We hold them captive, take away perks and charge for things like never before. So how can it be... we're so surprised... they're walkin' out the door?

Let's hold a mirror to ourselves people! The gig is up. Customers have our number and they've had it. It is just plain too much work to reap the benefits of a "loyalty program."

So check it out: Here's the classic experience customers have with loyalty programs. After reading this, how much of this stuff would make you feel loyal? Scratch that. After reading this, how much of this makes you downright exhausted and inclined not to buy from a company that would make you jump through these hoops?

The Complexity Rigmarole

You may find it great that there are fifteen-hundred partners from whom you've gotten free stuff that you can pass on to customers when they meet the massive requirements for their redemption... but who cares?

Customers receive the glossy packages that they figure you spent a fortune on printing, start reading them, and almost immediately hit information overload. Their eyes roll into the back of their heads before it's all deciphered, and program materials are tossed aside to be read another day—which never comes.

Instead... think "pearl" theory. Pick out one great pearl of an offer... something really special that you can do for a customer you treasure, and let them know what it is. Then deliver it. Customers will remember that and act on it, because it's simple and memorable.

Seen One... Seen Them All

Right now, the plethora of stuff being dumped on customers has the smell of promotion and the impact of ho-hum. It's not different enough to say "choose me," "love me." Loyalty programs are so much alike that there's not much to get excited about for customers. Instead, brainstorm something special and unique that speaks your corporate personality—something no one else would do but you.

One spa company I worked with established a personalized relaxation plan and custom-blended aromatherapy for its clients. Truth be told, it was able to establish 5-7 blends that fit the majority of its clients by cluster... but the messages and follow-up were personalized. The allure of the personal touch pulled customers back into the spa, where their treatments were customized, and the experience was extended with the aromatherapy scent.

A bunch of money-off coupons or offers just won't cut it any more. Everyone's been there and done that, and people stop paying attention when it's obvious when that's what you're calling a loyalty program.

You Don't Know Me?

I had to remind a company where I've spent more money than I can even tally that it was my birthday the other day. Not because I'm an egomaniac or need to be stroked on my birthday... but because they made a big deal about asking me when it was and told me it was special to them.

The day came and went and I didn't hear a peep from them. It was disappointing. When I reminded them (and you bet I did), they sent me a coupon code for free shipping. But the bloom was off the rose. The notion I had that I was special to them withered considerably.

More important than knowing those special days, know who your best customers are on the regular days. Make sure that you're building in the corporate memory to welcome them back, acknowledge their preferences, and ask how things are going. If they hit a glitch in their order... bend over backwards and just let them know that you know it happened and you're working on it... and that you wouldn't want to do anything to disappoint them.

You need to be constantly trolling your database to see what's happening with these important customers, and then step up to help when necessary! Remember the countless stories about the Ritz Carlton remembering whether someone preferred a feather pillow when they checked in? Even though that's programmed into the database and flagged on the customer file so the desk clerk remembers to bring it up, that gesture says "we know you—you're not a number to us. You're a person worth remembering and we care enough to remember it."

Pow! Now that's loyalty creation.


Rules and regulations for loyalty programs are simply on overdrive. Exhausted customers everywhere are dialing for dollars trying to use their frequent flyer miles during spring break or Christmas, or throwing caution to the wind...even trying for the hallowed and classically unavailable Thanksgiving weekend.

There's way too much fine print lurking at the bottom of the great programs we're promising to our customers. It's like making your best customers sign a pre-nup once they become worthy enough to be offered our hand in loyalty program marriage.

"Yes, we'll be good to you and treat you special, but only when it's good for us and you comply with our rules and when it won't inconvenience us too much or cost us too much money." Yuck. Not sure I'd want to enter into that union. Would you?

Captivate Me... Don't Hold Me Captive

We're now so tied down to programs because of the work that it takes to stay in, comply, and actually reap the benefits of the rewards, that we feel more like the captured than the captivated.

Yoox.com is one of the greats out there for delivering a captivating experience to the throngs of its loyal shopaholic customers. Now that I am considered a "superstar" by them (a corny moniker, I must admit, but one that I weirdly like), they make it worth my while in a number of ways.

Codes of course come my way regularly for a percentage-off my order, or free shipping. But I also get interesting magazines about style, notes when a new load of my favorite designer duds hits their warehouse, and they actually want to know my superstar number when I call in so they take extra-special care. They've got me over a barrel... they definitely have my number and my money.

If we are to keep luring our loyal customers back again and again, we need to keep captivating them with the touches—dare I say the "pixie dust"—that will make them want to continue throwing their cash our way.

Reinforce That I've Done Good Buying From You

First of all, if you're not recognizing the longevity of a customer's relationship with you, you've missed a major opportunity. Bluefly.com does something simple and nifty. On its website Bluefly actually keeps a tally of my longevity as a customer. Just knowing they know this feels right. When I log in to my account, it says Jeanne Bliss - fly since: 2000. I like that... and I even like the little "fly" connotation making me a part of the Bluefly community.

To me, this is a touch of corporate whimsy that's a welcome diversion from the rules and regulations and the feel that there's a bunch of "suits" behind the black curtain of the corporate machine. The personality part... what they call the "circuses" in restaurant reviews... is sorely lacking in our relationships with companies.

It's about the relationship. It's still about the personal connection that's felt with companies that keeps customers loyal to them. And reinforcing a customer's patronage with a simple thank-you and recognition of how long they've stuck with you is so simple. Shame on you if don't regularly thank loyal customers for doing business with you.

Tie It With a Bow

One business-to-business company I know actually does an annual review with its best customers of what they needed and wanted and what was delivered to them and how it was delivered. It does this for several reasons:

  1. To reinforce the strength and bonds of the relationship

  2. To summarize what they did well in, and to promise to do better in things where improvement is required

  3. To work with customers to define their needs for the future

They then use this knowledge to establish a customized "touch point" plan for their most fiercely loyal and profitable customers.

There's nothing more important to good customers than asking for their feedback, doing something about it, and then telling them what you did for them. But most companies don't close the loop. We ask and we ask and we ask with no follow-through.

Secure the relationship when you ask about how to improve, by actually doing something about it and marketing it back to your best and most loyal customers. They'll be glad they stay with a company that cares so much.

Emotions... Not Stuff!

We really have missed the boat with the prevalent loyalty program mentality. It's not about the "stuff" we give... more importantly, it's about the way we make our best customers feel about doing business with us and about how important they are to us.

Building loyalty and earning the right for continued loyalty with our best customers is about managing relationships and emotions, not program components, fulfillment houses, and the amount of logo-ed stuff we can get on their desks. See if you can't instill that in your corporation so you can add this critical and sorely missing dimension into the way that we "manage" customer loyalty.

Next time a meeting is called to discuss loyalty "programs," get people to kick around how to increase the emotional standing with your customers in addition to adding the newest whiz-bang feature to the loyalty points program. Customers will notice, and you'll find that it opens a floodgate of creative opportunity in what you can and should do for your best customers to keep them that way.

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image of Jeanne Bliss
Jeanne Bliss is the founder of CustomerBLISS (www.customerbliss.com), a consulting and coaching company, and the author of Chief Customer Officer: Getting Past Lip Service to Passionate Action.