Dr Laura Chamberlain

Dr Laura Chamberlain, a lecturer in consumer behaviour and customer experience at Aston Business School

Customers don’t often ‘love’ brands – they just want an easy life!

As consumers, we rarely love brands, but as long as they make our lives easy we are usually happy to carry on using certain products and services.

This reality means that ‘customer loyalty’ is a misnomer that needs re-examining, according to Dr Laura Chamberlain, speaking at a Fresh Perspectives talk at Aston Business School on 16 February.

“Loyalty is transient and perhaps less strong than we think,” Chamberlain told the audience. She therefore criticised brands that spend fortunes chasing ‘net promoter scores’ by constantly asking consumers: ‘How likely is it that you’d recommend us to a friend or colleague?'

This, she said, was often a wasted effort, when companies would be much better understanding that what customers usually want is reliability and consistency. And the key to that is often asking frontline staff about what’s working, rather than relying on customers who are more likely to ‘cheat’ than to remain truly ‘loyal’ to brands.

Chamberlain, a lecturer in consumer behaviour and customer experience at Aston Business School, gave the example of a well-known coffee shop chain which she regularly uses, where she even has a so-called ‘loyalty’ card. She confessed: “I hardly ever use the card because the reward’s not good enough, and I regularly ‘cheat’ by buying coffee in other stores.”

In the same way, she discussed how most consumers rarely evangelise over everyday products and services, such as their choice of bank or supermarket. It’s only when things get emotional – such as pet-owners’ choice of kennels – that real customer loyalty and the ‘love’ of a brand occurs. “Emotions have always mattered,” she said, “but how we consider and understand emotions is now of critical importance.”

Chamberlain went on to talk about the NHS, where recent governments have tried to drive improvements by prioritising the experiences of patients. This, she said, was unreliable because a poor meal or crowded corridor could influence a patient’s opinion, despite not necessarily having any impact on the real quality of their medical treatment.

“Staff ratings are a better single indicator of objective hospital performance,” Chamberlain said. “The very best hospitals are those that perform well on both staff and patient ratings. The worst are those that exhibit disagreement between service users and service providers, in particular where both doctors and nurses rate service poorly, but patients rate it highly.”

She said that ‘advocacy’ was therefore not always an appropriate way of measuring service quality, because the recipients of a service aren’t always qualified to evaluate how well it’s delivered.

Chamberlain added that customer loyalty is also affected by “increasing expectations and choice overloads”, and yet brands are still striving to “delight customers”. Creating such delight, she said, should be considered as the “exception not the rule” as it’s often habit that sways behaviour. “Anticipated emotions are key drivers of behaviour,” she said, “so your customers’ prior experiences will influence future decision-making.”

Chamberlain concluded her talk by challenging brands to ask themselves how their consumers are behaving: “Do you understand loyalty from your consumers’ point of view? Are you thinking about consumer emotions in the right way? What makes an exceptional experience for your consumers? And how are you adding value to your consumers?”

Book your free place at the next Fresh Perspectives briefing ‘Apprenticeship Levy – The Ladder of Opportunity’ on Thursday 9 March at Aston Business School