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What would you pay for 42 years of customer loyalty?

There is such a thing as fierce customer loyalty. Even in our culture of choice and options. I know, because I am a loyal customer. So are my clients.

So are most people I know who finally, finally find that rare company who understands and delivers excellence in product quality and customer service, going beyond the norm to serve, satisfy and keep their customers long after the money changes hands.

I’ve been a member of the CAA – Manitoba Motor League since 1977. That’s 42 years, which makes me feel old to say.

Back in June, my wife Cheryl and I decided we wanted to go to Grand Forks for the day, so we checked into the travel insurance offers through CAA. I zipped over to their office.

I met with a woman there, explaining our needs for insurance coverage. We just wanted coverage enough for the day, not an annual plan as we typically purchase.

During the conversation, I asked clarifying questions, particularly due to a previous experience, wanting to know, “If you are in the midst of a need for medical care, do I call CAA directly or Blue Cross or whoever the insurer is, or do I go through a call centre?”

She didn’t seem responsive, giving me canned replies like she was reading them from a manual. She was not willing to answer my question, so I tried asking in different ways.

“With some insurance companies, if I’d have need of medical help, I’d just call a number and that’s it. The medical care can be taken care of. Other companies give you a number to a call centre, which may or may not have access to the insurance company directly, and it can be a big extra hassle in the middle of a medical emergency. How does it work with your company?”

She looked like she wished she was somewhere else. Her answers were getting shorter and her voice more strained. She seemed annoyed, maybe with me, maybe with her inability to answer the questions.

At one point she pulled out a booklet, going over and highlighting and underlining parts, but she never answered my question. Maybe it’s something she had to do, but she spent more time giving me the procedural run down about subsection 2B than answering my question. I was kind of taken aback at her approach to customer service.

I left, unsure which satisfied me less; the canned answers to my important-to-me questions, or the way the clerk seemed annoyed by having to serve a customer.

Afterwards, a survey was emailed to me. I took the opportunity to give them polite criticism, because nothing gets fixed that isn’t known to be broken.

The apologetic phone call that followed the survey results didn’t help much. Sure, they followed up, which is good protocol, but the person who phoned was as attentive as the annoyed clerk with the underlined brochure. I pointed out that not only have I been a continual member for over four decades, but that for the past 14 years the dealer for my vehicle has given me an annual auto emergency plan akin to CAA for free and after this experience I’m rethinking renewing for year 43 this December. In response, I was offered a different membership with benefits that could complement the dealer plan. I sure got the warm and fuzzy feeling that I was being heard and I was a valuable member. NOT!

“Thanks, but you’re not addressing the initial issue. You are just trying to keep me a member and I’m not happy with the way I was treated and other than your phone apology as a member of 42 years, I expect more member assistance and rectification.”

“Well, I’m trying to save you money.”

“Yeah, but that’s not the problem and it is evident you as well are not hearing me. I pay my annual fees and don’t think about it. Price isn’t the issue. I want the member service, which I am not seeing.”

We ended the call without my knowing anything more about their insurance provisions, which is key to me. I’m now looking for a different source.  It has been almost a week since that call and they still haven’t gotten back to me.

If the state of service – even for loyal customers – is one of annoyed, reluctant obligation, I foresee a consumer revolt in the future.

The fact is, customers do want to be loyal, but they have a choice who they give their patronage. As a business professionals, this should implore us to compete for loyalty and motivate us to treat it well, not treat it like some once-won trophy that can now gather dust on a shelf. We should not return disdain for loyalty.

If we are fortunate enough to be rewarded with a customer’s loyalty, we should prize it like a trophy, but one that’s shined regularly, displayed with pride and regarded highly – like one we know we must keep winning every year.

As disheartening as issues such as this are, they cause me to look deeper into my service model and see where I can improve. When a customer takes the time to say what is on their mind, the company should take the time to listen, digest and look for a way to correct it. This is how a disgruntled customer can become a raving fan or abandon you. In short, invite the opportunity to make it right.