Speaking Directly: Customer loyalty a hairy experience

The following column, which appears each issue, looks at new and emerging trends in direct marketing. Alternating columnists are Barbara Canning Brown, a leading figure in the Canadian direct marketing industry, and David Foley, a specialist in database marketing programs.Strategy also...

The following column, which appears each issue, looks at new and emerging trends in direct marketing. Alternating columnists are Barbara Canning Brown, a leading figure in the Canadian direct marketing industry, and David Foley, a specialist in database marketing programs.

Strategy also invites other news items or column submissions for this section. Enquiries should be directed to Mark Smyka, editor, (416) 408-2300.

Everywhere I go, it seems someone is talking about building customer loyalty and using database marketing.

What I don’t see is very many people doing anything meaningful about it, from a consumer point of view.

Recently, I experienced an example that gave me new hope.

But first, Scene One:

I have been a faithful customer of the same hair salon for at least a decade. But, I’ve been faithful in physical form only because, in one way or another, I’ve left after almost every visit feeling irritated.

It always took several hours. Everybody moved at a snail’s pace. And, it seemed as though just about anything was more important than serving customers.

Talking to friends who happened by, taking the dog for a walk, finishing lunch, going outside for a cigarette. These things actually happened.

Complaining had no effect.

And, in all that time, not once did I receive anything in the mail, not once did I receive any special treatment, not once did anybody ask whether the service was satisfactory.

So, why did I keep going back for so long?

Habit, inertia, procrastination, masochism, who knows? Aren’t those all wonderfully positive, loyalty-building attributes:

So, guess what finally happened? I switched to another salon.

Scene Two:

First visit to the new salon.

I was asked to fill in a form with my name and address, which were entered into a computerized appointment system.

I was told how long each stage of my procedure would take.

The stylist brought me coffee and a selection of recent magazines to look at while he worked on my hair.

Every hour, an attendant came around selling snacks for those (like me) who might have missed lunch to fit in a hair appointment.

But, all that is not the best part.

My appointment was on a Thursday afternoon. The following Tuesday, I received a mailing from the salon. All black and white. Good quality paper, but nothing fancy.

The note inside was dated the preceding Friday: ‘Dear Ms Canning Brown: I would like to thank you for visiting our salon recently. I trust that your service and experience was a pleasant one.

‘We welcome any comments, positive or negative, and hope to see you again in the near future. I am enclosing a scale of charges for you, indicating the range of services and prices we offer.

‘Also, if you present the enclosed business card on your next visit, you will receive a free bottle of mk shampoo.’

The note was hand-signed by the owner. It was enough to make me think they valued my business and really wanted me to come back again.

And, guess what? I will.

I use this simple example to illustrate that building customer loyalty and using a database in a marketing mode requires neither rocket science nor alchemy.

Let’s look at the elements:

1. Timeliness: my experience at the salon was still fresh in my mind, and within less than a week, I was reminded of it and pleasantly surprised by the speed of the communication.

2. Acknowledgment and appreciation of the customer’s business: thank you is such a simple thing.

3. Request for feedback: remember, the average business never hears from 96% of its unhappy customers and the average customer who has a complaint will tell nine or 10 people about it.

On the other hand, 95% will return if they feel the complaint is resolved quickly.

And, asking customers for feedback doesn’t mean you formulate a self-serving questionnaire that only gives you the news you want to hear.

Recently, I examined the survey used by a major hotel chain. My conclusion was that they didn’t want to know what I really thought, otherwise they would have asked different questions.

Be careful your questionnaires and surveys don’t just tell you only what you’re prepared to hear.

4. Invitation to repurchase: the objective of turning a one-time buyer into a two-time buyer is a direct marketing adage as old as the hills and twice as enduring.

Not to mention that the only way to finance the cost of constantly acquiring new customers is by having sufficient profitable repeat customers.

5. Suggest additional products and services: every communication with a customer is a selling opportunity.

There are those who may have trouble with the notion of constantly selling customers, but, keep in mind that today’s consumers are looking for information, and, in the case of my salon story, they were simply letting me know something I wouldn’t have known otherwise.

The result is that I am now a better-informed customer.

6. Incentive for repurchase: keep it simple. Make it relevant. Give it value. A bottle of shampoo for a salon visit. Bingo.

7. Accountability: here’s one that many forget.

Untold dollars are spent writing glowing letters to customers which are then signed by a non-existent, made-up person.

The president or owner does not have to answer all customer correspondence personally, but it sure leaves a warm, fuzzy feeling when he/she cares enough to use their own name in messages to customers.

Conclusion: I can’t wait to find out what happens after my second visit.

Barbara Canning Brown, a 20-year veteran of the direct marketing industry, is a direct marketing consultant specializing in catalogues.