business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Customer loyalty is a strange thing. It’s enduring and yet fragile. It’s simple and yet stunningly complex. In many ways it can be explained the way US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once explained his view of obscenity: “I know it when I see it.”

Although with many businesses Stewart’s comment gets turned on its head. We know customer loyalty only when it is lost.

Currently, one of my own most enduring areas of customer loyalty is being tested. Now granted, this will not be a perfect example because it comes from sports and it’s easy to argue that sports metaphors are both overused and less than useful. The rules of competition in sports are so different that many lessons in winning and losing can be oversimplified. (I write this knowing this is my second consecutive column referencing sports. Forgive me.)

I’d argue customer loyalty is an area of rich lessons. Because while sports fans express their passions in ways that few loyal customers ever will, their loyalty can be tested in very understandable and relatable ways.

Even casual readers of MNB know that Kevin and I share a major affliction: we are fans of the New York Mets. Our team has had some magical years and incredible triumphs. We’ve had great players, great memories and more. But being a Mets’ fan is a labor of love. The team regularly struggles and is stuck competing in a city with the hated New York Yankees, possibly the most successful sports franchise of all time.

Yet we endure we because the word fans itself is simply shorthand for fanatics.

So what does all of this have to do with business? I think that’s actually pretty simple. Like it or not, customers can become fans or loyalists, though to a lesser extent. They get used to our stores, our products and services. Over time they learn the good and bad, such as which cashiers are quicker or nicer, which departments are best.

In many ways they find a way to stay loyal, which is why it can be so tough to win a customer away to a new business. It can take a lot to lose them.

This year, the Mets are finding a way to lose me. It’s more than their incredible incompetence of the field. I’ve been a Mets fan since the team's beginnings and strangely enough, I’ve learned to enjoy the incompetence - something I wouldn’t say about many business relationships.

What’s gets me this year is an apparent indifference. The team’s troubles in many ways are traced directly to ownership's financial woes, brought on from an ill-fated relationship with the now incarcerated financier Bernie Madoff. As the owners look to recover their footing, the main goal seems to be fielding the least expensive team possible.

In short, it seems to me - and a lot of other fans - as if the franchise is simply not trying and that is galling. In fact, it’s to the point that my son, a second-generation Mets fan, is urging us to stray to the exciting and geographically closer Baltimore Orioles.

But here’s one last place where the comparison gets tested. Although we may stray with our emotions and our dollars, we can easily return when we see signs of improvement by the Mets because it is easy to do so. We can read about the moves the Mets are making, follow signs of new player acquisitions and get a strong sense of improvement.

Lost customers for stores or products don’t get easy clues like that. They don’t get box scores alerting them to new efforts and rejuvenation.

When they leave, it’s very hard to get them back because the bad taste of incompetence and indifference is hard to lose.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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