Saturday, December 04, 2004


When "loyalty" alienates, when loyalty's tested

There's an ugly problem: companies decide to be obnoxious toward a customer because they don't fit this week's promotion strategy. In one day I was twice hassled, in opposite ways, for being at the wrong end of this week's promotion.

First, I made the mistake of walking into a store I hadn't visited before after seeing their advertising supplement in the newspaper that day. I was greeted at the entrance by two polo-shirted staff who asked if I was a member of the "Summit Club." Huh?, I said. I was told that only club members could shop that day, and the public could shop tomorrow. I could look around if I liked, just not shop. I would need to come back when they decided I was eligible to shop. I don't know what the Summit Club is, and more importantly, could now care less to join it. Perhaps some existing customer felt special for having a card and getting a special shopping day, but the shop managed to alienate a potential customer in the process.

My second insult that day came when I discovered my broadband connection went down for no apparent reason. I called the good folks at the ISP to sort out the problem, only to get a recorded message about help staff not being available to talk to me do to the "overwhelming" response to the new promotional pricing offer. (Funny how companies try to appear as though they are innocent victims of circumstances they had no part in creating.) In this case, I'm a "loyal" customer who is trying to stay a customer and finding that new customers, who are getting a better price than I paid for my contract, are displacing me for the ISP's attention. I spend nearly two hours on hold listening to Carpenters music waiting for help. The problem took less than a minute to resolve.

Loyalty is a concept that has imploded on itself. It is no longer meaningful, having become so ubiquitous. People used to expect occasional incentives for trying a firm out, or a bonus for repeat business. But when all marketing is based on such "incentives", customers no longer see them as special. Rather, customers feel punished for not playing the games the marketeers devise. I don't feel special for having to carry umpteen loyalty cards in my wallet in order to get a discount on anything I buy, since businesses no longer offer sale prices except to people who feudalisticly submit their personal details to the mother company.

It's harder to acquire a new customer than keep an old one, says the marketing cliche. But if it's hard to get new customers in the first place, why scare them away by making them feel second class? Every businesses need new customers, hard as they are to acquire. And if existing customers are so important, why piss them off when seeking new customers?

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