Management Articles


Culture and Customer Loyalty
But Will They Love Me Tomorrow? Thriving With Customers Through Corporate Culture

By: Dr. A. J. Schuler

Dr. A. J. Schuler is an expert in leadership and organizational change. To find out more about his programs and services, visit or call (703) 370-6545.

You are the CEO of a successful, thriving business. You 've watched your business grow from its inception to its current standing as a recognized player in its market niche. Observers applaud, though no one knows better than you do how hard it has been to get to this point. And that's why now you're terrified: will they still love me tomorrow? No, not the industry watchers, but the customers?

A recent magazine headline posed the question this way: has your company been "built to last" or "built to flip?" For you entrepreneurs, CEO's and company presidents who answer "built to last," you know full well that the challenges you'll face in building sustainable customer loyalty are radically different from those you've faced just in getting to this point. And though you and your team would like to take a much deserved break, you know in your bones that getting to the next level will be much harder than what you've faced so far -and there's no time to waste .

There's no way around it: if you want to build customer loyalty, you need to build a sustainable, successful corporate culture. Here's why your culture matters to customers:

Customers Return if They Trust You:
Every time customers put money down to buy your product or service, they take a risk. People who buy on price alone will accept more risk in order to cut their costs, but sustainable customer loyalty comes from capturing those who do not buy on price alone. This is truth is at the hart of all sound branding strategies.

To escape the trap of becoming a commodity business, your company has to built up trust equity with customers, and that comes first through building a competitive advantage through corporate culture.

Customers Can't Trust You if They Don't Know You:
You can deliver a great product or service to a customer, but that does not mean they know you -what your business is, what it is about. Trust is a precondition to forming a relationship, and to form a relationship with a customer , you have to give each customer - from the very first sales contact - a sense not only of why your product or service is right for them, but of who you are, forming the beginnings of a real or imagined personal connection. This allows you to establish "mindshare" in your customer's universe, which is what brand identity and brand equity are all about. But none of the "signal" of your brand identity can get through the "noise" of the initial contact if you don't identify and build your company's unique culture.

Customers Can't Know You if You Don't Know Yourself:
To grow to this point, your business has had to do a lot of improvising, and that's been the challenge and the fun. Now, you look around, and you can see that a "personality" for your company has begun to take shape. There are some things you like about that personality , and some you could maybe do without - you've had been both pleasant and unpleasant surprises. And though it seems as if you don't have time to examine and take advantage of those "pleasant surprises" and cultural strengths, the problem is that if you don't, your company will never develop a recognized cultural identity -and so customers will never get to know you. If that happens, you can kiss sustainable customer loyalty goodbye.

Use Your Culture as a Competitive Weapon:
If you leverage the strengths of your corporate culture, you gain a considerable competitive advantage in the marketplace and make it possible for customers to feel they have a relationship with you. When that happens, you reap the rewards of positive brand equity: existing customers buy more, they buy more often, they get their friends to buy, they give you feedback when you need to make adjustments (instead of just buying from someone else next time!), and they cut your rate of overhead invested in generating new sales. What's more, making a positive and unique cultural identity explicit keeps your new people in focus as you add size, so you can sustain your growth and not become bloated or unproductive as you build more organizational weight.

A Word of Caution:
If this were easy, everyone would be doing it. Most people who talk about helping you with corporate culture end up taking your business through a navel gazing enterprise that is not only unproductive, but which sets in stone an inflexible pseudo "identity" that will fail you when your business needs to adapt to the inevitable changes the future will bring. Following that kind of path is obviously worse than doing nothing! So if you want to build sustainable customer loyalty, be sure that when you leverage corporate culture, you identify and build upon the strengths of your company's "personality," and don't just ossify through taking on fancy buzzwords, new policies, new procedures or by having lots of feel-good, "rah-rah" sessions.

In short, leveraging corporate culture is the right next step in the evolution of sustainable success for many companies who are just past the initial growth spurt of establishing a market presence. While too many businesses think of brand identity only in terms of taking advantage of whatever opportunities the marketplace provides, those who establish successful brand identities know that corporate culture and identity are at least as important. Getting this step right - building culture in a way that adds to your bottom line and establishes customer loyalty - can be the key ingredient that allows your business to remain successful over time, so you can stand out among the many others who want your customers to love them, instead of you!

© Copyright (c) 2002 A. J. Schuler, Psy. D.

Other Articles by Dr. A. J. Schuler

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