The landscape of customer loyalty has new contours: Customers get terrific service in pockets of their life and use those experiences to judge every other sales exchange. Customers also have more choices than ever before and therefore rely on their service experience as a key gauge of product and service excellence. Today’s customers are much smarter buyers. Social media has made every person a Consumers Report adjunct.     

Figuring out how to retain customers today is no simple task. Not only are customers different, the same person can be different at different times. The business traveler may enjoy the convenience of Motel 6 on a weekday but find the same property ill suited for a weekend getaway with a spouse. Nonetheless, below are four key loyalty drivers that fit most customers most of the time when it comes to most services. 

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1. Understand me: I change all the time. Knowing about the customer takes more than simply sending out a survey. It means positioning every customer-contact person as a vital listening post, a scout able to gather valuable intelligence about shoppers' ever-changing requirements as well as provide early warning about consumer issues.

It involves installing a wide range of tools for customer-intelligence gathering. Four Stew Leonard’s stores in Norwalk, Danbury and Berlin, Conn., and Yonkers, N.Y., receive more than 500 suggestions a week combined from giant suggestion boxes since the company posts on bulletin boards the changes implemented as a result of customer input. A dry cleaner in Charlotte, N.C., places a note pad by the cash register with a big sign stating “Please tell us one way we can improve our service to you?” 

2. Include me: Make me your partner. Customers’ loyalty soars when they discover they can be active participants in the service experience. Dealers for Build-A-Bear Workshop have seen their interactive build-a-stuffed-toy experience has spread to more than 400 stores around the world in 16 years.  When Myers Park Hardware store in Charlotte was overwhelmed with customers seeking supplies after Hurricane Hugo, the store turned to loyal customers to run cash registers and help load items in s vehicles. Customer will care when given a chance to share. Give your customers an opportunity to put “skin in the game.”

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3. Protect me -- from anxiety and worry. The value proposition includes the product (or service), along with the price and the experience involved in receiving it. These “givens” like the air we breathe are taken for granted unless removed. Customers assume banks will be safe, hotels comfortable and hospitals clean. These “taken for granted” attributes are the very "air" of customer service.

A recollection of a restaurant's gourmet meal will be totally overridden by a nightmarish instance of food poisoning because the establishment failed to pay attention to routine health practices. Customers are loyal to organizations known for ensuring that the basics are always done perfectly. Create your own inspection team to quality check your service.

4. Surprise me: It tells me you care. Today’s customers want sparkle and glitter; a cherry on top of everything. They want all their senses to be stimulated. Product features have become far more titillating than functional; some extras have become more valued than the core offering. Attracting shoppers' loyalty these days requires that customer service itself be an attraction. 

Consider your company's service experience akin to what's offered in a box of Cracker Jacks; what's the free prize inside? The Sewell Lexus dealership in Dallas programs in new cars the very radio stations left on trade-in vehicles for its customers to discover. Taqueria Del Sol in Atlanta treats frequent guests to an unexpected free holiday meal. Look for simple ways to treat customers like today is their birthday.

Loyal customers act as a volunteer sales force, championing your business to others at home, work, in their social circles -- and even around the globe via recommendations on social media. And because they feel committed to you and see emotional and business value in the relationship, they typically will pay more for what they get from you because they are convinced it is worth it.

The formula for creating and sustaining customer loyalty comes from understanding, inclusion, trust and joy. Incorporate these four features in your customer experience and watch the admiration soar right along with your bottom line.

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