As January comes to a close, I thought it might be beneficial to pause for a moment and provide some thoughts on what trends we see emerging in the science of customer listening. Over the next several blogs, I will comment on a key trend and discuss the implications for customer strategists. Before delving into our first prediction, we need to discuss what we saw in 2012 from a customer loyalty perspective.
Loyalty in 2012: More of the Same
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Source: Walker calculations based on data from http://finance.yahoo.com
It may go without saying that 2012 was a volatile year – the chart above shows the progression of a $100 investment on 1/3/2012 in each of the major stock indices – the Dow 30, S&P 500 and the NASDAQ Composite. The values are not as important as the shape of the curves – it demonstrates that 2012 had many ups and downs in the market. There are a number of reasons for this – the broader global economy, geopolitical unrest, the year-end drama related to the fiscal cliff, and so on. In this period of volatility, the impact on customer loyalty is not surprising – among Walker’s client base, the percentage of customers who are Truly Loyal was flat between 2011 and 2012; on a quarterly basis, we saw more variance in the loyalty scores with a drop in the last quarter of the year. This is not isolated to Walker; many of the other industry benchmarks suggest that customer sentiment was flat at best in 2012 (and some have not yet published Q4 results).
Source: Walker Benchmark Database, B2B-Oriented Programs
Is Loyalty Dead (or Even Achievable)?
Despite some claims that customer loyalty is dead (or dying), I would offer that loyalty is still achievable – however, the bar is higher. The underlying reason for this relates to the divergence of expectations vs. reality – that is, as the economy has tightened, funds have become more scarce; this scarcity means that buyers are more selective in how they use their funds. This results in customers not only being more price-sensitive, but they also have heightened expectations on what they will receive. At the same time, providers have been forced to scale back on resources (as a result of constrained growth and/or uncertainty in the market), which ultimately means that they are ill-equipped to deliver on these expectations. This creates a “perfect storm” of dissatisfaction, which means that customer loyalty is harder to achieve.
So, this brings me to my first prediction/forecast for the coming year:
Quarterly loyalty scores will remain volatile as long as there is excessive uncertainty in the markets and/or the economy continues to be challenged.
What can we do about this? I would offer the following strategies for consideration:
- Review your workflows to ensure an “outside-in” perspective – Conducting a review of the experience that your customers have with your organization can be quite revealing. Conducting a customer journey mapping exercise can help to highlight where gaps exist and can assist you in re-tooling processes to ensure an optimal customer experience. This is particularly critical among companies that have recently merged with or acquired another company.
- Communicate – both externally and internally – During periods of economic turbulence, it is better to over-communicate. From a customer perspective, seek to gain an understanding of not only their expectations, but also what drives those expectations. Understand how their business works and how your products and services can help them to achieve their goals.
From an internal perspective, reinforce the role that customer centricity plays in your strategy; on the front line, managers should spend time with their direct reports to identify how to integrate customer perspective into their day-to-day operations. Above all else, though, leaders must walk the talk – leading by example communicates better (and louder) than words.
- Control what you can control – Much (if not most) of the volatility in the markets are outside our control; it is tempting, then, to throw our hands up and surrender – that is, just let the chips fall where they will.
Rather than take a sit-and-wait approach, we would recommend that you identify (from the steps noted above) what aspects you do control – for example, you control how your organization approaches the customer experience, you control how you choose to innovate, and you control how you respond to competitive threats. Focusing on what you control – and then acting on it – can be much more empowering that waiting for the winds of change to blow in your favor.
Even though customer loyalty is more difficult to achieve in these economic times, those firms who successfully crack the code will find that they have one of the few sources of long-term sustainable competitive advantage in their strategic arsenal. I would argue that the payoff is worth the effort necessary to realize customer loyalty.
Over the next few blogs, we will review the other factors that I am forecasting will be the trends and themes that customer strategists should be thinking about in the coming year. In the meantime, I would be eager to hear your thoughts – what are the themes and trends that you are tracking?
Mark A. Ratekin
Senior Vice President, Consulting Services