I read an article today that said one of the most incredible achievements of Steve Jobs was inspiring loyal customers. And I have to agree. I am an Apple user and am not ashamed to say so.
It’s an interesting phenomenon I’ve often thought about – how Apple users are so fanatic. Even when I try my best to turn down the excitement level, if someone asks me about my iPad (which still happens astonishingly often), I can’t help but open a number of the apps and show off how easy it is to use.
And this is one of the most important reasons, in my opinion, that Apple has been so successful. There is no need for salespeople when consumers are doing the job for you. Even in the stores, Apple Geniuses are not there to sell but to inform and advise.
But what exactly leads to this level of dedication from consumers? And how can it be replicated in another business? Obviously, Apple has a line of products that are considered to be top of the line in quality, but so do other manufacturers of many different products.
Let’s take a look at another brand that manages to inspire faithfully loyal customers – Starbucks. They promote the fact that their coffee is premium, made from 3% of the world’s best coffee beans. But is that quality the driving factor that keeps people coming back for more?
I would argue the recipe for success that both of these companies uses is one of personalization and community. Being a Starbucks drinker and an Apple user lets you say: “I am an individual in a group of like-minded people.”
For Apple, it is the way you can customize your product easily in a way that reflects your personality and what you use it for. Originally thought of as a creative person’s device because of this customization, they were able to tap into the fact that everyone likes to stand out just a little. And when you build a community for a computer, those creative and tech savvy folks are exactly the people you want. The trendsetters, the idea people.
Starbucks also brings customization into the focus. Where else could you spend ten minutes ordering a coffee just the way you like it, and not be scorned by the employee behind the counter? But I think the beauty of Starbucks comes from the fact that they want their stores to be busy. They gave customers free wifi before it was popular because they want people to lounge and work during their visit. They encourage this behavior so much that they’ve recently implemented a rewards program where loyal customers get free refills throughout the day for hanging around.
The documents for the program state that Starbucks would like to reward the people who spend longer periods of time in their locations. How could this be profitable, you might ask? It helps deepen the sense of community in their shops, for starters. Already, regulars are rewarded with a personalized experience where the baristas know their orders and often let them skip the line altogether. But think of a trendy coffee shop bustling with patrons working on their laptops and tablets, while jazz music plays in the background. Doesn’t this help to say to a newcomer “this is a place you want to be a part of, too.”
The rewards program has other benefits, however. Even with free refills, customers who often spend extended periods of time at a location would feel awkward not paying for another product. Or at the very least, leaving a tip meaning those baristas are a little happier about their jobs.
Now that I’ve talked about two well-known success stories, why don’t I tell you about a small business you’ve never heard of? My father owns a small independent gym in a mid-sized town. The competition is fierce, with large chains offering memberships at a rate so low they are losing money, just to squeeze out the competition. There are clubs with all the frills, equipment, services and classes. Even the city operates three centers at rates meant to be affordable and subsidized through the tax payers.
There is absolutely no way that a small gym owned and operated by a single person should be able to stay afloat in this type of market. Yet he has. For thirteen years, he has managed to keep his members happy.
He offers no-contract memberships and has never put a member in collections for non-payment. His facilities are outdated, but he has a greater selection of equipment than any other competitor. And most of all, he has built a sense of community in his club that I doubt could be matched anywhere. If a regular doesn’t show up for a couple days, you can bet one of the other members will call (often on the gym phone) to see of everything is ok. There is everyone from the lulu lemon wearing marathon runners to the body builders to the average joes in torn tracks. Everyone is welcome and everyone fits in.
I’ve talked to the people in his gym, trying to discover what the secret to building this type of loyalty and community is. The best answer I can get is that it is my father that keeps people coming back. He cares about them, remembers their name, offers them help and advice for things in the gym and in their personal lives. I had one of his members tell me that he had been lured away about five years ago to a fancier club offering better prices, but what brought him back was bumping into my father at a grocery store. My father remembered his name and the name of his wife. He asked about what they’d been up to. He showed genuine interest in this person and made him feel like an important individual – unlike member number 6443 at his existing gym.
So what’s my point? I guess my point is that while offering an exceptional product or atmosphere is part of the equation to inspiring loyal customers, it’s really making them feel important and like part of a community of unique individuals that makes people enthusiastic. When the majority of your sales come from referrals, and the majority of your users are genuinely excited to refer you, you’re bound to do well.
Businesses need to put time and effort into training their employees to be knowledgeable, not only about their own products and services but about the industry that they are in. They also need to encourage them to offer exceptional service, which can be done by helping employees feel they are an important asset to their employer.
Employees are your number one public, the gatekeepers between your business and your customers. When cultivated carefully, they become the reason your product or service is top notch and your customers are loyal.
As I sat here at the Starbucks I drove across town to get to, typing this blog post on my Apple iPad, I was approached by another Starbucks customer wanting to know how I liked my iPad and if I recommend it. Instead of a quick yes or no, I took the time to go through the features with her. If that’s not loyalty, I don’t know what is.