In business, we talk about the importance of customer loyalty. But we consider customers as assets, something tangible. We think of them in the same way as our equipment or property: something that can be counted, weighed and measured, and given a value.
As property, an owner understandably feels, that they belong to the company.
But to an employee, especially one looking for a job or to start their own business, they are a ticket to a better future.
The potential result: the asset leaves when the employee leaves. Bad news for the business.
This happens to companies with employee non-compete agreements. It happens when customers are required to sign agreements that they won’t work independently with any staff member from that company. It happens when you have no agreements and rely on the loyalty of customers to stay no matter what happens.
Bottom line: it happens because customers belong to themselves.
A colleague just had this happen to her company: an employee who quit joined a competitor, and recruited a customer she met at her old job. A former client, who had the customer agreement, had the same thing happen to him. I’ve had it happen to me. In all cases, a platinum profile customer™ let each of us know and we’re grateful.
Owners feel betrayed, angry and used. Employees feel this was an “asset” they created, a relationship they developed and nurtured, and they have rights to use this for their own purposes, too.
Who’s right? Both and neither. Customers do what they want to emotionally. Rational reasons not to jump ship (financial costs, disruption, etc.) are not the drivers in their decision.
Bottom line: customer loyalty is self-determined. No one owns customers.
When we talk about customer loyalty, we really can only talk about our loyalty to our customer — what we’re willing or unwilling to do for them. Their loyalty is to themselves. That’s not a criticism; it’s a reality.
So the next time someone says “Dell is my customer”, ask them a question. “Michael or Susan Dell? It’s all in the eye of that individual person who bought from you; not you, your salesperson, or other employee. It’s not really even in their company policy or agreements. Those are broken all the time.
The actual customer is the only one who can say they’re your customer “for now”. More importantly, they are the only ones who have the right to vote with their feet by leaving at any time. You can always sue them or complain but that won’t get them back as loyal customers.
To Owners and Employees: customers don’t belong to you.
To Customers: please be courteous and let owners know you’ve been approached. It gives owners the opportunity to protect our real assets, our real trade secrets — the sales and marketing processes and strategies that we’ve worked so hard to create and implement.
Agree or disagree?