Archive for the ‘Customer Service’ Category

Great Customer Service Reps are Born, not Made

11-25 Hiring Employees smallAll new hires need some formal or informal training to learn the ins and outs of their jobs, including customer service reps, who need to master basic company policies and procedures connected with customer interactions. While most employees who master training become great workers, perfect policy and procedure proficiency does not automatically make customer-facing employees good at their jobs.

Great customer service requires a special breed of people. Whether they sell to customers, help them navigate the aisles or resolve their issues on the phone, they display a genuine caring and helpful spirit, while being authentic. You can't teach that spirit, so your job is to seek it out from the time you write the want ad and throughout the interview process.

Advertise and Assess for Character Traits Before Technical Skills

Exceptional technical skills are meaningless in a customer service rep who doesn't deal well with people, so ask for people skills in the heading of your employment ad. A heading like, "Customer Service Rep with Computer Experience" attracts people who can log calls. A heading like, "Do People Come to You for Help?" draws in people who really like to help others. By all means, list minimum qualifications within the ad, but focus on attitude and people skills.

Of course, the interview requires the same type of focus. Be prepared to pose customer-related scenarios to find out how the applicant will handle them. And, even if some applicants fall slightly short of the skills requirements, listen for signs of trainability. Friendly, helpful people with basic computer skills can learn how to log calls, even if they have never before worked in a customer service environment.

Identify the Right Character Traits

You probably have no training in psychology, but that doesn't mean you have no capacity to recognize applicants who have a natural affinity for customer service. Here are some of the character traits to look for — and how to identify them:

  • Strong communication skills: Face it; angry or frustrated customers often do not communicate clearly. The reps you hire must be able to listen and understand long before they deliver a clear, unambiguous message. During the interview, applicants with the knack for two-way communication rise to the surface when you ask unclear questions. If they tactfully ask for clarification, they are better communicators than applicants who answer the wrong question.
  • Patience and compassion: Customers seldom seek out support when they are happy. In the worst cases, they are so livid that no solution seems to satisfy them. Your reps need a thick skin to avoid striking back at unearned verbal attacks. Then, they need the stamina to find resolutions that meet the customer's needs, while displaying a genuine degree of compassion for the customer's circumstances (no pity, please). A good way to test for these traits is to present an unsolvable issue and monitor the applicant's patience levels every time that you reject another solution.
  • Proactive problem-solving: Your company may have a rule book for resolving typical complaints. But even when reps memorize every rule, undocumented issues frequently arise. If you empower your employees to make decisions on the fly, raise some hypothetical situations to make sure that applicants have enough common sense to respond appropriately — and when they recognize the need to seek management intervention.

Mirror the Work Environment During the Interview

Traditionally, short phone interviews are a first step before bringing applicants in for one or more face-to-face meetings. But, does this really tell the whole story for a phone support applicant? Sure, these people may need to interact with other employees, so meeting in person makes sense. Still, the phone interview may be the best way to assess what their on-the-job performance will really be like.

If the position involves phone support, maybe the phone interview is most important because it lets you listen for a smile and get an idea of how well applicants read emotions over the phone without of the benefit of facial queues. Similarly, consider meeting in a coffee shop or restaurant to see how traveling sales reps handle business conversations in noisy environments — and to check their table manners.

Put Yourself in the Customer's Shoes During Each Interview:

You may be interviewing as the boss, but you need to listen to each answer as if you were the customer. Customers quickly recognize the difference between genuine support and scripted problem-solving. You can certainly teach new reps about the support process. You can even teach them to avoid certain stock phrases — like responding to a thank you with "no problem."

But helpfulness and winning personalities come from the heart. Bruce Nordstrom, of the third generation of customer service-oriented Nordstrom management, said it best: "We can hire nice people and teach them to sell, but we can't hire salespeople and teach them to be nice."

Five “New Normals” That Your Customer Experience Needs To Keep Up With

A neon sign with the words "Open 24 Hours" against a brick wall. 3D render with HDRI lighting and raytraced textures.Here are five places where your customer experience may have fallen out of sync with what today's customers are looking for. Check the list and see where you stand.  It can make a real bottom-line difference today, and a sustainability difference over at least the next several years.

1. Good self-service options are a must: No matter how good your human-delivered customer service, customers expect self-service options as well. Self-service, which includes everything from web-based e-commerce to IVR (interactive voice response telephone systems) to concierge-like self-help touch-screen menus in public spaces to passengers printing their own boarding passes at home before traveling, is a powerful trend in customer service, and companies that ignore it, pursue it reluctantly, or violate the basic laws of its implementation will be left in the dust.

There are various factors driving the self-service trend: customers' round-the-clock lifestyle, a buying populace that is increasingly tech savvy, and even in some cases the higher comfort level of socially anxious customers when doing business with machines rather than face to face or even on the phone.

2. Extended hours are the new 9-5 Customers expect extended hours: hours that you’re open, hours that you provide support.  This may mean 24/7 or as close as you can get. For example: For its advertising clients, Google now not only offers support in 42 languages, it does so nearly around the clock, and offers English language support English-language support 24/5. That’s pretty good, considering we’re talking about B2B, non mission-critical support.

Customers also expect more flexibility and options during traditionally “off” hours. For example, if you’re in foodservice, consider letting customers order from either the dinner or lunch menu in the mid-afternoon, and consider offering a cold sandwich menu available late in the evening after the kitchen has closed but your bar is still open.

3. Faster, faster, faster Do you still have internal company documents with obsolete standards like “We strive to respond to Internet inquiries within 48 hours.”  Maybe such a time frame made sense a few years ago (I actually doubt it, but maybe), but today, such a response time is he equivalent of 36 years in Internet time.  Your customer support standard needs to be response within just a few hours; after that, your customer is going to assume that you’re never going to get back to them. An intensified expectation of timeliness also applies to product and services delivery, an area where is obviously one of the leaders. Amazon’s example, and the twitchiness that apps and the Internet itself invoke, means that your company’s traditional definition of “fast enough” probably isn’t, anymore.

4. Customers are looking for fun even in what used to be dull: On the one hand, there's a new expectation that fun, adventure, even ‘danger’ can be incorporated in potentially mundane interactions. Business travel is a great example of this: More and more travelers try to integrate some adventure, some local exploration, into what are ostensibly business trips. Conversely, airlines whose long-haul flights offer a “quick dine” option so the tray isn’t in the way when passengers are trying to work have their heads screwed on right.

5. "If I don't have a picture of it on my phone, it didn't happen": Social consumption is now the norm. Lisa Holladay, branding and marketing guru at The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, tells me she's heard this sentiment lately from young customers.  This means that if business isn't building opportunities for social sharing into the customer experience, you're missing out on a chance to delight–rather than drive away–your customers. 

Never Stop Believing in the Importance of Every Single Customer

11-13 importance of every customer smallSad but true: The level of focus and attentiveness that’s common when your business has only a few customers tends to slide when your five customers become 50, or 500, or a thousand. The commitment that you had in the early days to keeping close to your customers, with the high level of care and knowledge of the customers that requires tends to fall by the wayside as you grow.

You stop signing your notes by hand. You stop writing “thank you” on the invoices. You get rid of Jackie and Joanne, your quirkily charismatic receptionists, and switch to an auto-attendant to answer incoming calls.

This loss of focus doesn’t happen on its own, or overnight. At every step of this downward journey, there are defining moments, the moments when you answer, one way or the other, questions like: Do we really want to stop including a postpaid return envelope with our invoices? Should we just let it slide when a new employee is sneaking texts in on the job, in sight of customers, where in the past we would have been sure to gently and quickly correct such behavior?

These moments represent your chance to prevent, or slow, the blurring of your initial customer focus, but only if, in every single case, you answer the relaxing of standards with the following retort: “If we would do it for our first customer, we’ll do it for our 10,000th.

The secret, in other words, is to never stop believing in the importance of every single customer.  Never start believing – as cell phone providers and so many companies in so many other industries have – that there is an infinite cohort of customers out there for the taking, if only our marketing and sales get the promotions and discounts out there far and wide.

Tell yourselves instead that there's just one customer, the one you're facing. The one you need to follow up with, to make sure her problem was successfully resolved.

There's only customer Jim. One Margo. One Alecia. Which means that even after you have thousands of customers, you need to do everything you can to maintain the mindset that every one of them is a core customer—and to treat the loss of a single customer as a tragedy.

Here's why: Because every single customer is irreplaceable.

Regardless of the size of your market segment, once you start writing off customers, I can predict the day in the future (and it's probably not far into the future) when you’ll be out of business.  

And this is a calamity to be avoided.

Let your competitors keep thinking of customers as an abstraction, as an infinite plurality. You need to think of them, and serve them, in the specificity of their individuality, their Jim-ishness, Margo-ishness, and Alecia-ishness.

Jim, who likes his service languid with plenty of time to consider his options. Margo who is always in a hurry, and doesn't care how your day was. And poor Alecia, whose cat is at the vet, and isn't in the mood for your Pollyanna ponderings.

Now, every customer's different from the next one — Jim from Margo, Margo from Alecia, and Alecia from Jim. Some will be easier to serve, and some harder.  And some are easier to serve sometimes and less so at others.  But each of them is precious.

Recapture this attitude. Stop thinking "good enough" is o.k. Stop thinking your early reputation (built on those moments when you were treating every customer as precious) can pull you through your current slackness. It won't. Only your redoubled attention to superior service can do that. 

5 Keys to Understanding Millennial Customer Values

10-26 millenial values smallMillennials, the group of young people born 1980ish to 2000ish, are the largest generation in U.S. and world history. And they’re right on the cusp of having the largest spending power in the U.S., and in many other countries as well.  And the values that drive this important generation of customers are different in significant ways from preceding generations. 

Since millennials, more than previous generations at the same age, strive to buy where their values lie–whenever they can afford to– a business that wants to win the hearts of these consumers will benefit from knowing what their values entail. (Think this stuff doesn't matter, or that it can be faked? Think again: One millennial I interviewed told me, “People my age are especially attuned to and adept at figuring out if a company is being pro-people or pro-environment in its marketing, and anti-people or anti-environment in its actions.” I believe her–and so should you, if you want the soon to be all-powerful millennial generation as customers, loyalists, and ambassadors for your company.)

Before I go any further, I want to add a caveat: Millennials, like any other cohort, are very, very diverse. So any generalization like this list that follows can only be that: a generalization.  So take this rundown with at least a grain of salt. 

  1. Millennials want to protect the environment. Millennials harbor a deep-seated support for environmentally friendly action. This is something the millennial generation has believed in since childhood and that shows no sign of slowing down, perhaps in part because this is the first generation to grow up with an overwhelming scientific consensus pointing to manmade climate change.
  2. Millennials support workers’ rights. According to Pew, 78% of millennials agree with the statement, “Labor unions are needed to protect the rights and economic well-being of workers.” Unions or not, they strongly support the idea that companies should treat employees well and pay them fairly.
  3. Millennials are tolerant. Pew surveys consistently demonstrate that this generation is more supportive of minorities on issues of race, more tolerant of interracial dating, more supportive of gay marriage, more in favor of unmarried adults cohabitating, more approving of mothers working who have young children, and more likely by far to have a close gay friend than do members of older generations.
  4. Millennials support diversity. From Pew again: Almost twice the percentage of millennials agree with the statement that “we should make every possible effort to improve the position of blacks and other minorities, even if it means giving them preferential treatment” than do members of previous generations. On the issue of immigration, only one-third of millennials agree with the statement that “immigrants threaten American values and customs.”

Note: Millennials’ support for diversity is no doubt affected by how diverse this generation is itself. Millennials are by far the most varied cohort in U.S. generational history.  If you were looking to generalize Boomers or the Silent Generation in the U.S., a good guess would be “they’re all white.” You’d be wrong, but not by all that much. Ninety percent of the Silent Generation is white (80% are non-Hispanic white), and even among Boomers, 73% are non-Hispanic white. The makeup of the millennial generation is far different. Only 61% of millennials are non-Hispanic whites (this percentage is similar to that in the smaller Gen X), and millennials are more likely than any generation since the Silent Generation to be the children of immigrants. (All figures here are from Pew research.) Even these numbers don’t fully demonstrate the impact of this diversity. Take note that these “minorities” (hardly the right term) are far from evenly dispersed across the country, and are disproportionately represented in cities. In metropolises of significant size around the country, “minority” (Hispanic, Asian-American and African American) groups together make up the majority. This diversity is well represented in purchasing decisions. Among the all-important business traveler segment, there are 60% more Hispanics, double the number of Asian-Americans, and 40% more women in the millennial generation traveling for business by plane than there are among nonmillennial business fliers, according to Boston Consulting Group.

  1. Millennials believe company values should go beyond corporate self-interest. In general, millennials disagree with the notion that a business’s only responsibilities are to its shareholders and to watching the bottom line, according to studies cited by Van den Bergh and Behrer. Millennials’ faith in the free market sank in 2008 with the stock market, housing prices, their parents’ retirement funds and their own employment prospects. Far from supporting an “it’s all about the bottom line” philosophy of business, their ethos is closer to something like the “triple bottom-line” equation that Southwest Airlines strives to follow: Our Performance, Our People and Our Planet.

Developing a Style of Customer Service that Suits Today’s Customer Sensibilities

When it comes to communication, customers today and younger customers in particular are “disillusioned by anything canned and artificial,” as business and marketing expert Andrew Jensen puts it. A stilted, overly formal service style, even from the most caring providers, puts a ceiling on how intimate and inviting the interactions can be between employees and customers.

Which means that developing an authentic customer service style is a requirement for success with customers in the new economy. Customers in today’s marketplace (including the enormous millennial generation, their Boomer parents and the GenX’ers in the middle) favor a straightforward, down to earth, even slangy style of communication from most types of business with which they interact.

Your brand will appear out of touch or even condescending if you retain an excessively formal style. For example, traditionally prescribed hospitality language has included the use of phrases like “my pleasure” and “certainly, Sir,” which work up to a point but sound wooden when overused or used inappropriately. “It was really my pleasure to visit with you during your stay, Mr. Jamison” is fine, but never: “It will be my pleasure to clean your toilet.”

A good way to enforce reasonable language standards, without hobbling the verbal footwork of your employees, is what I’ve named the Danny Meyer Method, after the great New York restaurateur. With the Meyer Method, although you ask your employees to nix certain phrases (“it’s our policy,” “to be honest with you,” “uh-huh,” “you guys,” or this pet peeve of Danny’s: “Are we still working on the lamb?”), you don’t prescribe specific replacements, leaving that up to the creativity and individuality of your staff.

This approach has the additional benefit of keeping your employees comfortable in their own skins, using their own shorthand as needed with customers. You’re providing employees with boundaries in their interactions but empowering them by letting them use their own style within those parameters.

Now, with the authentic style of service I am suggesting, I don’t want to accidentally encourage you to be too familiar.  Instead, I suggest the approach that service designer Tim Miller has articulated: “What I look for from my staff in terms of authenticity is approximately a ‘first date’ level.  Best-foot-forward level.”  This is a style that’s going to work for your customers very well. 

Become a Stage For Customer Interactions

In my last article, I discussed how to make it easy for your customers to share their impressions of your business. Today’s theme is related: helping customers connect with each other as they together experience your service. 

People shopping in a retail store.While your business may be the star of your life, for your customers it represents something different.  It will never, as a matter of fact, be the center of your customers' lives. Only your customer, and the people your customer cares about, will every hold that position.  So a business often insinuates itself best into a customer’s life, memory and loyalty by being a backdrop to the story of their lives, as experienced with their friends and family. By learning from them, learning about them, and then getting the heck out of the way, or at least out of the foreground of the experience.

Restaurants, for example, provide the setting for marriage proposals, love affairs, breakups, arguments and, according to every mob drama I’ve ever enjoyed, the occasional professional hit. Not to mention the more prosaic: business meetings, shared sunsets and outings with coworkers. This isn’t isolated to foodservice setting: Airlines, hospitals, even the DMV, can be settings for the drama that runs through customers’ lives. Embracing this reality can allow your business to become very powerful, by helping customers to live out the drama and fantasy of their lives with the people who matter to them.

“My goal in life is to make you a hero to your spouse,” luxury hotelier Mark Harmon tells me. If Harmon were more shortsighted, he might set his aims on something more conventional: making his hotels the most profitable properties in the luxury hotel market, for example. But Harmon focuses on his customers’ goals rather than his own. As he puts it, “The touches we add [help] make for a memorable time together here. This is important, and we take it seriously. In the big scheme of things, how often as a couple do you really—I mean really—get away from the kids and get to connect, in a stress-free setting? We’re honored that guests let us be the setting for that, whether or not it’s technically what you’d call a special occasion.” Harmon feels his Auberge Resorts’ success is built upon the relationships his guests have with each other while enjoying Auberge’s service. It’s an astute and effective way to serve today’s customers.

For the fraught, high-stakes referral healthcare that Mayo Clinic is known for, treatment often becomes a socially complex, multigenerational affair. Mayo addresses the inclusion of family members and loved ones through design. Every exam room is designed to encourage collaboration and commiseration. One simple change has made a big difference: Each consultation room, as Management Lessons from Mayo Clinic author Leonard Berry has observed, features a specially designed, multipurpose couch instead of a couple chairs that only two can use and are rarely plentiful enough for everyone who needs to be present.

You may not think the relationship-conduit model applies to every business situation, but it applies quite widely. The True Value Hardware store and the CVS Minute Clinic seem purely functional at first glance, so putting a priority on facilitating customer relationships there appears beside the point. But even mundane, transactional situations common to the Minute Clinic or a hardware store can be improved by keeping an eye out for how relationships among customers can be facilitated. A Minute Clinic is a lot more comfortable for the patient if the patient’s family has a place to sit as well; the same goes for a customer at True Value if there are changing tables (for when you bring the family) and aisles wide enough to accommodate a shopping companion who gets around via wheelchair.

5 Ways to Improve Your Communication with Your Customers

If you want to keep your customers happy and loyal, it isn’t enough to offer a groundbreaking new product or service anymore. The customer experience has to be memorable and surpass their expectations, and this starts with offering exceptional customer service.

There are five key principles we subscribe to at Nextiva to ensure we are providing the best customer experience we can. Over the years, we’ve found that it is the little things that make all the difference in the customer experience. And thanks to the help of technology and cloud communications, many of these principles will be easy to implement in your business.

1. Act human and always add a personal touch to the customer interaction

Do you like talking to a robot? I would think (and hope) that you said “no”. As consumers of products and services, we want our interactions with the company we are buying from to feel genuine and personal. The little touches such as calling someone by their correct name and remembering their preferences will go a long way. While a script or general guideline may be necessary for certain job functions, don’t be afraid to let your employees inject some of their personality into their interactions with your customers. Also, go the extra mile whenever possible and make your customer feel like you genuinely care about them and their needs. The bare minimum isn’t enough anymore and will cause you to lose customers to your competitors.

2. Integrate your CRM with your phone system

It’s a fact of life that the majority of people dread calling a company’s customer support. So rather than slowing down the process by having to ask your customers for their name and account details, integrate your phone system with your customer relationship management (CRM) system. Cloud phone systems have made this easy to do and it will significantly improve interactions with customers, as well as save your customers (and your team) valuable time. The Nextiva App for Zendesk is one example, but there are a variety of options out there and many of these integrations are free, or come with a small fee, depending on the systems your business utilizes.

10-1 Customer Communication smallThe main benefit of integrating your two systems is customer records are at your team’s fingertips the minute they answer a call. You can reference past calls and check-in on other questions or concerns the customer may have had in the past. Additionally, this will help management identify trends in customer calls that can be used to create change—from updating messaging and communication to revamping processes and user tools.

3. Follow through

Do what you tell your customers you are going to do. How many times have you been promised a follow-up email or call back and never received it? Your customers’ time is precious, and they are counting on you. Don’t make them follow-up with you, instead provide them with the information they requested when you said you would. If you don’t have an answer or all of the information for them, at least check-in to let them know you are still working on it. This goes for all departments in your organization, but especially sales and customer support. This also builds trust between your business and your customers, which leads to a better overall customer experience and customer loyalty.

4. Remember them!

Without customers your business would cease to exist. It is important to show that you appreciation them. This can be done in a variety of ways, from a special promo offer to a simple email or phone call. At Nextiva, we send a "Happy Nextiversary" email to the businesses we serve on their “anniversary” of being a Nextiva customer. It’s a fun video where members of our team thank our customers for their business and remind them that we are always available to help with anything they may need.

To implement something like this at your business, pick a milestone, event, holiday, etc. to show that you value their commitment to your business. It’s even better if you can offer them something that will encourage them to continue doing business with you, such as a complimentary service, discount on their next purchase, or an exclusive access to your new product and service before anyone else.

5. Create a customer referral program

Reward your customers for bringing you more business via a referral program. Consumers are smarter than ever, and they are much more likely to believe a recommendation from a friend or peer than they are from a billboard or banner ad. An endorsement from your customers is the most important marketing tool in your arsenal and the more you reward your current customers for promoting you to their network, the more likely they will be to continue sending business your way.

But it isn’t enough to simply have a referral program; you need to make sure your customers (especially those that are happy) are aware of the program and its benefits. Send emails, have your sales and account management teams mention the program when speaking to customers, share on social media, etc. The options are endless, and do what works best for your business.

Is Speed the Best Way for Small Businesses to Attract Customers?

The fast casual business model enjoys continued success for a reason that goes beyond low prices: customers are busy people who see time as money. Every minute that they spend waiting for service is a minute lost to other daily activities. This same concept holds true for any business — from store-fronts to consulting services. But in some cases, faster service can cause a speedy customer exit. Before taking action to accelerate your operations, you have to ask three basic questions to make sure that your changes attract customers, rather than deter them.

1. Will Speed Reduce Quality?

The first question may seem obvious, but you really need to carefully forecast the product or service outcome before you decide how to go into high gear. Maybe speeding up will give you advertising bragging rights because you can deliver custom widgets in half the time of your competitors. If you save time because of a unique manufacturing process that continues to deliver high-quality widgets, you'll have loyal customers. If you reduce production time by eliminating time-consuming (but important) quality assurance checks, however, former loyal customers will stay away in droves when their widgets break down moments after their purchase.

2. Does Speed Require that One Size Fits All?

Next, ask yourself if you can deliver the precise product or service that your customers need at high speeds. Just about every product requires some degree of customization; grocery stores even offer potatoes in a range of types and sizes. The real question is whether your product or service lends itself to offering the right variety right off the shelf or if you need to customize the product to make every sale.

To make this decision, you have to carefully analyze your customer needs. If you sell vinyl siding, for example, sky blue might be a perfect choice for some homeowners, but others may need gray mixed in to blend more naturally with the roof color. Offering stock colors allows you to complete installations more quickly, but it will send many customers to other vendors. If you can speed up the color customization process, however, you offer the kind of speed and flexibility that can attract a broader range of customers.

3. Can Speed Alienate Customers?

Not all time is created equal. Customers don't want to waste time, but they often view the time that you spend with them as a commodity. Service businesses are often particularly tied to time, with medical offices being a primary example. Patients typically (and correctly) place more trust in doctors who spend more time with them. Time is as much a part of the product as a cure. Cut down on that time and patients may feel like they are part of an assembly line. Unless you have no competition, they will look for another doctor who shows greater respect for patients.

Waiting time, on the other hand, is dead time for customers and there are usually any number of ways that you can provide services more quickly. Medical offices show respect for patients by getting them out of the waiting room and into treatment rooms more quickly by providing nurses who handle preliminary tests before the doctor walks in. If they are located in shopping centers, they may provide patients with 15-minute warning pagers. Auto parts stores can dedicate a separate line for customers with time-consuming questions. Customers ordering specific parts can zip through the process — order-takers at the counter quickly deliver a list of parts to order-pickers, who rapidly fulfill customer needs from a well-organized warehouse.

Efficiency is Always a Worthwhile Goal

Time is money for your customers and for your business, so it makes sense to constantly look for ways to deliver high-quality products and services as efficiently as possible. Even if you can't advertise "the world's fastest service" or "customized wedding gowns while you wait," your customers will recognize your company's value and pass the word along to others. Remember that word-of-mouth is often the best advertising of all.

The Power of 90% Customer Loyalty

9-10 Customer Loyalty smallCustomers today have more purchasing options than ever before as well as fewer obstacles afterward if they want to switch to a different supplier. This embarrassment of riches strains traditional notions of loyalty. But it hardly spells the end for loyalty, not for customers in general and certainly not for millennials, despite what many claim. In fact, even in the supposedly loyalty-averse millennial generation, things aren’t really moving in the direction that you might imagine.  Boston Consulting Group research has shown that younger millennials (ages 18 to 24 at the time of the study), “are three times more likely to report strong brand loyalty than their non-millennial counterparts.”

If my take on this sounds more hopeful than what you’ve heard elsewhere, it’s partly because my definition of customer loyalty differs from most. In everything I do, I aim for what I call “90% loyal” customers—the ones who will stick with you through thick or thin, good times or bad, most of the time.

This 10% wiggle room makes the loyalty goal a bit more achievable by bringing the concept of loyalty more in line with what’s achievable in reality. Because every one of us in business knows the score: If a sexy new restaurant or shop opens across the street from ours, even our best customers are going to want to try it—once. But they’ll be back once their itch for novelty, their fleeting need to cheat on their main squeeze, has passed.

And sometimes, it’s not this need for novelty that makes customers stray from you periodically. Practicality may demand it. A 90% loyal Whole Foods mom or dad may do some shopping at Trader Joe’s or Wegmans when she or he is stuck in a different part of town. And if Mom or Dad's preferred airline doesn’t have a direct flight while another carrier does, this otherwise loyal passenger will most likely take the direct flight if that’s what it takes to get home in time for her or his kid’s soccer game.

Even the ever-competitive Richard Branson once recommended his customers use his archrival British Airways—if only to remind themselves all the more of why they love Branson’s Virgin Airlines. Of course, Branson being Branson, he timed his recommendation for the day British Airways offered a fire sale that he knew Virgin couldn’t affordably counter, and on which British Airways was sure to lose money.

Two more loyalty trends

A couple of trends are complicating the loyalty landscape.

Portfolio loyalty: This occurs when customers are equally loyal to every brand in a small portfolio of trusted brands in a particular category. This behavior wouldn’t be possible without the surfeit of choices consumers now have in almost every consumer category. Consumers have the globalization of commerce, improvements in many companies’ return policies due to competitive pressure, and the various defect-reduction campaigns in manufacturing of the past several decades to thank for all these offerings. (Formerly an automotive punchline, Ford is an impressively reliable manufacturer today. Even a Jaguar—should you be so lucky—will rarely leave you stranded these days.)

Micro-loyalty.  Customers today can have micro loyalties, loyalties for very specific parts of a company’s product line, for example, they can be loyal to Apple for this but Google for that, to Reebok for this but Nike for that, and so forth. They don’t buy an overall identity related to a single brand; they mix and match. They still consider themselves loyal, but it’s a more targeted type of loyalty.

How did this come about? Younger customers today were raised with a lot of support for individuation: They were allowed to make their own choices and work with the results. From mismatched socks (ultimately commercialized by Little Miss Match) to tattoos and piercings to control over hairstyles and how they dress for school, this generation was empowered by its parents to shape its own identity. As marketers and generational researchers Van den Bergh and Behre point out, the Internet has further fostered such mix-and-match identities, at least in the commercial sphere of their lives. Easy-to-find product review sites like Gizmodo make it far easier to sample and choose brands, comparison shopping on mobile phones has long been a reality, and thanks to iTunes and many other sites, even the playlists they listen to are easily stitched together song by song from their own choices rather than relying on the decision of any single artist or record label’s vision for their music.

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