How Loyal Are Your Customers, Really?

What happens when they try the other side?

I’ve been a very loyal customer of a certain car rental company for years. I carry a shiny gold card in my briefcase which entitles me to go straight to their bus at the airport and be dropped off first so that I can get my car and be on the way. I’ve never really had a complaint, and I’ve never even contemplated leaving them. My loyalty has made me a reliable source of at least five figures of cash flow for that company year in and year out. You could say I’m the ideal customer.

Yet, there is a better than even chance that the cash flow tap will shut off for that particular car rental company and turn on for another one—and it’s not even their fault.

Earlier this week I flew to Atlanta. In double-checking my travel arrangements I realized my travel agent had not booked me a car, in spite of the fact that she knows to do that every time I travel unless I tell her differently. No problem, I thought; I simply called to have them fix the situation, only to find out that my rental company was sold out at ATL. Even calling the people behind the shiny gold card didn’t do any good. In the end, I rented from another company whose name conjures up images of being cheap, therefore (at least to me) not very good.

I got a few pleasant surprises: first, they allowed me to sign up for their program which makes them just as convenient as the big expensive company. Second, when I got to the lot, I was a bit concerned that there was no car with my name on it, until they told me I could choose any car I wanted from that section. The car was reasonably new, and when I returned it the process was just as fast and convenient as I was accustomed to. Last but not least, the bill was lower.

There are a few lessons here.

First, if just one experience with another provider can make me seriously consider breaking the ties that I’ve had for so many years, how strong is that “loyalty” really? Is it loyalty or simply inertia? I always took it for granted that the grass was greener on my side of the fence, but all it took was one small mistake to force me to look over the fence, and now the gate is wide open.

Second, what could they have done to avoid that? The first lesson, maybe easier said than done, is that they should never let a situation come up that might force their customers to look elsewhere. Everyone wants to run lean and keep inventories low, but wouldn’t it make sense to have a couple of cars in reserve for top customers? Surely these last minute bookings happen all the time.

Second, make it hard for customers to leave even when the inevitable hiccups happen. I occasionally have to fly someone other than my principal airline choice, but I always do so reluctantly because they treat me so much better than the other airlines. My two million miles actually mean something. Maybe once in a while let a loyal customer have one of those sporty premier cars they have as a complimentary upgrade or give me free car rentals when I go on vacation with my family.

Let’s also look at it from the point of view of the new company. They made it easy for me by signing me up to their program and providing me with immediate benefits. The airlines could learn from that.

I’m still trying to figure out why Atlanta was sold out. The only thing I could think of was that Coca-Cola is having their 125th anniversary. I’ve been a loyal Coke drinker for about 50 years now. Yesterday at lunch all they had was Pepsi and it wasn’t bad. Hmm…

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