One Bad Experience Can Ruin a Lifetime of Loyalty
One Bad Experience Can Ruin a Lifetime of Loyalty
One Bad Experience Can Ruin a Lifetime of Loyalty

Loyalty is a crazy word. As marketers it’s something we covet, we want our customers to be fiercely loyal to our brands and to never consider going anywhere else. We want to have a brand that we are a part of turning into a “passion brand.” You know those passion brands like Harley Davidson, Zappos, Apple, Jack Daniels, Southwest and a variety of others. We want to build brands like Harley or in Jason Falls’ case a baseball team like the Pirates; the kind of brands that people are inspired to tattoo on their body. Every company wants a loyal tribe of followers that are aligned to a common purpose in the world. Brand loyalty and preference have been a major justification used for social media, especially when efforts are focused on customer retention and/or customer service.

So the big question is how often do online and offline experiences combine to create loyalty? How often does a brand misalignment offline lead to the loss of a loyal customer? And how can we know when something happens offline that impacts our loyalty? Let’s take a look with through the lens of a very recent experience I had yesterday.

Loyalty,  /ˈloiəltē/
The quality of being loyal to someone or something.
A strong feeling of support or allegiance.

What is the price of our loyalty?

The price of our loyalty is ONE bad experience.

Have you ever thought about what it would take for your most loyal customers to leave you for another brand? If you seriously think your most loyal customers are there to stay, no matter what, you have a rude awakening coming. The answer is actually quite simple. The price of our loyalty is one bad experience. You have to remember that your brand isn’t a family member that I’m forced to face every holiday dinner. My desire to “work it out” has an inverse relationship with two things: how much effort it will take and how much you pissed me off.

Case in point

Southwest tests my loyalty and loses

I’m writing this from the convenience of seat 8A, flight 344 from Denver to Oakland on an airline that rhymes with Mouthwest. I fly Southwest (okay there’s no fooling you) almost exclusively and I travel pretty extensively. Not a ridiculous amount, but two to three trips a month, so pretty frequently. I consider myself a very loyal Southwest customer. If they fly somewhere I need to go, I fly on their airline, no questions asked. I don’t even check airfares for other airlines. Today my loyalty was tested multiple times. Sometimes Southwest won, but it only took one time for Southwest to lose that affected my loyalty forever.

1)      I’m walking to the terminal. I see huge signs at BWI saying that Southwest now allows you to watch TV shows on DirectTV in-flight. My thought: Great, the horrifically slow wi-fi just got slower, but maybe I can catch up on the premier episode of Breaking Bad I missed last night. I’m still loyal.

2)      Typical Southwest flight. There were no rappers, dancing flight attendants or otherwise “spirited” moments. My thought: Thank goodness for the peace and quiet so I could get some work done. I do appreciate a more spirited staff on occasion, but this was perfect for what I needed today. I’m definitely still loyal.

3)      Since I was flying to Oakland from BWI, I had a layover in Denver. Upon landing I realize that the flight has landed late and my connection is scheduled to leave in 15 minutes. I was at the back of the plan on a full flight. My thought: Why wouldn’t the flight attendants ask people who didn’t have connections to stay seated to help out those of us who have less than 15 minutes to make it to our connections? I’m annoyed, but still loyal.

4)      Upon reaching the gate attendant, I hand her my boarding pass, slightly in a hurry I do admit. I just ran there after all, my body was still pumping. She stops me after I’ve slightly passed her, “Ma’am you’re going to need to put your purse inside of your backpack. You can’t take three bags.” I had my backpack, my purse and my carry-on that I had just taken on my last flight without incident. My thought: Really? What’s her deal? I’m so shocked; my loyalty is on the backburner.

5)      I have NEVER been asked to do this on a Southwest flight. But I did it and got back in line. My thought: This girl is on a power trip and I’m her victim. Keep quiet and get past her. If I can make it quickly my loyalty will remain intact and I’ll chalk it up to her having a bad day.

6)      The gate attendant, Jean Stearne proceeds to make me step back out of line two more times, so I can measure my VERY standard carry-on bag and to retrieve the boarding pass she took from me and left on another desk. My thought: This is absolutely ridiculous. I will NEVER fly Southwest again.

The reality is that years of loyal patronage were thrown out the window with ONE employee who proceeded to create ONE very bad experience. At the end of the day, it was less about what she did, and more about the way she treated me. She treated me like I was a disobedient child who was trying to break the rules, she used a controlling and angry tone of voice, she tried to cover her last name on her name badge when I asked for her name (which is the only reason I mentioned her by name), and ultimately she lost control of her emotions and projected them onto me. For brevity’s sake, I’ve left out several things she said and did, but I’m pretty sure running down the jetway screaming, “what did you say?” at a customer isn’t part of the customer service manual. For the curious, I said “Southwest just lost me as a customer.” To which she had no reply. She used the “FAA Guidelines” as a license to be less than respectful to a customer. As a result, it got me thinking about loyalty on the last leg of my flight and made me question what loyalty really means for a brand and for a brand’s customers. After all, I was willing to throw a lifetime of loyalty out the window over a single isolated incident.

Are we REALLY loyal to brands?

Loyalty isn’t unwavering devotion.

This leads to the next question, are we really loyal to brands? After all, it was just one experience. If it was one of my family members we’d fight, work it out and make up. For some reason, I don’t think we have that kind of loyalty with brands. We are loyal customers, we give you our patronage. We expect to be treated with respect in return. If that doesn’t happen, we might attempt to resolve the situation provided it doesn’t take too much of our time. But given the right combination of ugly, we’ll cut you off without a blink of an eye. All that history forgotten. All that future revenue lost. Loyalty is a statement of how we feel in that moment, but it isn’t unwavering. Our customer’s loyalty shouldn’t be tested or we may find that we don’t like the results.

How do you identify one bad experience?

Create a feedback loop to measure offline experiences online.

Today was a game-changing moment in my relationship with Southwest. But honestly, how would they ever know that one of their thousands of passengers had their loyalty tested to the extent of harming the relationship? This is one of the reasons that I am such a big proponent of leveraging Net Promoter Score as a follow up to any offline interaction and built into the template of ANY email communication you send to customers or prospects. My Net Promoter Score for Southwest went from a 10 to a 1, with one interaction. The only way Southwest would ever know is to ask. After all, I am a rapid rewards member, they know when I fly. How hard would it be to send an email after each of my flights asking me how likely I am to recommend them and giving me the opportunity to provide feedback on my flight experience? It’s so simple and would be a tremendous feedback loop for them. It leverages digital marketing to measure offline experiences. That’s just smart. I actually tried to give feedback once through the Southwest website. That’s an experience worth optimizing so it doesn’t make customers want to pull their hair out. Needless to say, they never got my feedback that time and I didn’t bother this time.

The first step is to ask about every experience so you can understand when your loyal customers go from promoters to detractors. The second is to use the feedback you receive to identify when you have a customer service issue that needs to be resolved. The third is to take action and communicate with customers quickly so you have a chance at turning these newfound detractors back into promoters.

Remember, we’re just one bad experience away from becoming your competitor’s most loyal customer. Try to make every interaction meaningful: offline and online.

What do you think? Do you think customers are truly loyal to brands? What would it take for you to abandon your favorite brands? Can you measure a bad customer experience in your company within 24 hours of it happening? Leave a comment and let’s have a discussion about loyalty, passion, and the costs of bad customer experiences. 

Side bar: Will I ever fly Southwest again? Yes. I have no choice because I have several trips booked for the next two months. I also have to get home from this trip.  And I don’t believe this is an experience that is representative of Southwest’s service. However, it is one that will stay with me for a long time. As a result, you can bet, that when my next trip gets booked I’ll be looking at other airlines. I’m thinking one of those airlines that has business class and free upgrades for frequent flyers sounds really good right now. Why, oh why, doesn’t Virgin fly out of Baltimore? If you have suggestions on your favorite airline leave a comment!

About the Author

Nichole Kelly
Nichole Kelly is the CEO of Social Media Explorer|SME Digital. She is also the author of How to Measure Social Media. Her team helps companies figure out where social media fits and then helps execute the recommended strategy across the “right” mix of social media channels. Do you want to rock the awesome with your digital marketing strategy? Contact Nichole
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  • Liz Ruff

    As for Southwest, I am also a lost customer. I also travel frequently and have experienced a sequence of events that lead me to believe their unique business model has slipped – largely customer relations oriented. Is it being watered down as they acquire other airlines? Who knows and who cares? As far a customer loyalty – I believe we have a much shorter rope with commercial businesses than our non-profit friends (such as museums, zoos etc). See? I consider them my “friends” and the others “businesses” :) Beyond that, non-profit’s lack of funding is well known and I think people give them some rope. Not to say they can’t hang themselves with it though. Respect and politeness are the foundations for positive visitor experiences. Many budget-related concerns can be mollified by a concerned polite response from an employee. Then again, many non-profits are competing for that same precious visitor dollar. Which brings to mind that age-old axiom – your employees are your most important resources!

  • Thanks for the nice and interesting post.. looking forward for more of it..

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  • Nichole_Kelly

    Amazing update to post here! Southwest reached out to me and sent me just the most amazing, nice email. I feel absolutely confident that the situation will be handled appropriately. It made me feel warm and fuzzy again! Yay! Love ya Southwest!

    • See? Heh

    • Mark Herbert

      That’s great! I am glad they recognized that it was their responsibility to “earn” you back. The idea that you can’t blame the organization for one employee’s behavior doesn’t fly. “Mistakes” will happen, but the job of leadership is to ensure they don’t happen twice…

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  • christinee279

    Great article! At our public library, we are ALWAYS working on customer service…it is literally the ONLY thing that sets us apart from other local libraries! I will be sharing this with our staff!

    • Nichole_Kelly

      Awesome! Congratulations on using service to differentiate. Do you ask members how likely they are to recommend you after each visit? Or what about for each book they checked out? Could be a great way to get immediate feedback on service AND create a review mechanism for books. :-) Thanks so much for commenting! Keep rockin’ the awesome.

  • jakemeador

    The funny thing is in my experience Southwest is the best airline to fly with. I recently had a flight from Omaha to Dulles and back–four flights total (layover in Dallas both times). All four of my flights were at least 20 minutes late and two of them were over an hour late. My flight from Omaha to Dallas was two hours late (all 120 minutes of which was spent sitting in the plane on the runway in Omaha) and I missed my Dallas to DC flight, which meant I had to stay in the airport all night. I’ve never had that many issues with Southwest.

  • Dave Link

    I can absolutely identify with your frustration with the situation, but I found myself thinking similarly to how Jason phrased things below. My loyalty to a company or brand isn’t rooted in a track record that ends in perfection – that’s next to impossible and it’s unreasonable for me to expect that of myself, let alone a company with thousands of employees.

    To me, the real definition of loyalty is rooted in the efforts that companies make to change and right the wrongs we experience. I fly Southwest not because they’re perfect, but because when they’re not perfect that make reasonable efforts to accommodate me and correct the error. The same cannot be said in the slightest for a number of other airlines. It’s also the same reason I have loyalty to eateries and retail locations – they do a damn good job of getting it right 80% of the time, and when they don’t they own up to it and work to find a common ground and solution.

    • Nichole_Kelly

      That’s fair. I would say that typically I’m the same. I have loyalty to a lot of brands that are far from perfect. The question is whether one experience can leave such a bad impression that you shift loyalty from one brand to another? I don’t think anyone expects perfection from brands. But I think we’ve all had one or more situations where one experience caused us to shift loyalty to a competitor. Have you ever had an experience like that?

      • Dave Link

        If it’s my first experience with a brand and it’s awful I’m much more likely to go elsewhere, whereas if I’ve had even just one or two positive experiences it would have to be a pretty awful singular issue to make me just up and leave without a second thought. I can completely understand where a string of incidents – similar to those you relayed in your post – would lead a customer to question their loyalty to any one brand. Seems to be more a measure of how large the screw up is and if it’s a repeat or one-off experience.

        • Nichole_Kelly

          I’d say we’re on the same we are on the same page. Honestly, I think why this impacted my loyalty so much was because there were several little nuisances that had been adding up every time I fly. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me as they say.

  • You know I’m going to be the dissenting opinion, here, right? While I agree that loyalty is somewhat fluid and fleeting, I think Nichole’s experience and story goes to show you how misdirected our frustrations and anger can be. Southwest Airlines didn’t make this a bad experience for Nichole. One gate attendant having a bad day, in a bad mood, or perhaps just a bad gate attendant did. To blame Southwest Airlines for one employee’s perhaps isolated words or actions — which by the way were technically following protocol, no matter how out of sorts and unnecessary Nichole may have thought it to be — is incorrect. Sure, it reflects poorly on the company, but doing so is like blaming your parents because your brother is a prick.

    Perhaps my perspective is different here because I’ve gotten entrenched in community management at Cafepress. So now I’m the lead dog getting nipped by the community. We’ve had recently hired phone customer service people tell customers things that are diametrically opposed to what our company stance is, so while there is corporate responsibility for the employee, the employee’s actions are just that — the employee’s actions.

    Cooler heads should prevail. Nichole should recognize she had an isolated incident with one gate agent, not a systemic series of bad experiences that lead her to believe she doesn’t want to do business with this company anymore. Not doing so is being melodramatic and irrational. My guess is that Nichole will, in fact, buy another ticket to fly Southwest soon. And that will kinda prove my point.

    Let’s direct our frustration appropriately and encourage others to do so. Southwest’s gate agent erred and did Nichole wrong. Nichole should let Southwest Airlines know this, identify the gate agent and allow the company to handle the issue accordingly. Penalizing the other ump-teen thousand employees and fans and customers and the brand because of one person’s actions just isn’t fair. To anyone.

    • Nichole_Kelly

      That’s fair. The point of this post was less about my experience with Southwest. The point was that a bad experience can trump any loyalty someone has to a brand. I used the experience with Southwest to illustrate a change in loyalty. As a result of this experience it made me evaluate what brand loyalty really is and I’ve come to the conclusion, at least for myself, that my loyalty has a strong correlation to my last experience with the brand. And there are situations where one experience can be all it takes to trump loyalty. Will I fly Southwest again? Yes, I’m waiting for my return flight now. And I have 4 trips already booked over the next two months. I will take those flights. Will I buy another SW ticket? Very unlikely if I have a choice. BWI is a Southwest hub, I may have limited options. I am in the market for a new airline because what happened is that all of the things that I’ve never been a fan of when flying Southwest (boarding, no business class, end of the line check in when I get my boarding pass late) are now trumping the things I did like (no bag fees, familiar process, low fares, no change fees). I’m not inclined to overlook those anymore if I can find a viable alternative. Some of the perks of the other airlines are peaking my interest. They never did before.

      You can say it’s irrational and melodramatic. I won’t argue with you on that. But I suppose that goes to illustrate the point. Bad experiences can lead to irrational and melodramatic shifts in loyalty, can’t they?

      And I totally understand your perspective working for Cafe Press. It’s frustrating when employees aren’t acting in a way that supports the culture. But we only hear those with the loudest voices. I wonder how many people just stop coming back without saying anything. And are we missing an opportunity to correct situations that aren’t even on our radar because we don’t ask if people are satisfied.

      I still <3 you man. But I will disagree on this one. I'm not sure how I penalized "the other ump-teen thousand employees and fans and customers and the brand." By not using them in the future? That seems like an unfair assessment of penalty.

      • Nichole_Kelly

        For the record, during my layover in Denver I stopped and talked to the customer service supervisor and explained what happened. I also explained how it impacted my desire to fly with Southwest after years of loyal patronage. He assured me he would handle the situation so that the next time I flew through Denver I hopefully wouldn’t have any issues. I wasn’t overly impressed with the response, but glad that I did my part to report it.

  • Kerry O’Shea Gorgone

    This really sums it up: “How hard would it be to send an email after each of my flights asking me how likely I am to recommend them and giving me the opportunity to provide feedback on my flight experience?” If they don’t ask, they don’t care enough.

    • Nichole_Kelly

      Thank you Kerry. That was the point of the post. You rock sista!

  • Dan Wedge

    Great post! Imagine the power of this article for Southwest if they were the first one to respond to this. Just even: “wow, as you have come to know that is now how we do business, thank you so much for flying Southwest ______ will be in contact with you soon, about your experience.” I bet not only would they win you back but every reader of yours would be amazed to see a company that looks after its customers every time.

    • Nichole_Kelly

      That would have been quite inspiring wouldn’t it Dan. :-) I would certainly have been impressed. But also understanding the volume of monitoring they have to do I would totally understand if it never made it to their radar. I’m no Kevin Smith, after all. LOL. Thanks so much for commenting.

  • charlotte_varela

    Great post Nichole, I really enjoyed reading this :) it’s so shocking that large brands can have this kind of thing happening under their very nose and not even realise how much it’s harming them. Have you shared this post on Twitter/Facebook yet and tagged Southwest into the update? I’d be interested to see whether they’d contact you after seeing it and actually put in that work of winning you back.

    With regards to really being loyal to brands, I’ve had a number of experiences at McDonald’s where they’ve given me a chicken wrap instead of a vegetarian one, but in a vegetarian box so I haven’t known until I’ve bitten into it! After the fifth time of it happening I still go back now and then, albeit just for chips or chips and a McFlurry. Maybe it’s because the chips are so good, but I think some of it has to do with the fact that each time I returned the chicken wraps I was given a completely new meal with, a couple of times, the addition of a refund. At the back of my mind I do think, “at least they did something to help” which managed to pacify me somewhat.

    • Nichole_Kelly

      Charlotte – I haven’t made any attempts to personally reach out to Southwest. I figure if they are watching social channels and monitor for their brand they will find this. Based on what I have heard and know about their social media team who I have a ton of respect for, I have no doubt they will find it in due time.

      Obviously, your experience with McDonald’s is a pretty extreme scenario. Most people would never consider going back if they didn’t feel like they could trust they would get the food they ordered, especially if you are vegetarian or had allergies of some kind. It’s great to hear that they attempted to help you when you returned the wraps and you’ve been able to overlook their errors through appreciation for their food. I’m a big fan of the McFlurry personally and I think there fries are the best in the industry. :-) Thanks so much for commenting!


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