One Bad Experience Can Ruin a Lifetime of Loyalty

Your customers are one bad experience away from being picked off by your competition.

by Nichole Kelly |

Loyalty is a crazy word. As marketers it’s something we covet, we want our customers to be fiercely loyal to our brands and to never consider going anywhere else. We want to have a brand that we are a part of turning into a “passion brand.” You know those passion brands like Harley Davidson, Zappos, Apple, Jack Daniels, Southwest and a variety of others. We want to build brands like Harley or in Jason Falls’ case a baseball team like the Pirates; the kind of brands that people are inspired to tattoo on their body. Every company wants a loyal tribe of followers that are aligned to a common purpose in the world. Brand loyalty and preference have been a major justification used for social media, especially when efforts are focused on customer retention and/or customer service.

So the big question is how often do online and offline experiences combine to create loyalty? How often does a brand misalignment offline lead to the loss of a loyal customer? And how can we know when something happens offline that impacts our loyalty? Let’s take a look with through the lens of a very recent experience I had yesterday.

Loyalty,  /ˈloiəltē/
The quality of being loyal to someone or something.
A strong feeling of support or allegiance.

What is the price of our loyalty?

The price of our loyalty is ONE bad experience.

Have you ever thought about what it would take for your most loyal customers to leave you for another brand? If you seriously think your most loyal customers are there to stay, no matter what, you have a rude awakening coming. The answer is actually quite simple. The price of our loyalty is one bad experience. You have to remember that your brand isn’t a family member that I’m forced to face every holiday dinner. My desire to “work it out” has an inverse relationship with two things: how much effort it will take and how much you pissed me off.

Case in point

Southwest tests my loyalty and loses

I’m writing this from the convenience of seat 8A, flight 344 from Denver to Oakland on an airline that rhymes with Mouthwest. I fly Southwest (okay there’s no fooling you) almost exclusively and I travel pretty extensively. Not a ridiculous amount, but two to three trips a month, so pretty frequently. I consider myself a very loyal Southwest customer. If they fly somewhere I need to go, I fly on their airline, no questions asked. I don’t even check airfares for other airlines. Today my loyalty was tested multiple times. Sometimes Southwest won, but it only took one time for Southwest to lose that affected my loyalty forever.

1)      I’m walking to the terminal. I see huge signs at BWI saying that Southwest now allows you to watch TV shows on DirectTV in-flight. My thought: Great, the horrifically slow wi-fi just got slower, but maybe I can catch up on the premier episode of Breaking Bad I missed last night. I’m still loyal.

2)      Typical Southwest flight. There were no rappers, dancing flight attendants or otherwise “spirited” moments. My thought: Thank goodness for the peace and quiet so I could get some work done. I do appreciate a more spirited staff on occasion, but this was perfect for what I needed today. I’m definitely still loyal.

3)      Since I was flying to Oakland from BWI, I had a layover in Denver. Upon landing I realize that the flight has landed late and my connection is scheduled to leave in 15 minutes. I was at the back of the plan on a full flight. My thought: Why wouldn’t the flight attendants ask people who didn’t have connections to stay seated to help out those of us who have less than 15 minutes to make it to our connections? I’m annoyed, but still loyal.

4)      Upon reaching the gate attendant, I hand her my boarding pass, slightly in a hurry I do admit. I just ran there after all, my body was still pumping. She stops me after I’ve slightly passed her, “Ma’am you’re going to need to put your purse inside of your backpack. You can’t take three bags.” I had my backpack, my purse and my carry-on that I had just taken on my last flight without incident. My thought: Really? What’s her deal? I’m so shocked; my loyalty is on the backburner.

5)      I have NEVER been asked to do this on a Southwest flight. But I did it and got back in line. My thought: This girl is on a power trip and I’m her victim. Keep quiet and get past her. If I can make it quickly my loyalty will remain intact and I’ll chalk it up to her having a bad day.

6)      The gate attendant, Jean Stearne proceeds to make me step back out of line two more times, so I can measure my VERY standard carry-on bag and to retrieve the boarding pass she took from me and left on another desk. My thought: This is absolutely ridiculous. I will NEVER fly Southwest again.

The reality is that years of loyal patronage were thrown out the window with ONE employee who proceeded to create ONE very bad experience. At the end of the day, it was less about what she did, and more about the way she treated me. She treated me like I was a disobedient child who was trying to break the rules, she used a controlling and angry tone of voice, she tried to cover her last name on her name badge when I asked for her name (which is the only reason I mentioned her by name), and ultimately she lost control of her emotions and projected them onto me. For brevity’s sake, I’ve left out several things she said and did, but I’m pretty sure running down the jetway screaming, “what did you say?” at a customer isn’t part of the customer service manual. For the curious, I said “Southwest just lost me as a customer.” To which she had no reply. She used the “FAA Guidelines” as a license to be less than respectful to a customer. As a result, it got me thinking about loyalty on the last leg of my flight and made me question what loyalty really means for a brand and for a brand’s customers. After all, I was willing to throw a lifetime of loyalty out the window over a single isolated incident.

Are we REALLY loyal to brands?

Loyalty isn’t unwavering devotion.

This leads to the next question, are we really loyal to brands? After all, it was just one experience. If it was one of my family members we’d fight, work it out and make up. For some reason, I don’t think we have that kind of loyalty with brands. We are loyal customers, we give you our patronage. We expect to be treated with respect in return. If that doesn’t happen, we might attempt to resolve the situation provided it doesn’t take too much of our time. But given the right combination of ugly, we’ll cut you off without a blink of an eye. All that history forgotten. All that future revenue lost. Loyalty is a statement of how we feel in that moment, but it isn’t unwavering. Our customer’s loyalty shouldn’t be tested or we may find that we don’t like the results.

How do you identify one bad experience?

Create a feedback loop to measure offline experiences online.

Today was a game-changing moment in my relationship with Southwest. But honestly, how would they ever know that one of their thousands of passengers had their loyalty tested to the extent of harming the relationship? This is one of the reasons that I am such a big proponent of leveraging Net Promoter Score as a follow up to any offline interaction and built into the template of ANY email communication you send to customers or prospects. My Net Promoter Score for Southwest went from a 10 to a 1, with one interaction. The only way Southwest would ever know is to ask. After all, I am a rapid rewards member, they know when I fly. How hard would it be to send an email after each of my flights asking me how likely I am to recommend them and giving me the opportunity to provide feedback on my flight experience? It’s so simple and would be a tremendous feedback loop for them. It leverages digital marketing to measure offline experiences. That’s just smart. I actually tried to give feedback once through the Southwest website. That’s an experience worth optimizing so it doesn’t make customers want to pull their hair out. Needless to say, they never got my feedback that time and I didn’t bother this time.

The first step is to ask about every experience so you can understand when your loyal customers go from promoters to detractors. The second is to use the feedback you receive to identify when you have a customer service issue that needs to be resolved. The third is to take action and communicate with customers quickly so you have a chance at turning these newfound detractors back into promoters.

Remember, we’re just one bad experience away from becoming your competitor’s most loyal customer. Try to make every interaction meaningful: offline and online.

What do you think? Do you think customers are truly loyal to brands? What would it take for you to abandon your favorite brands? Can you measure a bad customer experience in your company within 24 hours of it happening? Leave a comment and let’s have a discussion about loyalty, passion, and the costs of bad customer experiences. 

Side bar: Will I ever fly Southwest again? Yes. I have no choice because I have several trips booked for the next two months. I also have to get home from this trip.  And I don’t believe this is an experience that is representative of Southwest’s service. However, it is one that will stay with me for a long time. As a result, you can bet, that when my next trip gets booked I’ll be looking at other airlines. I’m thinking one of those airlines that has business class and free upgrades for frequent flyers sounds really good right now. Why, oh why, doesn’t Virgin fly out of Baltimore? If you have suggestions on your favorite airline leave a comment!


About the Author

Nichole Kelly

Nichole Kelly is the CEO of Social Media Explorer|SME Digital. She is also the author of How to Measure Social Media. Her team helps companies figure out where social media fits and then helps execute the recommended strategy across the “right” mix of social media channels. Do you want to rock the awesome with your digital marketing strategy? Contact Nichole