How Good Are Your Customer Relationships, Really?

Troy Harrison illustrates a recent experience that correlates to how salespeople strive to move buyers down the funnel from occasional to loyal.

I’m watching an interesting phenomenon take place. I’m waiting at the Kansas City International Airport to fly to Atlanta. As per usual, I’m flying Southwest. As not per usual, the entire airport is under a fog delay. It’s legitimate and visible; it looks like pea soup outside, but it’s in the process of burning off. My flight will only be delayed 20 minutes or so. But that’s not the interesting part.

To get to my gate, I had to walk past gates for two other airlines. At both sets of gates, there was serious grumbling about being late, and at one airline’s gate, the passengers were near mutiny. Listening to the comments, the blame was being laid at the feet of airline incompetence. Yet, at the Southwest gates, nearly everyone (and there are far more Southwest passengers than at any other airline at KCI) has a stiff upper lip mentality.

"It’s not their fault; they’re doing the best that they can" is the common refrain. And it’s true; again, it’s quite obvious why the airport is shut down. So, why the difference? Does Southwest just have cheerier passengers than other airlines? I’m guessing not.

What’s happening is that Southwest has earned the benefit of the doubt from their passengers. Southwest has created relationships with their passengers that make their passengers cut them slack in a problem where other airlines have not – even when the problem is clearly visible.

I’ve said for many years that the true measure of a customer relationship is the company’s ability to make mistakes that inconvenience the customer and yet retain the customer’s business. Think about it. We all make mistakes (again, the airlines, in this case, aren’t making mistakes — this is beyond their control — but their customers are definitely being inconvenienced).

We’ll get into the ways that I think Southwest has done this in a few minutes, but first, let’s talk about the three levels of a customer relationship:

The first level is the Occasional Buyer. This buyer treats every buying decision as a new buying decision, researches all potential providers, and selects the provider that gives the best value and circumstances on that specific transaction. For instance, if, every time you fly or stay at a hotel, you use an aggregating site like Kayak, Booking, Expedia, etc., and then select your travel options based on the best pricing or scheduling on that trip, you are an occasional buyer. If your customer needs a proposal on every purchase, takes time to evaluate it, and then gets back to you (and you don’t win every time), they are an occasional buyer.

Occasional Buyers seldom forgive mistakes, and a mistake with an occasional nuyer can cost you even the opportunity to participate in their buying process for quite some time until the incident has been forgotten or sufficient amends have been made.

The next level is the Habitual Buyer. The habitual buyer typically buys from a single source, but does so out of force of habit, not any intellectual or emotional ties to the provider. "We buy from them because we buy from them" sums up the habitual buyer. habitual buyers do, from time to time, reevaluate their purchasing habits, it’s more often that they change based on outside stimulus — in other words, the provider makes a mistake. Like an occasional buyer, one mistake can cost you the habitual buyer. In this case, the consequences are even worse, because once the Habitual Buyer establishes a new source, they tend again not to give you an opportunity to get back in until the new source makes a mistake.

Habitual Buyers are also dangerous because they masquerade as the top level — the Loyal Customer. Loyal customers are the type of customer we all want. Not only do they buy exclusively from you, they are aware of why they do it. They know your value so well that they can articulate it themselves (sometimes better than you can). They evangelize for you, they refer you, and they tolerate mistakes because they know that your overall excellence outweighs any mistakes that you make.

The trouble is that too many salespeople mistake habit for loyalty. "Hey, this customer buys everything from me," they say. "They’re loyal and I have them locked and loaded."  True, they’ll acknowledge, they never get referrals or testimonials from the customer, but 'that’s just not them.' These salespeople seldom become aware of their vulnerability (due to a mistake) until it’s far too late.

Listening to those around me, Southwest has created a lot of loyal customers. How did they do it? Well, here are my thoughts.

  1. They’re good at what they do. Southwest has an amazing habit of getting me and my bag where they say they will, when they say they will. When there’s a problem it’s usually something out of their control.
  2. They’re nice. I’ve dealt with a number of other airlines when things go wrong — when I’ve been delayed, when a bag has been misrouted, etc. When personnel at other airlines are nice, it’s the exception. And God forbid I approach a person that’s not the exact appropriate person to deal with it. With Southwest, everyone deals with the problems and do so honestly and with a smile.
  3. They answer the danged phone. I’ve only had to call Southwest a handful of times – but every time I’ve called, the phone has been answered by a live, helpful person. I’ve never had to press 2 to get to where I want to go and then listen to a recording telling me how valuable my call is.
  4. They re-sell their value. I fly frequently with Southwest. On a regular basis, I get free drink tickets mailed to me, mailers telling me (again) how good their services are and how low their fees are, and sometimes just a letter thanking me. Southwest doesn’t rest on their laurels with me.

Salespeople should be working to move occasional buyers to habitual, and from habitual to loyal. There are, of course, many options for doing so, but you could do far worse than follow the Southwest formula. At least your customers would tolerate problems in good cheer, as we in the Southwest gates at KCI are.


Troy Harrison is the author of “Sell Like You Mean It!”, “The Pocket Sales Manager,” and a Speaker, Consultant, and Sales Navigator. He helps companies build more profitable and productive sales forces. Contact him at 913-645-3603 or [email protected].