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Customer loyalty vs. satisfaction: There’s a big difference

December 4, 2015 / 2 min read

Let’s talk about mustard. Chances are, you made your mustard decision a long time ago. No matter how many varieties there are at the grocery store—and there’s an astounding number—you tend to stick with the tried and true. You don’t really think about it.

Until one day you happen down the mustard aisle and see that the price is a little higher. Or maybe you got a bad batch of the same-old, same-old. That’s the danger of having relationships based on satisfaction versus loyalty. Your clients are satisfied…until they’re not.

This was a story that customer loyalty expert James Kane shared with us a few months ago when he was the keynote speaker at our annual Firm Conference. I had seen James speak on a couple of prior occasions and found him riveting. Given the focus we put on relationship-building at Plante Moran, I thought the topic would resonate with our staff. Did it ever.

James likens loyalty to a dog and satisfaction to a cat. Whereas dogs love their humans unconditionally, cats tolerate them. (Sorry cat people.) He believes client satisfaction has to do with a person’s mood at a given time, the history of service, and the services performed. So in his mind, if we perform a top-notch audit for a client, we earn their satisfaction—but not necessarily their loyalty.So how do we get to loyalty? There are a lot of factors that go into it, but I’m going to focus on the one that most resonated with me: making life better for our clients. This is about fulfillment—surpassing expectations in ways other than performing services for a fee.

James shared a story that illustrates this. On a Singapore Air flight between Singapore and Sydney, Australia, the flight attendant approached him: “Mr. Kane, can I get you something to drink?” He asked if they had a type of bottled water on board that he’d enjoyed in Singapore. They didn’t. However, on his way from Sydney back to Singapore, when he got to his seat, there was a bottle of that specific water chilled and waiting for him in the cup holder. Not only did the flight attendant take the time to identify James by name but she also took the time to make a note of his preference and make it happen. Now maybe that didn’t make James’s life better, but it certainly improved his day and his experience with Singapore Air.

When I meet with a prospect, I’ll often hear, “You know, I’ve had the same CPA for 20 years.” I think that’s admirable. That’s the Holy Grail—except for the fact that, if the prospect is talking to me, somewhere along the lines that loyalty has begun to shift. Suddenly a new mustard begins to seem more appealing.

The lesson here is simple: we have to earn our clients’ loyalty every day. We can’t be content with satisfaction.So what do you think? What do you believe distinguishes loyalty from satisfaction? And if you have a minute, check out Are You Selling Paper Cups?” a guest column James recently wrote for our magazine, Engage. It tells the story of what Walgreens and McDonald’s have in common and—spoiler alert—that goes well beyond paper cups.

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