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In this week’s Business Surgery, Julia Cupman highlights that customers in loyalty programs are not necessarily loyal. Although it is relatively easy to reward the advocates of a brand, the big challenge comes with addressing the detractors, especially before they can cause damage.

On a flight to Chicago last week, a colleague moaned to me, asking “Why do we always have to fly United?” Of course, there are lots of other airlines that will get us to Chicago and back, but United has certainly locked me in with its loyalty program, in that I’ll take almost any opportunity to add miles to my MileagePlus account.

While this might seem a contradiction, customers in loyalty programs are not necessarily loyal. True loyalty should reflect only customers who are strong advocates of a brand, which is certainly not the case for all loyalty card holders. In spite of my frequent flying with United and apparent loyalty to the airline, many of my colleagues and family know only too well about my negative views on United, especially during its merger with Continental. I – like millions of other customers – won’t forget the negative experiences for some time yet, irrespective of United having improved its customer service in the past few months.

When a company grows so large that customers are mere numbers in a database, it’s possible to lose sight of the importance each customer plays. Indeed, United flies over 140 million scheduled passengers a year, so why bother about a particular disgruntled customer?

Companies are, however, increasingly receiving a harsh wake-up call as the web has made it easy for negative word of mouth to spread like wildfire. Every day, 400 million Tweets, 534 million Facebook updates and 2 million blog posts are generated worldwide. This gives a dissatisfied customer every opportunity to communicate a negative experience to the masses – and frighteningly quickly.

Back in 2009, Canadian musician Dave Carroll trusted his $3,500 guitar with United baggage handlers, only to arrive in Chicago to find the instrument of his career smashed into smithereens. Furious at United’s denial of responsibility, Carroll created a song about his experience, singing that he “alerted three employees who showed complete indifference”. The song was uploaded onto the internet, received one million hits in just four days, and has been viewed more than 12 million times to date. Clearly the impact of one seemingly small negative customer experience should not be underestimated.

While companies must continue to acknowledge and reward the customers who are truly loyal, they should also make every effort to address the detractors out there who are spreading negative word of mouth. Interestingly, and as proven in market research, successful problem resolution is one of the biggest drivers of overall satisfaction and loyalty, but disgruntled customers require speedy treatment in order to prevent their dissatisfaction from going viral.

To learn about B2B International’s real time promoter and detractor alert service (a part of our customer satisfaction and loyalty research offering), please call to speak to one of our customer loyalty experts.

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