Customer intimacy: who is achieving it and who needs work?


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Know your customers’ is a mantra that just about every company understands and embraces – or at least pays lip service to. The question is: how well are firms actually putting the processes and systems in place to really get to know their customers, and then using that information to drive their marketing communications?

It’s a question that we at GI Insight decided to look into with our latest research project. To measure just how successfully companies are engaging their customers, we commissioned research asking consumers what level of ‘intimacy’ the brands they buy and suppliers they use demonstrate in their communications and offers – ie. how personalised are their communications. On a sector basis, the 1,000-plus UK consumers surveyed rated their service providers, the shops they frequent and brands they regularly purchase on a scale that went from ‘knows me like a close friend’ to ‘treats me like a total stranger’ – thus indicating whether their customer data was being put to good use in establishing a lasting, personal connection.

The results were converted into a Customer Intimacy Index, with a score of 100 representing the total overall average.

The index revealed that sectors with frequent transactions, regular customer contact and strong loyalty programmes among key players fared the best. Consumers gave the highest marks to their main supermarket (126), internet service provider (117), bank (116) and entertainment providers (116), recognising these firms as those that seemed to ‘know me like a close friend’. Following closely behind were mobile phone providers (109) and holiday, hotel and travel firms (108). Companies in these sectors are clearly taking the most sophisticated approach to their customer interactions and relationships, through comprehensive loyalty schemes, data-driven CRM programmes, and other forms of database marketing.

Sectors in which firms were seen to treat their customers as strangers were often those that sold big ticket items such as cars (80), computers (78) and houses (61). Also performing poorly in the index were consumer food (88) and drink (72) brands, whose direct contact with consumers is largely controlled through third parties such as retailers and dealers. The results for these firms indicated that they have to step up efforts to create dialogue and build a relationship with their consumers.

Utilities providers (103), general insurers (98), charities (97) and the clothes retailers (103) were seen as ‘friendly acquaintances’. Companies in these middle-level sectors show some degree of sophistication in building relationships with their customers but not the same level of insight or contact that we see in the ‘knows me like a close friend’ group. They should be looking for ways of taking a more tailored and personal approach to their customer communications and offers while creating opportunities to gather the sort of data that would feed such activities.

Clearly, the gathering and dissemination of customers’ data – details on their transactional histories, their behaviour, their preferences, their demographic characteristics and their lifestyles – is central to getting to know these consumers. But just collecting this information and putting it on a database isn’t enough. Too many companies fail to properly analyse the data they have to hand and then to use that information to gain insight into which customers they should be focusing on – those who are potentially the most valuable and loyal – and into how they should go about expanding their relationships with these people.

One of the most effective ways to collect the necessary data from customers and then to develop a dialogue with them that will grow into a long and fruitful commercial relationship is to build a loyalty programme. An efficiently run loyalty programme is, for most companies, the shortest route to customer knowledge that can then be used as a basis for greater satisfaction, more interaction and, ultimately, increased profitability.

By collecting and managing customer data through loyalty schemes, companies are able to gain a better understanding of their customer’s habits, tastes and more generally what makes them tick. This enables them to use well-chosen messages and incentives to make sure clients stay with them while getting them to spend more or more often – or both.

Loyalty schemes are an increasingly popular option for companies wanting to gather more information on their customers and put it to good use. Between 2000 and 2008, the top 250 companies operating loyalty schemes grew more than fourfold, according to a 2008 report by the Institute for Direct Marketing. Another GI Insight report put out earlier this year found that 71% of marketing decision makers believed that the past two years of downturn had made loyalty schemes even more important to the success of a business.

Nonetheless, a survey released by YouGov in April suggested that, while loyalty schemes are spreading, they are not being managed with the same consistency and success in every case. The report uncovered that, while 80% of UK consumers have a loyalty card, only 50% believe that collecting points is worthwhile. Only a disappointing 17% actually chose where to shop on the basis of loyalty card possession. The results also revealed that 52% of participants preferred to collect discounts at the till rather than saving up for a specific reward.

The YouGov research indicated that, when effectively managed schemes get their targeting of consumers right, the relationship between the brand and the customer is further cemented. The most popular schemes were confirmed to be those with particular emphasis on providing customised offers: Tesco Clubcard (66%), Nectar (55%) and Boots Advantage (48%). Thus the brands that really achieve success with their loyalty schemes are those that work their data and use those customer insights to engage their customers with relevant communications and offers.

While most organisations that collect a lot of customer data are managing to provide their customers with personalised, highly relevant offers and communications, there is still a long way to go before this becomes the norm across – or even within – sectors. Loyalty programmes remain one of the best ways of gathering that data and disseminating individualised communications.

There are businesses that have regular contact with customers and ample opportunities to collect data that are not doing enough to exploit those and to develop loyalty schemes that help them to better cement relationships with customers.

For those companies that don’t have the same frequent contact with consumers – those that sell big ticket items – and firms whose contact with the end customer is through retailers and dealers, there are ways develop dialogue with buyers and gather data on them. That can be achieved through innovative loyalty programmes and customer clubs that provide regular communications such as newsletters, announcements of promotions and events, servicing reminders, upgrade offers and other brand and product information.

As the UK begins to emerge from the economic flat period that has followed a deep recession, it is vital for businesses to take some learning from the downturn with them into the recovery. One such learning is the value of customer data and its vital importance for retention, cross-selling and up-selling. The key for companies that want to get closer to their customers and be welcomed by these consumers is to set up a mechanism that allows them to do that.

With this in mind, basing all dealings with a customer on a full profile of that person’s preferences and behaviour is essential. Only then can a company or brand be viewed as trusted by its customers and its communications welcomed as those of a good friend.

Andy Wood
GI Insight
Andy Wood, Managing Director, GI Insight, has over 21 years of experience in the field of database marketing and vast experience in the creation and management of retail loyalty programmes. His particular skills lie in the analysis of data and its application to improving customer communication, turnover and ultimately profit


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