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Customer loyalty doesn't come from a rewards program

Updated: Jun 30, 2021

Most companies don’t prioritize culture, believing “it doesn't pay the bills.” However, on a business trip in 2019, I saw a tangible demonstration of the power of culture to impact customer loyalty.

As I was boarding my flight, a Starbucks employee ran up to the gate. The barista explained to the Jetblue agent that a customer had ordered a coffee, but ran off without it. Since this happened just as the announcement to board our flight was made, the Starbucks employee felt the customer was on this flight. The gate agent promised to find the customer. She then passed the cup to a flight attendant, who, after making an announcement to the passengers, reunited the beverage with its grateful, caffeine-deprived owner.

Delivering a lost coffee may seem like a small thing, but that's exactly my point. Most companies focus exclusively on what they consider the “big things”, such as creating “frequent buyer or reward programs” to keep customers coming back. Both Starbucks and Jetblue have these programs, but more importantly, they understand that repeat business is not the same as loyalty. Loyalty is earned when customers feel valued for more than their transactions. That doesn't come from programs, it comes from humans. As in any relationship, the little things, the random acts of appreciation, often make the biggest impact.

The return of this customer’s coffee wasn’t simply the result of a few nice people being kind. That might explain one person doing a good deed, not several people at different companies going the extra mile. Everyone in this story could've shrugged and said: “that's not my job.” However, for the people I observed, exceeding customer expectations is their PRIMARY JOB.

When this passenger has to book another flight or buy coffee and is confronted by a multitude of comparable options, will they choose a competitor? What marketing program could rival this simple, human gesture?

Jetblue and Starbucks consistently succeed in highly competitive businesses because their commitment to customer service is more than just words painted on the side of an airplane or written on a website. They live it. They hire for it, train it, celebrate it and reward it. That's where strong cultures come from. That’s how loyalty is earned.

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