A Loyalty Even Man's Best Friend Can't Beat

Lands' End Vet Jeanne Bliss Tells Us How to Get It

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The way marketers interact with customers--in the store, over the phone and on the web--is as critical to their success as the product or experience they offer. And marketers that can get their customers to love them have an enduring, and lucrative, advantage.

Few people know that better than the uncannily named Jeanne Bliss, who helped nurture the cuddly culture at mail order clothing retailer Lands' End during the 1980s. (Lands' End ultimately was absorbed by Sears.) Lands' End was well known for doing things like religiously responding to fan mail, courtesy of 200 volunteer employees. Or sending customers who may have received a flawed turtleneck a replacement -- before they complained.

That high-touch culture won Lands' End a lot of love. In "I Love You More Than My Dog," Ms. Bliss lays out the big steps companies must take to earn that affection. But the book falls short when it comes to providing guidance on how to sell such a culture to internal stakeholders, how to maintain a culture during these cost-cutting times, and exploring how to maintain these values over the long term.

Winning extreme customer loyalty is based on five decisions, according to Ms. Bliss:

  • Beloved companies decide to believe. That is, they believe their customers aren't trying to rip them off when they return merchandise. And they trust their employess to make the right decisions.
  • Beloved companies decide with clarity of purpose. They are committed to the experience they want to bring their customers.
  • Beloved companies decide to be real. They trust in their personality, and those of their employees.
  • Beloved companies decide to be there. They constantly work to earn relationships with their customers, when their customers need them.
  • Beloved companies decide to say sorry. They take accountability for their mistakes and customer dissatisfaction. (Bliss makes this compelling, with stories of how a hospital reduced malpractice suits by sharing records and how Toro benefited by stopping litigating suits brought on by customers injured using its mowers.)

Bliss shares stories from corporate and Main Street that bring these imperatives to life: Zappos offering hires $2,000 to leave if they feel they don't fit in with the culture; Griffin Hospital providing music in the parking lot; Zane's Cycles giving away parts that cost less than $1. She also throws out simple but provocative questions for managers:

  • Are you hiring partners or filling positions?
  • What's your vibe?
  • What gets between you and your customers?
  • Do your customers look forward to seeing you?

But the book falls short when it comes to discussion of how to bring a lovable culture into being. There's no discussion of how to sell it to management, shareholders or employees. There's no discussion of how to protect a culture during a recession, or maintain it through transitional periods. (Ms. Bliss notes that Trader Joe's has maintained its quirky identity through ownership changes, but without explaining how.)

"I Love You More than My Dog" reveals the decisions a company must make if it wants to be loved. But it doesn't provide any insight on how to make those decisions possible.

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James Arndorfer, a former Ad Age reporter, now works for MillerCoors.

Ad Age named I Love You More Than My Dog one of 10 Books You Should Have Read in 2009 in its annual Book of Tens. Get the rest of the best here.