Marketing Success Is (Almost) All About the Data: Optimizing Customer Loyalty Behavior Initiatives

Much of what I’ve learned over the years about sales, marketing and customer service has to do with the critical importance of customer data, and how those data are converted to actionable insights. It’s how companies generate the right customer data, manage and share data the right way, and use it at the right time. It’s also how they use data to the best effect, to optimize loyalty and profitability, that makes them successful, or not, on an individual customer basis. Culture, leadership, and systems will facilitate effective information gathering, storage and application; and, CRM, CEM, ERP, or other acronyms notwithstanding, it’s impossible to be successful without having as much relevant anecdotal and dimensional content about customers as possible.

Much of what I’ve learned over the years about sales, marketing and customer service has to do with the critical importance of customer data, and how those data are converted to actionable insights. It’s how companies generate the right customer data, manage and share data the right way, and use it at the right time. It’s also how they use data to the best effect, to optimize loyalty and profitability, that makes them successful, or not, on an individual customer basis. Culture, leadership, and systems will facilitate effective information gathering, storage and application; and, CRM, CEM, ERP, or other acronyms notwithstanding, it’s impossible to be successful without having as much relevant anecdotal and dimensional content about customers as possible.

Bill Gates, often a prophet, said in “Business @ The Speed of Thought” (1999):

The best way to put distance between you and the crowd is to do an outstanding job with information. How you gather, manage and use information will determine whether you win or lose.

He might have added, had he really understood how to create and optimize customer loyalty, that what information, particularly customer-specific information, a company collects, and how they manage, share and apply it to the customer will determine how successful they can become.

One of my key sources for the uses of information gathered by customer clubs and, particularly, loyalty programs, for example, is friend and colleague, Brian Woolf (www.brianwoolf.com). Brian is president of the Retail Strategy Center, Inc., and a fountain of knowledge about how companies apply, and don’t apply, data generated through these programs.

In a Peppers & Rogers newsletter, for example, Don Peppers quoted Brian in his article, “The Secrets of Successful Loyalty Programs”:

Loyalty program success has less to do with the value of points or discounts to a customer, and much more to do with a company’s use of data mining to improve the customer experience. Top management hasn’t figured out what to do with all the information gleaned. You have all this information sitting in a database somewhere and no one taking advantage of it.

You need to mine the information to create not only relationships but also an optimum (purchasing) experience. The best loyalty programs use the customer data to improve not only promotions, but also store layout, pricing, cleanliness, check-out speed, etc.

Firms that do this are able to double their profits. When these elements are not addressed, all you’re doing is teaching the customer to seek out the lowest price.”

Tesco, one of the world’s largest retail chains, is using its customer information for a number of marketing and process initiatives. In his book “Loyalty Marketing: The Second Act,” Brian described how Tesco leveraged customer data drawn from its loyalty program to move into offering banking and financial services:

With information derived from its loyalty card and enriched by appended external demographic data, they can readily develop profiles of customers who would most likely be interested in basic banking services, as well as an array of related options, ranging from car loans and pension savings programs, to insurance for all types of needs—car, home, travel and even pets. It costs Tesco significantly less than half of what it costs a bank to acquire a financial services customer. Without a doubt, having detailed customer information gives them a competitive edge.

A few years ago, Tesco parlayed its offline customer data to also become the world’s largest online grocery and sundries home delivery service. Additionally, Tesco uses its customer data to target and segment communications to the millions of its loyalty program members by almost infinite demographic, purchase and lifestyle profiles. In his book, Brian notes that Tesco can create up to 150,000 variations of its promotion and reward statement mailings each quarter. These variations, as he says, ” … are both apparent and subtle, ranging from the product offer (i.e., which customers receive which offers at what price) to the content of the letter and the way it is personalized.”

Tesco is absolutely a company that knows how to leverage customer information. Its customer database contains not just demographic and lifestyle data, food spending in stores and on home delivery, but also specifics about its customers’ interest in, and use of, a diverse range of non-food products and services. As Bill Gates’ statement suggests, incisive and leveraged customer data has enabled Tesco to put distance between itself and its competitors, in both traditional and non-traditional retail markets.

An understanding of the real value and impact of customer information, and a disciplined plan for sharing and using the data to make a company more customer-centric, is needed more than ever. A good analogy, or model, for CEM and loyalty program effectiveness or ineffectiveness in building desired customer behavior, may be what can be termed the “car-fuel relationship.” A car, no matter how attractive, powerful and technically sophisticated, can’t go anywhere without fuel.

Not only that, to reach a desired destination, the car must have the right fuel for its engine, and in the right quantity. For customers, the car is CRM and its key data-related systems components (data gathering, integration, warehousing, mining and application).

The destination is optimized customer lifetime value and profitability. The fuel is the proper octane and amount of customer data.

Leading-edge companies are focusing on customer lifetime value as a destination. They are collecting the right data and using the right skills, processes, tools and customer information management technologies to make sure that key customer insights are available wherever they are needed, in all parts of the enterprise. Jeremy Braune, formerly head of customer experience at a leading U.K. consulting organization, has been quoted as saying: ” … organizations need to adopt a more structured and rigorous approach to development, based on a real understanding of what their customers actually want from them. The bottom line must always be to start with the basics of what is most important to the customer and build from there.”

I completely agree. It’s (almost) all about the data.

1-Trick Ponies and Customer Loyalty Behavior

About 30 years ago, Paul Simon wrote a song entitled “One-Trick Pony.” The song describes a performing pony that has learned only one trick, and he succeeds or fails with the audience based on how well he executes it. As Simon conveys in the lyrics: “He’s got one trick to last a lifetime. It’s the principal source of his revenue.”

About 30 years ago, Paul Simon wrote a song entitled “One-Trick Pony.” The song describes a performing pony that has learned only one trick, and he succeeds or fails with the audience based on how well he executes it. As Simon conveys in the lyrics: “He’s got one trick to last a lifetime. It’s the principal source of his revenue.”

For a long time, I’ve seen this song and its message as something of a metaphor for what challenges many companies endeavoring to create customer loyalty behavior and more effective customer loyalty programs.

A key reason companies have a difficult time achieving stronger customer loyalty is they fail to provide full value and emotional relationship fundamentals. They focus on satisfying customers exclusively through basic rational and functional benefits, which is often too benign and passive an approach to create lasting value.

Mostly, they emphasize single-element or minimal element tactical approaches with customers, such as pricing, merchandise, loyalty cards or points-based programs, without determining (either before programs are launched or after they are up and running) whether this is sufficient motivation for building a long-term relationship. Smart marketers know, for instance, being a low-cost provider can be a trap and that only overall perceived value will prevail. In the United States, chain discount retailers like Caldor, Bradlees, Jamesway, Value City, Ames and Filene’s are either in trouble or have gone out of business, while Target, Costco and Walmart, with strong brand equity and high perceived value, have sustained.

Being a low-cost provider means that brand and customer strategies get little emphasis, and they require little investment. Let’s be honest. Cutting costs seems safe. The downside is it usually does not produce much loyalty (customer or staff), strategic differentiation or profitability.

In a 1980 Harvard Business Review article by William Hall (written, parenthetically, about the same time Simon wrote “One-Trick Pony), he reported study results comparing companies that competed on differentiated customer value vs. companies that competed principally on cost. On any important measure—return on equity, return on capital, and annual revenue growth—companies delivering both rational and relationship value beat the price competitors every time.

Customers can almost always locate cheaper products or services. Ultimately, they will invest a greater share of their purchase dollars with suppliers who create stronger emotional bonds and deliver superior perceived value. Competing on price, or any other single dimension, may pull away customers from other suppliers in the short run, but it will be difficult to keep them for long. Price is rarely a sufficient “barrier to exit,” and is more often an invitation to churn.

The same thing often holds true for incentive programs. Many consumers participate in programs like supermarket bonus clubs and airline frequent flyer programs, but they aren’t particularly effective at producing greater loyalty for any one airline or any one supermarket chain. Customers are often members of several programs, and the most active users tend to be those who would have been frequent purchasers, anyway. The incentive and reward structure more often benefits the already loyal rather than increasing loyalty. Gift programs, travel, dining, entertainment, merchandise, and cash award programs, and other plateau and pre-selected response stimulus programs are having an increasingly difficult time breaking through the clutter to provide unique, differentiated customer value.

Some of the online incentive programs have positively increased transactions, mostly among younger, female and active surfing potential buyers. To keep these incentive promotions from being one-trick ponies, they must be carefully targeted to the right consumers and at the right time. These programs must have four effective elements: ability to attract prospects to the website and, once there, to generate consideration, preference, and purchase. Getting infrequent buyers to purchase more often, or frequent buyers to place larger orders through the use of incentives, will hinge on how well companies leverage their customers’ profiles. Even more basic, it must be well-understood what customers perceive as value and what it will take to optimize their repeat purchases. The essentials for bricks and mortar product and service providers are virtually the same.

Generic, cookie-cutter and “me, too” discounts or incentives don’t do particularly well at increasing overall customer “share of wallet,” because they don’t sufficiently reward the customer for their enhanced purchase activity over time. All that’s really required to meet the customer halfway is infusion of some targeted, personalized elements to the incentive program to make them more attractive and beneficial.

The first step is to segment customers who should receive different incentives. This can be done through both basic data analysis and applied, or pilot, customer research. For example, for large customers who purchase infrequently, the company might have determined that, if they offer special discounts made within the near future, say 60 or 90 days, these customers would find that attractive. Customers who purchase frequently but in low volume amounts might be offered a discount on their next order, so long as it is larger than their last order. The array of potential loyalty program offerings can be customized based on identified needs.

What about incentives for customers who are both frequent and large volume purchasers? Well, start by saying “thank you” to them. Few things are more appreciated than thanks, and few companies express their gratitude as much as they should. Many forget to thank their customers altogether. This is especially critical for Web-based companies, or ISPs and cable companies, where the purchase experience is frequently virtual rather than personal. Thanked customers are more likely to go out of their way to provide positive referrals and testimonials.

Paul Simon’s song lyrics conclude: ” … the bag of tricks it takes to get me through my working day.” Companies would be well-served to have a bag of experience and customer loyalty tricks, using disciplined research and customer data to identify them, rather than relying on only one—price—to get them through.

When Companies Lose Customers …

United Parcel Service suffered staggering customer defection as a consequence of its 15-day Teamsters work stoppage in 1997. The result was that, even after their 80,000 drivers were back behind the wheels of their delivery trucks or tractor-trailers, many thousands of UPS workers were laid off. A UPS manager in Arkansas was quoted as saying: “To the degree that our customers come back will dictate whether those jobs come back.”

United Parcel Service suffered staggering customer defection as a consequence of its 15-day Teamsters work stoppage in 1997. The result was that, even after their 80,000 drivers were back behind the wheels of their delivery trucks or tractor-trailers, many thousands of UPS workers were laid off. A UPS manager in Arkansas was quoted as saying: “To the degree that our customers come back will dictate whether those jobs come back.”

The UPS loss was a gain for Federal Express, Airborne, RPS and even the United States Postal Service. They provided services during the strike that made UPS’ customers see the dangers of using a single delivery company to handle their packages and parcels. FedEx, for example, reported expecting to keep as much as 25 percent of the 850,000 additional packages it delivered each day of the strike.

UPS’ customer loss woes and the impact on its employees was a very public display of the consequences of customer turnover. Most customer loss is relatively unseen, but it has been determined that many companies lose between 10 percent and 40 percent of their customers each year. Still more customers fall into a level of dormancy, or reduced “share of customer” with their current supplier, moving their business to other companies, thus decreasing the amount they spend with the original supplier. The economic impact on companies, not to mention the crushing moral effect on employees—downsizing, rightsizing, plant closings, layoffs, etc.—are the real effects of customer loss.

Lost jobs and lost profits propelled UPS into an aggressive win-back mode as soon as the strike was settled. Customers began receiving phone calls from UPS officials assuring them that UPS was back in business, apologizing for the inconvenience and pledging that their former reliability had been restored. Drivers dropping by for pick-ups were cheerful and confident, and they reinforced that things were back to normal. UPS issued letters of apology and discount certificates to customers to further help heal the wounds and rebuild trust. And face-to-face meetings with customers large and small were initiated by UPS—all with the goal of getting the business back.

These win-back initiatives formed an important bridge of recovery back to the customer. And it worked. The actions, coupled with the company’s cost-effective services, continuing advances in shipping technology, and the dramatic growth of online shopping, enabled UPS to reinstate many laid off workers while increasing its profits a remarkable 87 percent in the year following the devastating strike.

UPS is hardly an isolated case. Protecting customer relationships in these uncertain times is a fact of life for every business. We’ve entered a new era of customer defection, where customer churn is reaching epidemic proportions and is wrecking businesses and lives along the way. It’s time to truly understand the consequences of customer loss and, in turn, apply proven win-back strategies to regain these valuable customers.

Nowhere are the effects of customer defection more visible than in the world of Internet and mobile commerce, where the opportunities for customer loss occur at warp speed. E-tailers and Web service companies are spending incredible sums of money to draw customers to their sites, and to modify their messages and images so that they are compatible and user-friendly on all devices. Because of this, relatively few of these companies, including many well-established sites, have turned a profit. Customer loss (and lack of recovery) is a key contributor. E-customers have proven to be a high-maintenance lot. They want value, and they want it fast. These customers show little tolerance for poor Web architecture and navigation, difficult to read pages, and outdated information or insufficient customer service. Expectations for user experience are very high, and rising rapidly.

Internet and mobile customers, to be sure, have some of the same value delivery needs as brick-and-mortar customers; but, they are also different from brick-and-mortar customers in many important and loyalty-leveraging respects. They are more demanding and require much more contact. They require multi-layer benefits, in the form of personalization, choice, customized experience, privacy, current information, competitive pricing and feedback. They want partnering and networking opportunities. When site download times are too long, order placement mechanisms too cumbersome, order acknowledgment too slow, or customer service too overwhelmed to respond in a timely fashion, online shoppers will quickly abandon their purchase transactions or not repeat them. Further, they are highly unlikely to return to a site which has caused negative experiences.

What’s more, the new communication channels also serve as a high-speed information pathway for negative customer opinion. If unhappy customers in the brick-and-mortar world usually express their displeasure to between two and 20 people, on the Internet, angry former customers have the opportunity to impact thousands more. There are now scores of sites offering similar negative messages about companies in many industries, and giving customers, and even former employees, a place to express grievances. It’s a new form of angry former customer sabotage, which adds to the economic and cultural effect of customer turnover.

For many of these sites, part of their charter is to help consumers find value; and, like us, they understand that customers will provide loyalty in exchange for value. They also recognize that the absence of value drives customer loss, and that insufficient or ineffective feedback handling processes can create high turnover. As one states: “The Internet is the most consumer-centric medium in history—and we will help consumers use it to their greatest personal advantage. We will increase the influence of individuals through networks of millions. We will raise the stakes for companies to respond. We will require companies to respect consumers’ choice, privacy and time, and will expose those that do not.” This may sound a bit like Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” but it does acknowledge the power of negative, as well as positive, customer feedback.

Some businesses seem minimally concerned about losing a customer; but the only thing worse than the loss of high value customers is neglecting the opportunity to win them back. When customer lifetime value is interrupted, it often makes both economic and cultural sense for the company to make an active, serious effort to recover them. This is true for both business-to-business and consumer products or services.

So how does a company defend itself against the perils of customer loss? The best plan, of course, is a proactive one that anticipates customer defection and works hard to lessen the risk. Companies need defection-proofing strategies, including intelligent gathering and application of customer data, the use of customer teams, creating employee loyalty, engagement and ambassadorship, and the basic strategy of targeting the right kind of customers in the first place. But in today’s hyper-competitive marketplace, no retention or relationship program is complete without a save and win-back component. There is mounting evidence that the probability of win-back success and the benefits surrounding it far outweigh the investment costs. Yet, most companies are largely unprepared to address this opportunity. It’s costing them dearly, and even driving them out of business.

Building and sustaining customer loyalty behavior is harder than ever before. Now is the time to put in place specific strategies and tools for winning back lost customers, saving customers on the brink of defection and making your company defection-proof.