Customer Loyalty and Advocacy are Not Interchangeable Concepts

I have attended a few conferences lately where I’ve heard both presenters and attendees use the terms “customer loyalty” and “customer advocacy” interchangeably, which frustrates me to no end – especially when it’s done by so-called “marketing experts.”

In my experience, customer loyalty and advocacy are not interchangeable concepts.  There’s a significant difference between the two.

In fact, one is a prerequisite for the other.  A loyal customer is not necessarily an advocate and an advocate cannot be earned without first solidifying loyalty.

Both loyalty and advocacy are specific stages in the customer life cycle, not isolated, stand-alone concepts. Too often businesses don’t understand the specific stages through which a customer progresses post-purchase, and assume that the path to advocacy is somehow automatic. Or worse, that there’s no difference between loyalty and advocacy at all.

The Post-Purchase Customer Life Cycle

Each business will have its own post-purchase life cycle stages; however, the most common stages applicable to all businesses are satisfaction, loyalty, and advocacy.

1. Satisfaction

Customers experience a sense of worry or fear when a product is first purchased. “Did I make the right decision?” or “Did I pay too much?” are questions considered immediately after making a purchase decision.  This is not fertile ground for the building of loyal customers. In fact, the next stage cannot be achieved without first proving to customers that they made the right decision.  This stage is not necessarily short-term and is only ended when the customer moves into the loyalty stage. This is where most businesses lose customers.

Business Tips:

– Have a cross-over strategy that provides the account and customer service teams with the expectations that were set by the sales team.
– Contact the customer within X days of the purchase order and/or product delivery to offer assistance with product training, set up, or other support.
– Share additional customer testimonials or connect them to customer advocates or online forums set up for customers and advocates.

2. Loyalty.

Once customers are adequately satisfied that they made the right purchase decision, they become open to the concept of loyalty towards that product or brand. At this stage the account team (and other operational teams) must demonstrate how their product or service meets or surpasses the initial expectation or promises made by the marketing collateral or sales team.  A loyal customer ignores hiccups or interruptions in meeting their expectations and rarely seeks alternatives.

Business Tips:

– Ask  customers to participate in the writing of a case study or white paper on their use of the product/service and how it has impacted their business.
– Invite the customer to a customer-only wiki or forum to engage with other customers, or to participate in future R&D initiatives.

3. Advocacy.

After loyalty has been firmly established, a customer may be moved into the advocacy stage; however this is the most difficult transition to make. Loyal customers will share their affinity for a product when enticed to do so with points, rewards, and other forms of compensation for their patronage.  Advocates, on the other hand, will voluntarily offer their time and resources to share their love of your brand with their peers, without expectation of recognition or reward. but they don’t offer this up easily.

Business Tips:

– Monitor the online conversation created or shared by your loyal customers to determine who is progressing from the loyalty stage to the advocate stage.
– Using those customers identified, create benchmarks and common profiles that can be applied against your database of loyal customers.
– Identify patterns in consumer profiles or engagement styles across different touch points with the brand. Use this information to reallocate resources towards funnelling others towards advocacy.

To achieve loyalty or advocacy, at a minimum the business must provide a product(s) that meets users’ needs and deliver or support it in a manner that creates an emotional connection with the customer. Each has the same baseline requirement, yet they’re not interchangeable concepts.

Earning loyalty and advocacy from customers is based on their acceptance of your product and service; it may help to look at each from the customers’ point of view. What do they think and do at each stage?

The “Satisfied Customer”

What he/she thinks: My choice to purchase this product or service was not a mistake.

What he/she does:  Stops weighing the pros and cons of the product and starts focusing on the value it provides his/her business.

The “Loyal Customer”

What he/she thinks: This product has consistently delivered the function that was promised to me in the sales process.

What he/she does: Continues to purchase/use the products or services, even when minor hiccups occur in the product’s quality or the business’s service; does not actively research alternatives even when the cost of purchasing/using the product  or service increases.

The “Advocate”

What he/she thinks: The experience of using this product or working with this business has far surpassed my expectations.

What he/she does: Voluntarily and actively shares their experiences with colleagues without the expectation of reward or recognition; publicly shares photos and/or stories of their experiences with the business in online or offline media.

Unfortunately, too few businesses understand the value of building the customer relationship post-purchase, let alone the specific stages in that post-purchase path. Breaking down these stages – and the touch points within each stage – is critical to growing a powerful advocate army.

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