One-Trick Ponies and Customer Loyalty Behavior


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About thirty 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 that the 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 and desired long-term relationships.

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 that, 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 that it usually does not produce either 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 versus 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. Many members are just passive participants, with an array of little bar code plastic pieces attached to their key rings. The incentive and reward structure of these programs more often benefits the already active rather than increasing loyalty among less frequently purchasing customers. 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 several effective elements, beginning with ability to attract prospects to the web site, 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, proactive and customer focused companies 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 word-of mouth 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 – like price – to get them through.

Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC
Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC, specializes in customer and employee experience research/strategy consulting, and brand, customer, and employee commitment and advocacy behavior research, consulting, and training. He has authored seven stakeholder-centric strategy books and 400+ articles, white papers and blogs. In 2018, he was named to CustomerThink's Hall of Fame.


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