Create brand superfans

Forget customer satisfaction. It’s a lagging indicator, not a leading one, and you can’t build a forward-thinking strategy based on historical data. Instead, companies need to take satisfaction to the next level and create advocates of their customers.

Advocacy strongly differs from satisfaction, or even loyalty. It is a business strategy built upon trust, an enduring competitive advantage that has become increasingly important as companies lose control of the brand message to customers who can reach the masses in an anonymous, everlasting way.

Victoria’s Secret has begun to build an extraordinary online community by providing members with the ability to upload photos and videos, share their product experiences, and discuss special A-list events they were invited to and attended together.

Three hallmarks of a customer advocate differentiate her from simply being a supporter, influencer, loyalist, or satisfied customer. A customer advocate:

Supports the brand. An advocate will stand by the brand even in times of difficulty, isn’t afraid to react to criticism or correct factually incorrect statements about the brand, and will purchase brand products as gifts for friends and family.

Actively promotes the brand. Advocates share their experiences via various social media, openly praise company employees both internally and externally, and provide unsolicited feedback on service and quality. In some cases, they consider themselves “brand protectors.”

Is emotionally attached to the brand. Advocates have a sense of ownership in the brand. They will forgive shortcomings (such as price) when buying products, and treat the brand as part of their inner circle.

But how does one go about turning customers into advocates?

  1. Silence detractors. Develop an environment where customers will not want to talk badly about a brand. I once spoke with an executive who said his goal was to “not have customers hate us.” Identify and prioritize customer pockets with a high concentration of negativity, and allocate resources to fix the root issues. In other words, to get your customer-experience house in order you must honestly focus on your most common complaints.
  2. Build a solid and positive customer experience. Create consistent, coordinated interactions across channels to meet customer needs. Develop efficient internal processes, integrate data, and empower employees so customers are satisfied every time they interact with you. Satisfaction and loyalty are critical to the success of a business. But you don’t have to stop there.
  3. Offer extraordinary experiences. Go that extra mile when customers least expect it, and in return you will receive their long-term business. For example, as a Delta “very” frequent flier, I have received two unusual offers. One was a black-tie invitation to the grand opening of Delta’s new Terminal A in Boston. The second was an offer for two free flights to Miami, two tickets to an NFL game, and a free night at the Ritz Carlton. While the latter offer was potentially very expensive, it created a strong advocate of me for life — despite the fact that I’ve had many instances of frustration with the carrier.

The process of creating an advocate depends on the level of customer engagement that already exists. Imagine that customers sit on a spectrum, from indifferent on one side to advocates on the other. For indifferent customers, emphasize the value they receive over price and create specialized services addressing their specific needs. For customers who already feel fulfilled, you need to create emotional connections between them and the brand. For example, one Middle Eastern telecom operator has begun to create the brand connection by extending extraordinary discounts from third-party partners, such as theaters and car rental agencies.

Meanwhile, committed customers should be encouraged to become members and participate in the customer community, as well as create “networking” opportunities. In another case, Victoria’s Secret has begun to build an extraordinary online community by providing members with the ability to upload photos and videos, share their product experiences, and discuss special A-list events they were invited to and attended together.

Satisfaction and loyalty are important, but they’re old news. Forward-thinking companies will be the ones that identify and work with their customer advocates to genuinely build the brand, the customer base, and the bottom line.

For more articles like this, check out the Harvard Business Review report: Creating a customer-centered organization

*Article reprinted with permission from Harvard Business Review

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