right to be a part of the company’s choice-making process. They will earn the right to co-create the value they eventually consume.

I’m intrigued by this idea because of the shared benefits of greater customer involvement — Asda’s customers make the service better, and become more devoted to the brand along the way.  Everybody wins.  And if customers turn out to be very helpful, Asda will compensate them accordingly:

…starting early next year, Asda also will reward customers who come up with the “brightest idea” that saves the business money. If the suggestion is implemented and saves Asda £2 million, a customer could be in line to receive a check for £100,000, or 5% of the first year’s saving.

Again, that line between customers and employees blurs.


Upside Down Operations: Self-Service Can Increase Labor Costs

September 29, 2009

A “self-service” play almost always has a strong cost component.  The model’s logic is that if your customers are doing more of the work, then your employees can do less of it — and can be paid less for it.    Of course, firms look for additional advantages to customers meeting their own needs such as increased retention, but the desire to drive down costs anchors most of these initiatives.  (For a dated look at these type of motivations, see this link.)

I want to share a recent research finding that upends this logic in surprising ways.  Dennis Campbell and I studied what happened to customers after they adopted online banking services, which are essentially designed to drive people away from retail branches that are costly to build, maintain and staff.   The web’s promise of low-cost, scalable self-service business models seemed like a reasonable direction for the banking industry, and so we studied the option to measure just how much companies could save.  We were then shocked to discover that the cost to serve these customers increased after they moved online.

As we investigated this phenomenon, we uncovered something interesting.  When customers move online, they become more engaged with their financial information.  They can suddenly spend hours examining each transaction, and no one is line behind them to hurry them along.  This new consumer behavior, on its own, is not problematic for the banks.  But the  heightened level of engagement can also drive customers to consume more full-service resources from the bank.  Customers now call more.  They have more to say and more to inquire about.  They even visit branches more often.

In other words, an unintended outcome of self-service is increased engagement, and a predictable outcome of increased engagement is the desire to engage even more.  The lesson I take from this research is that managers must anticipate the potential impact of self-service on their customers’ engagement.  If it seems likely that engagement will increase, make sure that the goals of a self-service model go beyond potentially elusive cost savings.  Make sure that improved service is a central part of your agenda.  Indeed, make sure that the project will be considered a success even if costs go up.

Who should pay attention to these findings?  New self-service options that make customer information more accessible are ripe for this dynamic.  Think online health records, not pumping your own gas.


The Cure for Service Complacency

September 1, 2009

The NYT described how the post office is responding to reduced demand as customers increasingly turn to alternatives for exchanging letters.  The action is late, arguably decades late, and not at all uncommon.  When organizations face limited competition (in the case of the post office, it was literally no competition), they often suffer from what I like to call service complacency.  Service complacency is the malaise that infects a culture when good service feels like a choice rather than a business necessity.

While this conclusion may seem reasonable on its surface — you have nowhere else to go, dear customer, so delighting you needn’t be my goal today — it denies an important truth.  Even if your competition is not visible today, your increasingly dissatisfied customers are a beacon for them.  And the new entrants that you can’t yet see often don’t show up in the form of direct competitors, but rather as enablers of the workarounds your customers have already resorted to using.  This is a much more serious threat since the rules of engagement aren’t immediately obvious.

In the case of the post office, customer dissatisfaction had been brewing for decades, but regulation literally gave customers no alternative.  This mix of high retention but low satisfaction was the perfect breeding ground for service complacency.  The post office’s most demanding customers started to get creative, which is often a red flag.   They started using fax machines, then e-mail, then e-mail with attachments.  When FedEx finally entered to deliver original documents quickly and reliably, the dynamics of the entire industry had already changed.  At this point, FedEx was not the post office’s biggest problem.

On the one hand, you could say this is just the march of technological innovation, and the post office could do nothing about it.  I think there’s more to the story than that.  Customers are typically slow to embrace innovation when existing solutions meet their needs.  But when an existing solution disappoints and disrespects them, which was the service experience that many post offices were delivering, then adoption of alternatives can happen at lightening speed.

How should the incumbent respond?  The are two enormous hurdles standing in its way.  First, it has to learn how to treat customers as if they have a choice.  And, second, it has to create an operational culture where controlling costs is a matter of survival.  Neither of these steps will be easy for the post office.  Competition has not forced the post office to care deeply about cost or service, and it’s hard to develop these muscles simply because Congress decides it’s time to start using them.

Today, the post office relies heavily on sending junk mail and packages that we order online.  This will not be enough to sustain it.  Unless the organization recognizes the intensity and range of its competitive threats, a fear that should show up in every single line item and every single customer interaction, then I’m not optimistic it will overcome its service complacency.


Because Customers Asked for It

July 28, 2009

The NYT recently did an article on the company Lululemon, which has been targeting the niche yoga market.  I had a strong reaction to the interview with the CEO, at the point where the reporter tries to understand why the company had branched out in surprising ways from yoga-related items:

O.K., but why does the chain sell, for instance, rain jackets? Customer demand, Petersen says: “They asked for it.”

At first glance, this statement should not be controversial.  The logic is straightforward:  give customers what they ask for, and your business will thrive since you get to guarantee demand before production.  This rationale is particularly attractive in markets where the cost of misjudging demand — exacted through markdowns, stock-outs, and inventory obsolescence — can make the competitive difference.

But this same strategy has also led countless companies into trouble.  Why?  Because customers typically don’t understand the operational implications of their requests.  They don’t have complete information.  Customers often know what they want, but they don’t know whether you can organize your operations to deliver it effectively.  They don’t know what else you’re doing or planning to do, or how the cost and quality of those things will react to their desires.

It is a company’s obligation to consider both customer demand and operational complexity as it decides what to offer.  If adding a product or service is straightforward given your existing operational footprint, then fulfilling requests may make sense.  But if it means expanding that footprint in significant ways, then the decision is much more complicated.

I often see operational complexity run amok in companies, particularly in difficult economic moments.  There can be an overwhelming temptation to create demand, any demand.  I have seen well-intentioned managers in virtually every industry produce what customers ask for and end up with an operating environment that is difficult to control in terms of reliably delivering excellence or profits.  The moral?  Listen to your customers, but know that they can’t save you from yourself.  Only you know the true costs of their demands.


United Breaks Guitars

July 13, 2009

United Airlines baggage handlers broke Dave Carroll’s guitar.  Google United Airlines these days and two links dominate:  United’s official site and a video of a song Carroll wrote called, “United Breaks Guitars.”  The video has been watched over a million times.

Carroll reports that he actually witnessed the instrument’s demise, when fellow passengers on his United flight looked out their windows and yelled, “they’re throwing guitars out there.”  He then began a fruitless campaign of trying to get the airline to reimburse him, a nine-month ordeal captured in the video by a parade of apathetic employees.  United’s explanation?  As reported by the Chicago Tribune, Carroll had made a procedural misstep by not filing a claim within 24 hours.  There was nothing they could do. Sorry.  And so Carroll wrote a song.

There is no question that the video is a PR problem of the worst kind.  As a friend of mine said, “I’ve seen more press about this song than actual United ads.”  Bad service and United Airlines are now powerfully linked in the minds of consumers. But United’s bigger problem is lurking in the hundreds of comments posted everywhere this story is being told, from individual blogs to pillars of the mainstream media.  These comments make a compelling case that indifference towards customers is business as usual at United.

United spokespeople now say that they’re going to use the video to help the company improve its service, and my prediction is that these efforts will fail.  The company’s language is tentative.  If Carroll’s experience illustrates a systematic pattern of failing customers — and the anecdotal evidence suggests that it does — then United’s leadership will need to do something much bigger than launch a superficial service initiative.  They will need to find the courage to return to the blueprints of the business model and take responsibility for the fact that they created a system that reliably produces mediocrity.

Having no direct experience with United’s service design, here’s my guess as to what drove the behaviors that infuriated Carroll:

1. A United call center agent in India turned down Carroll’s request for making good on the damaged guitar.  The agent was selected and trained to comply with an increasingly complex set of procedures, and he was likely measured by his ability to follow these procedures precisely and efficiently.  Did he do a good job?  The policy clearly states that claims must be filed within 24 hours, and he likely had no authority to override them.  His performance is probably also measured by the number of calls he can handle in a day and perhaps even the number of calls he can handle without passing them off.  Now put this individual —  probably the lowest paid employee at United — in a situation where customers are justified in yelling at him all day long, and it’s not difficult to predict the outcome.  In fact, the agent did his job well as the system’s architects designed it.  He followed the rules and handled the call quickly, without bothering his manager.

2. What about the baggage handler seen throwing the guitar?  It is not difficult to imagine his crew being told earlier that day that plane turnaround time is the most important driver of the airline’s success, that times had been creeping up, and that low employee effort was at least partially to blame.  What’s a reasonable response to these messages?  Getting the luggage off the cart and onto the plane as quickly as possible.  This would almost certainly require throwing bags, particularly if the time guidelines made it all but impossible to meet the turnaround goals by respecting each piece of luggage.

3. And the front-line service team on the planes and in the airports, the ones who likely fielded Carroll’s original complaint?  These teams are also responsible for all-important turnaround times, which in their case requires managing an incredible range of customer variance, from disabled passengers to families with screaming children and excessive baggage.  They probably regretted the damage to the guitar, but their jobs were on the line in a climate of declining resources to manage the problems within their direct control.  They were probably eager to return to the urgent challenge of getting passengers to their destination with fewer planes and fewer colleagues, to say nothing of fewer tools  (lunch, anyone?) to reduce the growing discomfort of  air travel today.

My point here is that if you’re committed to changing a service experience, try to understand why reasonable, well-intentioned employees are behaving in existing ways.  Only then can you expose the underlying causes of the service failure.  Most change initiatives come up short because they start with Carroll’s basic premise — that employees aren’t trying hard enough or don’t care enough.  In these situations, managers often conclude that inspiration, brow-beating and tweaks to the incentive structure will shame or motivate employees to perform better.  But employees are rarely the problem.  The problem is usually the service model in which employees are operating, which has set them up to fail systematically.

United’s leaders must take responsibility for their central role in frustrating their customers.  This means redesigning the system so that employees can succeed on a regular basis.  If the company follows Carroll’s lead and blames employees for the problem, I suspect that little will change, except the rising level of customer dissatisfaction.  For those with less musical talent than Carroll, this will mean voting with their feet not their voices.  In the absence of accountability at the top, United’s customers will desert them.


What Have Your Customers Done for You Lately?

June 22, 2009

Customer goodwill is also difficult to measure — or even define.  But we know it matters.  Certainly, it makes a difference to the top line.  Customers who like you are more likely to buy things from you and tell their friends about it.  They’re also more likely to behave once they cross the operational boundaries of your organization, which can make a big difference to service companies.  Customers with “good will” are better customer operators, better partners in the sometimes complex project of joint value creation.

How much better?  We still don’t have good universal measures of customer goodwill, but one that comes close is the number of complaints you receive relative to your competitors.  Airline customers tend to complain at a relatively high rate.  One reason is that airline service routinely fails to meet expectations.  Another is that the service is mission-critical for both business and leisure travels.  If you lose my luggage on the way to my daughter’s wedding or delay me for an important meeting, I’m going to want you to feel my pain.

But not if your Southwest Airlines.  Customers file official complaints about Southwest far less frequently than they do about other airlines, even when Southwest has similar mishaps.  Their customers also go above and beyond the call of duty in helping Southwest succeed.  A favorite example of the value of this devotion is captured in an HBS case written by Jim Heskett.  Early in Southwest’s run, an airline called Braniff International offered a 60-day “sale” on tickets between Dallas and Houston — Southwest’s core market — for half the price of Southwest’s fare, $13 instead of $26.  Southwest countered with an ad proclaiming that “nobody’s going to shoot us out of the sky for a lousy $13.”  And the company gave its customers a choice:  pay either $13 or $26 for exactly the same seat on Southwest.  80% of Southwest customers chose to pay $26.

Would your customers stick around if your competitors cut their prices in half?  There are lots of reasons that Southwest has thrived in a difficult service environment, but one primary reason is their ability to answer yes.  Let’s call it customer goodwill for short.


Competing on Customer Pain Points

May 13, 2009

In a recent Business Week article, Virgin Mobile and ING Direct were singled out as companies that are winning by defying industry trends. In particular, these companies are designing services that honor their customers’ preferences and aversions. The article quoted Peter Lurie of Virgin Mobil on its policy of abandoning the much-loathed customer lock-in:

It’s not about inventing a new technology; it’s about providing better service in an industry where [service] is done poorly.

Similarly, ING Direct has responded to its customers’ hatred of legalese and small print by creating a two-page home loan agreement. It’s similar to Commerce Bank’s decision to reject “bankers’ hours” and serve its customers on nights and weekends, when they actually have time to go to the bank.

We celebrate these examples because they are the exceptions. The norm was also captured in the article, personified by Duncan MacDonald’s experience as a Citibank executive when he warned against “penalty pricing,” or the use of fees for almost every imaginable infraction as a way to boost profit. “I was asked to resign three days later,” Duncan recalled.

I am often asked where to begin the service innovation process. One place to start is the well-understood customer pain points in your industry, the cracks in the sidewalk that everyone’s walking around, resigned to their existence and convinced that they’re not fixable. A brief history of service competition should convince you that these cracks are opportunities. Virtually every service industry I know is inflicting pain on their customers, which makes these industries ripe for disruption by a service model that champions the customer. In my experience the customer gratitude you’ll generate can translate reliably into profits.