We hear about “customer loyalty” and “employee loyalty” and I have trouble fitting these concepts into my brain. “Loyalty” – to me – is a very important virtue. It says I will support you even when it’s difficult for me, even when I don’t want to, even when it is against my best interest. Loyalty – again, to me – is two way: you bleed for me and I bleed for you. Perhaps it’s because I hold loyalty so dear I find it offensive when it’s watered down and treated as a one-way relationship.

“Customer loyalty” seems to mean that I simply prefer your products and services and choose them over others. Not much virtue in that. I might prefer your brand because of what I think it says about me or because of quality or price or because your business happens to simply be convenient for me. Calling it “customer loyalty” implies that the customer is at fault if they shop with a competitor. Yet, am I “disloyal” – is there infidelity – if I purchase elsewhere? No, I’ve made no commitments to you. No, oaths or vows. You provide a product or service. I exchange money for it. You make a profit and I gain a product or service I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) provide by myself. That’s the extent of our relationship.

I received an email a month or two ago from one of the universities I attended. They thought it would be swell if I thought I should send them a check. In fact, they thought it would be swell if I thought I had an obligation to send them a check. The email actually stated: “Your support of [X University] signifies your loyalty and belief in the university, its traditions, and the power of [X University] to impact the world.

I have a difficult time writing my thoughts about that sentence without using a lot of swear words. “Signifies”???? Signifies to whom? Who’s going to know? Am I signifying my loyalty to their accounting department? My “loyalty and belief”?!? Did I take a blood oath when I graduated? Was I knighted? Did I swear any kind of allegiance to the university’s traditions? What traditions?

Here’s the extent of my loyalty and belief in the university: I gave them money, they let me attend classes, and after a certain number of classes they gave me a degree. It’s a business transaction. An exchange of money for services.

I understand that some (many? most?) people feel a connection to the university they attended. It might even be a part of how they identify themselves, of how they think about who they are. Which makes that email all the more offensive. It’s preying off of people’s desire to be virtuous and loyal, yet providing nothing in return, not even a t-shirt or window sticker for their car. They want me to think I owe them something – that I must continue to prove loyalty –  because I chose to attend their university over a decade ago. That’s a manipulative one-way relationship and the very definition of servitude, not loyalty.

This was just an example, but how often do we do this and think our customers or our employees “owe” us something out of “loyalty”. They owe us money for our products or services, they owe us work for their paycheck. AND we owe them products or services for their money, we owe them a paycheck for their work. But once the debt is settled, it’s settled.

The best companies get this. The companies with the best reputation for customer service focus on better serving the customer’s need versus focusing on figuring out how to better get the customer to serve the company’s needs. That’s a key distinction. They know that if the customer was “disloyal” the problem is with the company, not the customer.

Hopefully our customers and employees stick around, but it’s up to us to earn their loyalty daily, not assume it or insist on it.

What thinks you?


screwing up giving the customer what they want

A couple weeks back I purchased an adapter to hook an iPad to the projector at work for an upcoming presentation. It turned out we didn’t need it so I brought it back unopened to return it. It turns out the store has a two week limit on returns and I was a few days past.

At that moment in time, the clerk has a few choices:

1) Hold to policy and deny the return.

2) Cheerfully accept the return explaining how normally policy wouldn’t allow it but because it’s unopened and close enough to the deadline he’s happy to take it back.

3) Point out the deadline. Act as though I’m trying to get something past him. Seem irritated. Stare at the receipt. Ask if I knew there was a deadline. Stare at the receipt longer. Seem more irritated. Proclaim that he’ll take the item after all in a but-you-better-not-try-this-nonsense-again tone of voice.

Unfortunately, he chose #3. Even though I got my money back, I would have been happier with #1. Rigid policy is silly, but not as blatantly stupid as being condescending to the customer. The $34 will not change my life. If he had stuck to policy, I would have been annoyed, but I would have understood because I did not follow the rules clearly written on the receipt. My bad.

If he had done the second option, I would have been thrilled. I would have understood this was something special and felt like he’d looked out for me and done me a favor.

Number three though… The sad thing about the option he chose was that I’m sure he thought he was doing the second option. He did take the return. I didn’t have to argue for it. He did bend the rules for me. He also made it clear that I was a thorn in his side, talked down to me, and left me feeling a bit of an idiot.

So close, yet so far.

It makes me wonder if I ever do that to my internal customers. Do I ever give them what they want but in a way that’s difficult, obnoxious, or makes them feel like an interruption? Do I confuse solving their problems with providing great service? Am I grateful for them or do I serve them begrudgingly? Do I ever almost give great service and then mess it up at the end?

I don’t think so, but that’s not quite as important as what they think, is it?


Underdogs don’t always win. They’re not supposed to. The odds are stacked deeply against them and to pull it off would be a miracle. That’s why we root for the underdog. That’s why it’s so powerful when they do win.

Enter Hollywood. The underdog myth is so prevalent it would be easy to think that underdogs always win. That they’re supposed to. All it takes is heart and a three-minute montage of effort set to a catchy rock tune. Suddenly the hero is as masterfully adept as the villain who has spent a lifetime at their craft.

It makes for a great story. Who among us can’t identify with feeling outclassed, mistreated by jerks, held down by the cruel and incompetent boss, played the fool by circumstances beyond our control, or being the victim of an unjust world? We’ve all been there at some moment.

Then the credits roll and we return to the real world. A place that can be as mean, vile, nasty, and indifferent as it can be beautiful, loving, caring, and inspiring. And we try to muddle through because we don’t have the answers and the world is bigger than us and feels overwhelming.

When a movie ends, it ends. There is a happily ever after or at least a resolution and a stopping point. In real life EVERY MOMENT IS A NEW BEGINNING and we don’t know how it ends because it is always beginning again.

We take actions and we make choices and we don’t know if it’s the right one or not. What career, what job, what city, what spouse? We will never know what might have been, only where we are now. And we’ll never know if today’s decisions are right until tomorrow (and sometimes tomorrow is a long ways off).

That’s what your employees are feeling. Your customers. Your boss and your kids.

Everyone wants to be the hero of their story. No one thinks they are the villain. And we all feel like the underdog.

do customers create culture?

I do most of my grocery shopping at two stores. [How’s that for a nail-biting edge of the seat start to a blog?] They are probably less than five miles apart, yet worlds different and these two stores have me wondering about company culture.

There is a lot of talk about company culture and no shortage of ideas and opinions on what it is, how you create it, why it’s important, where, when, etc. For all the discussion, I’ve never come across much on customers’ effect on culture, yet I suspect that they are a very large part of the equation.

It would be easy to argue that there is a chicken-and-egg effect where the culture, appearance, and products/services of a business attracts a certain type of customer, which reinforces the culture. Brew pubs, sports bars, and biker bars all have basically the same product, yet attract very different customers and those customers expect and uphold the culture of the business. Different types of  businesses attract different customers (duh!), but that’s not the case here.

These two stores seem very similar – both are superstores, about the same size, and owned by the same company. Both are the only grocery stores in their areas and the quality and friendliness of the employees is very similar. Where the stores differ is the attitudes of the customers.

Both stores are generally crowded and have narrow aisles, making getting around difficult, especially during peak hours. At one store, there is a relaxed it’s-crowded-but-we’re-all-in-it-together vibe. Customers are friendly, polite, and patient with each other. At the other store it’s a get-the-hell-out-of-my-war-you-idiot atmosphere. Customers are impatient, frustrated, and irritated with each other. It’s a very noticeable difference.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. Different departments or locations with the same company can have completely different cultures. Just changing one person on a team can have a noticeable effect. So why wouldn’t a group of different customers also create a different vibe?

We tend to think of it as a one-way relationship: we create a culture that will attract and support our target customers. What if it’s two-way and our customers also shape and influence the company?

Does that mean we need more or less effort on culture? Does that mean we should be seeking the customer’s thoughts more (and not in satisfaction surveys)? Does it mean nothing and we should stop worrying about it and get back to work?

What does it mean?

Your thoughts?


social media leap of faith

Social media seems to simultaneously intrigue and terrify a lot of businesses. They love the idea of their message and brand going viral and being cheerfully spread throughout the land by their adoring customers (at no incremental cost to the company). The problem is, they also want to control 100% of the message and when they find out they can’t control the message, they don’t want to play.

It’s a silly argument that is perpetual, redundant, cliché, and not going away: What if people say bad things about us? What if they hurt our brand? The response is just as obvious, cliché, and not going away: People are already saying bad things. And they are saying good things. The leaders of these companies are scared because they can’t control the conversation. They can’t control what others are saying.

What they aren’t seeing is that social media is not all or nothing. It’s not “we control the message or we won’t play at all.” The conversation is happening regardless. Pretending it doesn’t exist does nothing to stop the damage; does nothing to build the brand; does nothing to create strong relationships with customers.

That’s the key, isn’t it? In the past, the business / customer relationship was one-way. We used simplemindedly archaic terms like “customer loyalty” as though our customers owed the business something. It’s not a top down relationship like from commander to the troops or from dictator to the masses. It’s a relationship of peers and equals. Both parties have something the other party wants and values. Both parties can benefit from or be hurt by the relationship.

In Richard Bach’s book Illusions there is a story of an underwater society that clings to the bottom of a river so they won’t get battered by the current. One day, one of them, against all traditional wisdom, let go. He was initially tumbled and bruised as he was forced along by the current. But then, after this painful start, his journey smoothed out and we was swept along with, rather than against, the river. Suddenly, there was a freedom never experienced before. (I’m going solely from memory, but that’s the gist that stuck with me.)

I suspect that letting go of the idea that we must control the conversation is a very similar leap of faith. We have to let go and stop pretending that the conversation is always one-sided and people don’t say things about us. When we first listen, learn, and seek out what is being said it probably feels like we’re being hit with the full force of the current. Painful, chaotic, out of control. It’s a leap of faith.

But then, if we realize the tremendous power in actual two-way conversation, where we can respond and influence, instead of duck, cover, and retaliate, it smooths out. We shift from controlling very narrow messages to expanding and influencing and flowing with much larger discussions and conversations. The relationship changes and becomes much more potent for it.

Ultimately, I believe that influence is much more powerful than control. Control contracts. We can only control so much. Influence is expansive. We can influence far more people, messages, and relationships than we can control.

It’s a leap of faith though to shift from control to influence. When you are used to telling the customer what to think it’s a huge jump to welcoming discussion and conversation with the customer. It’s a shift from controlling the message to being transparent. This transparency shows confidence, vulnerability, and authenticity. It creates real interactions. It changes the conversation.

The thing is, it’s impossible to do a leap of faith half way. You can’t “sorta” do it. Are you willing to make that leap as a company? As a department? As an individual?


the world’s still shrinking

More and more we are playing on a global scale. Even when buying from the shop on the corner, there’s nothing to prevent that corner from being in a different state, country, or hemisphere.

With a smart phone in hand consumers can quickly and easily compare prices while in the store. Love the product, but hesitant on the price? A quick picture of the barcode will turn up the best prices available. I’ve recently been seeing concern that people will use local stores to find the perfect item, size, etc. and then order from elsewhere. This has always happened, it’s just easier than ever now.

I recently upgraded the brakes on my mountain bike. I purchased an American brand of brakes (buy American!) that were made in Taiwan (buy American?) from a store in the UK (wait a minute…). This was the first time I’d purchased from a store outside the country, but I believe we’ll be seeing more and more of it. There were no currency issues  –  their website showed prices in US Dollars based on the current exchange rate and the credit card works everywhere. Unlike the big box store that made it seem like a major hassle to order an out of stock laptop they were running a special on, this store made it as easy as possible to purchase. Finally, on top of a great price, they shipped for free and it only took a week to get it once it shipped.

Yes, there are downsides. It would be a pain if I had to return anything, it took a little longer to get than if I’d ordered from somewhere in the States (in fairness, the holidays probably slowed things down a bit), and I’m not supporting a local business (but then, I still wouldn’t be if I’d ordered from an internet retailer in the US).

Would I purchase from them again? Probably. I enjoy variety and having access to quality brands that are uncommon in the US. I’m amused by the idea of shopping in a foreign store. More important, they are getting it right. Even five years ago it would have been a real pain to order internationally. Today it’s as easy as any internet purchase. Where other businesses would shy away from international business – dealing with currency, taxes, shipping, and customs on top of long-distance customer service – this business decided to become the largest internet bicycle retailer. They have the volume to offer better pricing and invested in the effort to sort the customer service side of things.

This isn’t about bicycle parts, foreign stores, or my desire to be a little quirky. This is where the world is heading. Competing on price is difficult because there is always someone cheaper somewhere. For most businesses, especially local ones, the differentiator is really understanding the customers’ needs, service, follow-up, convenience, a cool vibe or good feeling, great people, extensive knowledge, problem solving focus, etc.

Your business is now competing with every other business on the planet. You probably won’t win on price (though you do need to be in the ballpark), but what makes your business stand out is simply: 1) how easy and pleasant is it to shop and purchase from you; and 2) how good are your people at solving the customer’s problems? It all comes down to processes and people. What is your business investing in?