Avoiding the One-Night Stand

Stating that all customers are not created equal is hardly an oversimplification. But, just like the pigs in Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” some customers are more equal than others. No company has unlimited resources to equally service or support all its customers. Repeat buying power, the essence of customer loyalty, is everything. Some customers are worth a great deal, some may become more valuable over time, some may be valuable for a brief period but may be easily lured away, and some are never likely to become valuable.

Stating that all customers are not created equal is hardly an oversimplification. But, just like the pigs in Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” some customers are more equal than others. No company has unlimited resources to equally service or support all its customers. Repeat buying power, the essence of customer loyalty, is everything. Some customers are worth a great deal, some may become more valuable over time, some may be valuable for a brief period but may be easily lured away, and some are never likely to become valuable.

At minimum, companies need to segment their customers so they can determine how much longer that customer will remain with them, how much revenue each customer will contribute, how much and what kind of services the customer should receive, and what efforts will be needed to keep them whether they are new, at risk, or even already lost. Also, if a company is changing product or service focus—such as beginning a new customer experience management or frequency marketing program—decisions will have to be made about which customers it wants to retain.

Just as companies are becoming smarter about keeping the customers they want or “firing” less attractive customers through stepped-down services, they have to invest more upfront, at the beginning of the customer life cycle, in learning which potential customers will be the most valuable over time. This goes beyond segmentation. It is almost pre-segmentation.

Here’s a prime example. The business of gaming in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, numerous riverboats, Indian reservations and offshore is built not on a house of cards, but a house of numbers. At Las Vegas casinos like the Rio, those players who gamble $1,000 a day with the Rio, whether they win or not, receive the designation “hosted guests.” These are the kinds of customers the Rio works hard to acquire. Their level of play accords them VIP status, with more “comps” (free dinners, show passes and other gifts). Each hosted guest has an individual staff host assigned to check on them and provide any needed services.

The host is actually a highly paid, personal customer service representative. It’s an important position, which casino operations like the Rio consider pivotal to their success. The hosts cultivate relationships with the players; and VIP players are encouraged to call their hosts before arriving at the casino, so the host can have show tickets, restaurant reservations and suites set up, per the player’s profile.

There’s even a higher echelon of gaming customers—those players who have a $1 million line of credit. They get the best suites and virtually everything the casino has to offer. They’re nicknamed “whales,” and with good reason. At the Rio, this means a suite with 7,000 square feet of space and bathroom sinks with gold-plated faucets. These players are relied upon to bet in the Rio’s secluded back room, called the Salon, where they may play baccarat and roulette with $100,000 chips.

In an industry like gaming, where the level of customer migration is very high, it is imperative that casinos not only keep the players they want but target the right customers in the first place. They do this in a number of ways, including geodemographic profiling for their acquisition. For the high rollers they’ve lost, many of the casinos make an extra effort to get them back, as well.

Advanced companies have begun applying “conversion” models, seeking customers who:

  • Need less direct motivation (incentive) or indirect motivation (promise of support and committed resources) to purchase;
  • Have demonstrated more resistance to claims and attempts to lure them away;
  • Are less price-sensitive;
  • Are more accepting of occasional value delivery lapses and are less likely to accept alternatives if the brand/service is unavailable; and
  • Demonstrate more positive attitudes about “their” brand.

In the retail automotive industry, as another example, potentially loyal new customers take less time making their purchase decisions, consider fewer dealerships, are less price-driven, and rely less on magazine articles and other media and more on previous experience and personal recommendation.

Some years ago, South African researchers Jan Hofmeyr and Butch Rice created an effective conversion model, which helped marketers develop and sustain effective customer loyalty initiatives programs for customers, both new and established. They found that, beyond customer needs and value delivery requirements, companies must understand the potential depth of a customer’s commitment to the supplier. Part of this means identifying the degree of customers’ tangible and intangible involvement with the company. Tangible involvement can include such factors as the actual dollar cost of switching to a competitor. Intangible issues include the emotional strength of the connection or the upset and insecurity created by switching suppliers. The model also measures the degree of attractiveness of competitive brands, based on what these customers want as prioritized elements of value.

Hofmeyr and Rice’s model also enabled them to view their clients’ marketplace in terms of users and non-users. Users can be divided into those who are truly committed and loyal and those who are “convertible”; that is, declining or wavering in their loyalty. Non-users—prospects and previous customers—are divided into potentially convertible and non-available (because they are committed to their current supplier).

Detailed analysis could then be developed for current customers and prospects. The percentage of current customers who are entrenched, or completely loyal, can be identified, as well as those who have moderate loyalty, shallow loyalty, or convertibility (true vulnerability). Non-users, or prospects, could also be identified in a similar manner: those who are available, or highly receptive to a competitive offer; and those who are ambivalent, but who would switch with the right value-based incentive. Other prospects, who have average or strong loyalty to their brand or supplier, are considered unavailable by the model.

The model has been used to plan the amount of advertising and promotional activity required for new customers and prospects, according to their commitment level and potential value. It has been applied in more than 50 countries and for scores of products and services.

On an everyday, or tactical, basis, companies should also always be on the lookout for customers who could represent more of a problem than the revenue they might contribute. Through our own research, we’ve identified seven such types of customers:

  • Non-Complainers—Customers who never express any negative feelings about performance or identify potential areas of improvement may just be hiding their disaffection. Marketing scientist Theodore Levitt has said: “One of the surest signs of a bad or declining relationship with a customer is the absence of complaints. Nobody is ever that satisfied, especially not over an extended period of time.”
  • Over-Complainers—Customers who tend to complain frequently, sometimes irrespective of whether their issues are really consequently or not, can beat down a company’s morale and overtax its support infrastructure.
  • Price Grinders—New customers who pressure their suppliers to lower prices on initial sales in return—they often promise—for future business that may or may not exist.
  • Chronic Defectors—When customers have a history of pulling their business without explanation or warning, this may be a sign that they’ll never be happy with any supplier’s performance. Their volatility and refusal to communicate issues makes them undesirable.
  • Friends in Need—These “quick-jump” customers who want to find new suppliers with great haste often don’t make purchase decisions very well, or they may have economic challenges.
  • Discourteous Slobs—Any customers who are chronically rude and verbally abusive, even though they may not contact their suppliers frequently, can undermine a company’s morale and operations. If they have reason to be upset or annoyed, that’s one thing. Their concerns should, obviously, be addressed and dealt with as quickly as possible. If the negative behavior continues, they’re probably not worth the effort.
  • Misfits—The needs of some new customers may simply not align well with the supplier’s ability to perform. If, for example, 99.9 percent of the deliveries to customers are made during normal business hours and the new customer wants delivery in the middle of the night, unless this customer truly represents a great deal of business, they are probably not serviceable.

If most people are like me—a statement always open to interpretation—virtually every day they will see content or promotional material from long distance telephone companies offering their latest and greatest low cost plans. Typically, they don’t try to find out about my business and personal long distance needs. They just try to push the plan. One of the enduring reasons for the high rates of customer turnover in this industry is the lack of scientific prospect targeting, and attempts to understand potential customers’ tangible and intangible switching issues, done at the outset. Perhaps it’s time for their conversion.

What Customer-Centric, Customer-Obsessed Companies Must Do

In building relationships with and value for customers, my longtime observation is most organizations tend to progress through several stages of performance: customer awareness, customer sensitivity, customer focus and customer obsession. Here is the “executive summary” version of some conditions of each stage.

In building relationships with and value for customers, my longtime observation is most organizations tend to progress through several stages of performance: customer awareness, customer sensitivity, customer focus and customer obsession.

Here is the “executive summary” version of some conditions of each stage.

Customer Awareness
Customers are known, but in the aggregate. The organization believes it can select its customers and understand their needs. Measurement of performance is rudimentary, if it exists at all; and customer data are siloed. There’s a traditional, hierarchical, top-down management model, with “chimneyed” or “smokestack” communication (goes up or down, but not horizontal) with little evidence of teaming.

Customer Sensitivity
Customers are known, but still mostly in the aggregate. Customer service is somewhat more evident (though still viewed as a cost center), with a focus on complaint and problem resolution (but not proactive complaint generation; internal groups tend to point fingers and blame each other for negative customer issues). Measurement is mostly around customer attitudes and functional transactions, i.e. satisfaction, with little awareness of emotional relationship drivers. The organization has a principally traditional, hierarchical, top-down management model, with “chimneyed” or “smokestack” communication (goes up or down, but not horizontal), with some evidence of teaming (mostly in areas of complaint resolution).

Customer Focus
Customers are both known and valued, down to the individual level, and they are recognized as having different needs, both functional and emotional. The customer life cycle is front-and-center; and performance measurement is much more about emotion and value drivers than satisfaction. Service and value provision is regarded as an enterprise priority; and customer stabilization and recovery are goals when problems or complaints arise. Communication and collaboration with customers, between employees, and between employees and customers is featured. Management model and style is considerably more horizontal, with greater emphasis on teaming to improve customer value processes.

It’s notable that, at this more evolved and advanced stage of enterprise customer-centricity, complaints are thought of more in terms of a life cycle component, and recovery is more of a strategy than a resolution.

Customer Obsession
Throughout the organization, customer needs and expectations—especially those that are emotional—are well understood, and response is appropriate (and often proactive).

Everyone is involved in providing value to customers—from C-suite to front-line—and everyone understands his/her role. Customer behavior is recognized as essential to enterprise success, and optimal relationships are sought.

Performance measurement is focused, and shared, on what most monetizes customer behavior (loyalty, emotion and communication metrics—such as brand-bonding and advocacy—replace satisfaction and recommendation).

Customer service (along with pipelines and processes) is an enterprise priority, and seen as a vital, and profitable, element of value delivery.

The management model is far more horizontal, replacing traditional hierarchy; and there is an emphasis on teaming and inclusion of customers to create or enhance value.

Companies that are customer-obsessed, and what makes them both unique and successful, have been extensively profiled by consultants and the business press. Often, they go so far as to create emotionally driven, engaged and even branded experiences for their customers, strategically differentiating them from their peers.

In addition, these companies focus on the complete customer life cycle, and much more on retention, loyalty and risk mitigation (and even winback) than acquisition. Support experiences are strategic, nimble and seamless, and often omnichannel. Multiple sources of data are used to develop insights. Recognizing the information needs of their customers, they invest in altruistic content creation (over advertising); and they communicate proactively and in as personalized a manner as possible

Customer obsession, what I refer to as “inside-out” customer-centricity, has been a frequent subject of my blogs and articles: One of Albert Einstein’s iconic quotes reflects the complete dedication of resources and values needed for an organization to optimize its relationships with customers: “Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master.” Mastery requires, as well, a storehouse of experience coming from experimentation; so, just like in the pole vault and high jump, we can expect that the customer-centricity bar will continue to be raised.