Do You Respect Your Customers? Cultivating Customer Loyalty in 2017

January 13, 2017 Krystal Overmyer

customer loyalty

Real talk: I love REI. It’s one of only few brands that have earned customer loyalty from me, thanks to dozens of positive interactions with the company online and in person. When I want to get my outdoor adventure on, REI is the place I turn to.

My relationship with REI is more than merely transactional, however. It’s one thing to keep going back to a brand because you like its return policy or its fast shipping. It’s another to feel like that brand respects and understands you.

As it happens, REI is the number-one brand for making customers feel respected, according to research reported in the Harvard Business Review. According to the research, respect—the idea that customer’s feel respected by a brand— is an underappreciated driver of loyalty. When customers feel respect from a brand, it drives sales.

Respectful brands

Plenty of brands would love to cultivate the kind of relationship that keeps people coming back again and again. But nifty loyalty programs only go so far. It’s the feeling of respect that resonates with many customers, and that’s something many brands fail to recognize.

Brands that cultivate respect, however, really shine. Take REI. I dig that REI respects me enough to deliver a quality product with a generous return policy. I like that its values are front and center, like the shuttering of its stores on Black Friday to encourage people to #OptOutside and enjoy the outdoors instead.

These good brand vibes mean that when I have to choose between REI and another brand, I stick with the one I feel respects me the most.

Trust, Respect, and Authenticity Are Intertwined

It’s easy to talk about why respect and trust are meaningful markers of customer loyalty. But for brands and marketers, a content strategy and customer experience that achieves those qualities can be elusive and even fleeting.

The highly recognizable nonprofit Goodwill learned this lesson recently in Omaha, Nebraska. Over decades, Goodwill Omaha had cultivated an image of empowering individuals through job skills and training, made possible in part through people’s generous donations to Goodwill stores.

An investigative report from the Omaha World-Herald turned this brand positivity upside down. The report detailed how Goodwill Omaha’s senior executives were making unusually high salaries, including a CEO who pocketed nearly $1 million in 2014, even as disabled workers earned less than minimum wage. Understandably, community members were outraged. Donations to Goodwill dropped 26 percent as a result, the World-Herald later reported.

Trust in Omaha’s Goodwill was shattered. But another factor here is respect. People felt cheated and disrespected by Goodwill. Their generous donations were used to line pockets, not help others as they were intended to do.

Confounding the issue was Goodwill’s incoherent content strategy in the aftermath of the report. Its response was tepid. A blog post noted Goodwill’s history of community contributions without addressing the issues raised by the newspaper. Social media posts thanked supporters with minimal elaboration. These efforts did little to mitigate the issues of broken trust and feelings of disrespect. Negative comments poured in on the organization’s Facebook page and went without response.

Goodwill loses customer loyalty on Facebook

This particular situation demonstrates just how tenuous feelings like trust and respect really are.

The customer quotient study, as reported in the Harvard Business Review, attempts to measure these types of customer emotions using five key attributes: openness, relevance, empathy, experience, and emotion. According to the research, high scores on these measures predict loyalty outcomes and correlated to higher profit and growth.

REI earned the top CQ ranking overall as well as in the specific areas of authenticity and respect. Accordingly, brand awareness and revenue are also on the upswing. Customer mentions of the brand are up 270 percent from 2015, perhaps because of the #OptOutside campaign. Fittingly, REI reported a 9.3 percent boost in revenue and a 23 percent increase in digital sales at the end of 2015.

Values are another important factor affecting how people feel about brands. The CQ study found that customers value authenticity. When brands “mean what they say” and are forthright about their values, they outperform their peers.

Authentic brands earn customer loyalty

Content Strategy and Customer Experience

One lesson for content marketers is that it’s easy to get consumed by things like driving website traffic, increasing sales leads, or improving search ranking. While these are important outcomes of a successful content strategy, they miss the big picture. Brands need to focus on the type of content and experiences that build mutual respect with customers, which in turn will boost website traffic, leads, and other key metrics.

Put yourself in your customers’ shoes. How would you like to be treated? What kind of customer service experience would turn you from casual customer to outspoken fan? What types of content would help you solve a problem, make a decision, or even entertain you?

Answering these questions is a continual journey. Even if you get it right, there’s no guarantee the good vibes will last forever. Consider Apple, a noteworthy brand that didn’t crack the customer quotient top 20. While the brand still makes the top 100, it has slipped year over year, perhaps because it has lost some of its emotional resonance with younger users, researchers suggest.

Respect is a powerful emotion. When customers feel like brands intuitively “get” them, they’ll keep coming back.

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