The quality of loyalty is not strained,
It drops like the gentle rain from heaven;
It is twice blessed – it blesses him that gives
and him that receives.
– with apologies to William Shakespeare
Shakespeare could have been speaking of loyalty as well as mercy in The Merchant of Venice. Any good merchant of the time would have understood how customer loyalty cannot be forced or cajoled but must have as its source a genuine and free association with a particular brand.
What is it that enables a brand to develop customers that consistently and faithfully prefer it even when they have readily available options? That question is at the heart of every company whose brand competes for customers. And it is the question that begins the discussion of the development of any loyalty program.
Loyalty programs do not instill loyalty; they reward it.
If a customer continues to do business with a brand because of its loyalty program then the program has become the focal point of the customer’s loyalty, not the brand. Yet the rewarding of loyalty, above and beyond the benefits of product purchases, becomes an inextricable part of the aura of the brand.
The custom of rewarding customers with a little extra goes back a long way. The thirteenth bread roll in “a baker’s dozen,” is an old custom. In New Orleans the something added is called “lagniappe.” That French word is derived from the Spanish, which in turn comes to us from the still older tradition and language of Quechuan merchants high in the Andes. The practice and the intent is worldwide – a little something extra to keep you coming back.
The rewards of loyalty programs are tokens of appreciation. And customers who feel appreciated tend to be more loyal than those who feel unappreciated. Which is why both the design and the administration of loyalty programs must take care not to create counter-productive hassles or obstacles that will annoy and alienate the intended customers. It is not only the reward that should be satisfying but also the conditions surrounding the reward.
Anticipating the reward is part of the reward itself. Building points or other qualifying prerequisites engages the customer emotionally and builds a pleasant tension that looks forward to its release in earning the reward. That anticipation should not be diminished or quashed by indifferent customer service.
The critical role of the contact center
The role of the contact center customer service representative is a key element in the success of any loyalty program. Inquiries regarding qualification or other aspects of the loyalty program must be handled in the spirit of the program. Which means that selection and training of customer service representatives is a critical part of loyalty program planning and implementation.
Wendy Shooster-Leuchter is Co-CEO of Global Response, a contact center that handles loyalty programs for leading retailers. “Loyalty programs are an important aspect of many of the brands we represent. Customers respond to them; they become engaged with the process of earning rewards and tracking that progression. What is critical to the interaction with customers calling about a brand loyalty program is the tone and energy in the customer service representative’s voice. Any perception on the part of the caller that the customer service rep is bored or annoyed or indifferent has a domino effect on the caller’s enthusiasm, interest and loyalty.”
How Global Response and American Eagle do Loyalty
Craig Morrison is Customer Contact Quality Supervisor for American Eagle Direct. When asked about the purpose and management of American Eagle loyalty programs he responded, “My area of responsibility is for the online channel of our business, but from a customer’s perspective American Eagle needs to provide the same kind of experience regardless of why, how and where they interact with us,” Morrison said. “We are a friendly, kind of laid-back company. Those are qualities that attract our customers and that they expect in any interaction with us. That is not to say they don’t expect the highest level of service and competence – they do, but they want it delivered in a manner that they associate with American Eagle.”
No matter how well designed a loyalty program may be, no matter how generous and accommodating its requirements – all of it will be wasted unless the customer service representative delivers the “lagniappe” with a smile in her voice, her email or online chat with the customer.
“We have a progression of accomplishment at Global Response,” Wendy Shooster-Leuchter said, “Our best customer service representatives earn the title, Brand Care Specialist. They understand just how important their job is, and how their primary responsibility is to engage the customer in keeping with the culture, style and manner of the brand they represent.”
A Brand Care approach
The idea of brand care shifts the focus of service to a higher level – it puts the interaction with the customer in the context of the brand experience and heightens the responsibility from that of handling an administrative task to that of representing a major brand name.
“The contact center representative is American Eagle,” Craig Morrison says, “On the direct side of our business where I have responsibility, the contact center rep is probably the only live person the customer will talk to. That means the rep must have assimilated the AE culture completely and express it naturally when he or she talks to our customers. We do everything we can to bring that about – site visits, product displays in the contact center, careful recruiting and selection, and especially training that includes culture and brand identification. All this is necessary to build loyalty and to implement our loyalty programs.”
That thirteenth bread roll
Mark Twain said that “lagniappe” was a word worth traveling to New Orleans to get. He might have said the same about a well-conceived, well-managed loyalty program. A program that is implemented with style, grace and in a manner reflecting the customers it serves will instill loyalty naturally and effectively.
This article first appeared in the September issue of Loyalty Management Magazine.