Importance of loyalty to the customer can't be discounted

As I write this column, I've just returned from what can only be described as a full-on shopping spree at Banana Republic. Now, lest you think this column is about my fall wardrobe, let me explain. I am a huge fan of discounts. I eagerly awaited the opening of the first Target in Manhattan and was there on the second weekend, lugging my purchases home on the bus in a (canvas, of course) shopping bag. And one of the most exciting things for the PRWeek staff in recent months has been the opening of the discount grocery Trader Joe's near our offices. (It sits in what was once a Barnes & Noble, but if a bookstore had to close, I'm glad Trader Joe's took its place.)

But what I love even more than a discount is being valued as a customer by the company. I'm a big fan of customer loyalty programs - I have a CVS card, a Duane Reade points card, and a D'Agostino's (New York City supermarket) greenpoints card, in addition to store-specific credit cards for Banana Republic, Bloomingdale's, and Ann Taylor that provide special offers. So, tonight's shopping spree wasn't inspired by the store's fall line, but rather by the fact that it was promoted as a one-day event that offered 25% off the entire bill and 30% for cardholders - with a live band, free makeup samples, and wine and cheese to boot. Sure the difference is just 5%, but on a $500 bill it amounts to an additional $25 saving.

Contrast that experience with one I had last week with Verizon Wireless, a company I've been a customer of since I first got a cell phone in 2000. Last month, for the first time in eight years, I went over my allotted minutes - by an outlandish amount, I'll admit. This, of course, was my fault, but when I called Verizon, first to inquire about why my bill was twice the normal amount and then to ask if there was a "grace" discount they could give me, I was met with an unequivocal "no." I noted that I had been a customer for 10 years, but again - nothing. I told the customer service rep that this was a really poor example of customer loyalty. I think he was shocked I even knew what that was.

So what does this have to do with PR? Customer-relationship management and customer-loyalty programs typically fall under direct marketing's purview, but in the age of social media, poor customer loyalty and service has the power to impact reputation. It's a lesson all marketers, regardless of discipline, must learn. l

Erica Iacono is the executive editor of PRWeek. She can be contacted at erica.iacono@prweek.com.

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