You’ve Earned Loyalty

Feb 20, 2006
George Anderson

By John Hennessy

According to AOL SVP of Brand Management Russ Natoce, speaking at the Conference Board brand conference, AOL was able to get 40 percent of its customers in the brand rejecter customer group to stop badmouthing the company and actually reverse their position.

Part of this opinion turnaround came from making changes based on AOL communicating with 15,000 of its customers to understand how they use the AOL service. Some customers were even visited to see how they used the web as part of their lives. Extra attention was given to superusers who are almost constantly online.

“Like any big company, you sometimes lose your way,” Mr. Natoce told the audience. “We had a lack of compass. There was lots of stuff that didn’t make sense to the customer.”

Safety and security features gained prominence. The ubiquitous free AOL CDs were discontinued. Nearly 1,500 employees were trained to be AOL ambassadors both online and off.

Moderator’s Comment: What are other companies doing to identify, understand and win back badmouthers?

Most businesses likely have a group of customers, larger than anyone wants to admit, who are reluctant or even resentful customers. These critical customers
are ignored and tolerated, but seldom listened to.

AOL’s experience shows there is value in learning from them. That value extends to creating a superior experience for all customers.

The happy ending in this example also illustrates the willingness of customers to alter their opinion of a business based on concrete changes to bothersome
business practices. Don’t write off customer criticism. Capture it, act on it and profit from it.

George Anderson – Moderator

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5 Comments on "You’ve Earned Loyalty"

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David Zahn
15 years 8 days ago
In the fickle world of maintaining contact with the current customer, past consumer, and future shopper for ones products or services, it is clearly understood that the angry, disenchanted, or disappointed purchaser will rarely voice a complaint to the retailer or manufacturer of the product, but rather will choose to vote with their feet by shopping elsewhere. However, there is a way to try to get a sense of what people are saying, thinking, and doing that incorporates the “web” in a way that may be meaningful for those who want to remain close to the marketplace. Using a service such as that provided by Umbria (scans the website for blogs, bulletin boards, other posting sites where people discuss their opinions on products that frustrate, experiences that “wow” them, or in any other way communicate their perceptions) – one can get a better handle on what the public “really” thinks about them, their company, or their product/service. Using a technology that “spiders” and crawls through the various websites (that is the extent of my technological… Read more »
Mark Lilien
15 years 8 days ago

It’s neat that David discussed a systematic way to uncover badmouthing, since so many retailers apparently don’t care about it enough to be proactive. In the past 4 weeks or so, I’ve experienced outstanding customer service from Continental Airlines (over the phone and in person, twice!), Pathmark, and ShopRite.

Al McClain
Al McClain
15 years 8 days ago

AOL should get a lot of credit for these efforts – put together, they make for a fairly comprehensive program. The downside is that they didn’t catch on to the negative feedback quickly enough; many of their problems were evident to consumers for years before they took action. And that’s the point – take action. Many, many companies still need to work on the basics, such as answering their e-mails and paying attention to customers calling their 800 numbers. One thing that seems easy enough to do is reward customer service reps on how happy/satisfied the customers are, instead of how many transactions they handle in a day.

Race Cowgill
Race Cowgill
15 years 8 days ago
Exactly, Al. Our experience has been that every organization receives a great deal of information regarding customer dissatisfaction that they make little or no use of. For example, we have found that very few organizations aggregate, track, and explore customer complaints. Most often, we have found organizations just want to be sure that complaints don’t rise significantly; that is the extent of the interest in complaints. It is relatively simple and inexpensive to make the organization’s data in-flow provide answers to the following questions, which are just a few of the many useful ones to be answered: – What is the customer turnover rate? – Of the customers that have reduced their share-of-wallet to us, how much is it and why have they done so? – What are the reasons customers leave? What percentage of former customers fall into each category? – Of the biggest customers who have left, what were the reasons? – What are the most frequent complaints? What are the issues underlying these? – What do customers tell our service people or… Read more »
James Tenser
15 years 8 days ago

First, let’s acknowledge that AOL has acted intelligently by reducing its focus on attracting trial users and increasing its focus on understanding the emotional connections (pro and con) it creates with customers.

It’s always a good idea for brands to take periodic measure of the disaffected. How else can you discover the ways that you infuriate customers? It’s a marketing truism that most dissatisfied customers never tell you – they just spread their bile among others. In AOL’s online world, they tend to use blogs and postings to maximize the damage. Increasingly, this is so for other brands.

Efforts like AOL’s are rare in today’s market. I can’t think of another example that compares. I would however, suggest that Sony consider a similar approach – after its debacle regarding the embedding of “root kit” software in its music CDs under the guise of copyright protection, the company needs to work systematically to recover its reputation.


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