Why Your Affinity Program Might Be Falling Short


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“How are you doing on customer loyalty?” we asked the CEO. “Great,” he told us, “our new loyalty program is really having an impact!” We probed further. “And, how do you know?” The CEO smiled and responded. “Well, our customer sat score is now up to 89 percent. We’re in much better shape on customer retention.”

His answers were typical from someone who assumed that dissatisfaction is at one end of the scale and loyalty is at the other end of the same scale. In fact, those two words require two different scales–dissatisfaction to satisfaction; and, not loyal to devoted.

Satisfaction tells us little about a person’s loyalty. Assuming that satisfaction is on the continuum with loyalty relies on three myths surrounding the impact of customer loyalty on the bottom line:

  1. Satisfaction is a measure of retention;
  2. Retention is the same as loyalty; and
  3. An affinity program is the best ticket to getting you there.

While all of these have a ring of truth, all are false.

Satisfaction vs. Loyalty

The basis of all customer loyalty efforts is to influence customers to be motivated to buy again, buy more, advocate, or show tolerance for errors. Underneath the premise is the implication that satisfied customers are essentially inert…they had a need and it was met. Satisfaction is historical, not aspirational. The demonstration of loyalty comes into play when a new need is present or a situation is at hand for the expression of fidelity.

Satisfaction is static. The notion that one is “completely satisfied” versus simply “satisfied” is a flawed construct created by marketing researchers in an attempt to ascribe a grade to a customer’s assessment. It is a bit like determining if a person is slightly pregnant, pregnant, or completely pregnant. The etymology of the word “satisfaction” is fulfillment—figuratively meaning a full cup, not a somewhat full cup. It is, or it is not full. One is, or is not satisfied.

Loyalty, on the other hand, is much more challenging to nail down. Customers who return to a store to purchase again are demonstrating loyalty. Customers who pay a premium for a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, wait months for delivery, tattoo the logo on their body, and tell “I love Harley” stories to anyone who will listen are also demonstrating loyalty. However, the two are clearly not the same. Retention and devotion are both measures of loyalty, but at opposite ends of the allegiance scale. I like my colleagues and am loyal to them; I love my wife and would not abandon her for Miss America. All this makes the discussion of factors that produce loyalty rather trying and the measurement of customer loyalty particularly dicey.

The foundation of most affinity programs is to add a feature to the value proposition that is designed to incent customer loyalty. If my tenth video rental is free, I am motivated to rent more videos and stay with Rewind Videos rather than pay a visit to Letterbox Videos down the street. If my loyalty card gets me a discount on my CVS/pharmacy purchases, I am more apt to drive right past the Rite-Aid to get there. But, is there a limit to the power of affinity programs as a customer motivational device?

It is my belief that the Herzberg Motivation-Hygiene theory is true for customer motivation. Those factors that lead to customer dissatisfaction are not the other end of the continuum of factors that lead to loyalty. They are on a different continuum. If the restaurant I visit is dingy I am dissatisfied; but having a squeaky clean restaurant is not likely to motivate me to choose one restaurant over another. That is, unless all the other restaurants in town are dirty. We all know there is a tiny percent of customers who report they were “beyond dissatisfied!” They will be discussed in another article.

Drivers of Great Experiences

If the factors that contribute to worker motivation indeed apply equally to customers (human motivation is human motivation), it would be helpful to know if some motivational factors had a higher valance than others. Herzberg, for instance, found that “achievement” was higher in its motivational power than “recognition.” “The work itself” was a close third behind “recognition.”

If you ask customers what an affinity program represents, most will tell you it is a company’s way of thanking them for their patronage. While some programs are much more effective than others in incenting retention, all fall short of delivering to customers the feeling of success or achievement. And, imagine the power of the incentive if attention to the customer’s experience (the service counterpart of “the work itself”) were added to the loyalty creation mix.

We asked hundreds of customers of several major organizations (from health care to hotels to auto auctions) what factors contributed to their loyalty to an organization. The most popular answers were “They made me feel successful;” “I got what I needed but in a way that made the value I received seem worth more than the investment I made;” “I’m treated special, not just like everyone else;” “They know me and respond to my unique needs;” and, “Their people are smart so you know you are associating with winners.” Notice the success making “achievement” theme woven through these customer responses.

The second most commonly mentioned theme focused on the customer’s experience. We heard comments like “They’re always easy to do business with;” “You never worry about getting lost;” “They respect my time;” and “Every unit works together to get me what I need—no bureaucracy.” The third factor related to recognition—”They always thank me for my business” and “They never take me for granted.” The learning’s not only matched the work of Dr. Herzberg, they confirmed the fact that affinity programs when used alone miss the full power of customer motivation.

In the September, 2009 issue of Harvard Business Review an article entitled, “What Service Customers Really Want” by Convergys executives Dave Dougherty and Ajay Murthy, noted similar results. “Knowledgeable employees,” “Addresses my needs on first contact,” “Treats me like a valued customer,” “Demonstrates desire to meet my needs,” and “Can quickly access information” topped their list. Notice the “achievement” and “customer experience” themes.

Team Effort

As a single pronged approach, affinity programs can too often lead senior leaders like the CEO in the opening paragraph to conclude that loyalty is only about keeping customers. It also entices them to view customer retention as an effective growth strategy.

Such an approach places the lion’s share of the customer growth engine in the sales department. We all know that the cost of acquiring customers can be many times greater than the cost of keeping customers. However, providing customers with a sense of “achievement” plus a remarkable “experience” (along with “recognition”) pushes loyalty towards the devotion end of the scale and turns customers into an excited extension of the sales force.

Chip Bell
Chip R. Bell is the founder of the Chip Bell Group (chipbell.com) and a renowned keynote speaker and customer loyalty consultant. Dr. Bell has authored several best-selling books including The 9 1/2 Principles of Innovative Service and, with John Patterson, Take Their Breath Away. His newest book, Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences Through Innovative Service, will be released in February.


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