Grappling with Customer Guilt II

Danielle's entry raises an interesting question, and one we've grappled with before in FC Now. I'm sure we'll continue to wrestle with the issue. Last November, Alison Overholt had a negative experience at Starbucks — she ran away from, while Danielle stepped toward the coffee maker — that inspired her to ask, "How fickle are we, really?"

That entry inspired a week-long Web discussion with guest hosts John Moore of Whole Foods Market and Paul Williams, a customer care manager for Starbucks. In early December last year, they shared a wide range of customer service, loyalty, and marketing experiences, ideas, resources, and tools.

Danielle's experience is the quo to Alison's quid. Almost karmic, customer loyalty can be given — and taken away. But the concept of customer guilt is fascinating. Some have approached customer guilt from the angle of building socially conscious elements into their products and services so potential customers aren't hesitant to purchase them. (Seventh Generation is a fine example of this; there's very little customer guilt in buying their products.)

But little has been done in the way of former customers feeling guilty for changing where they do business. Do any FC Now readers know of any research — or other writing — done on this?

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  • Bob Watkins

    This is a dilemma of "relationship marketing" - if the vendor does a good job, they build a relationship with the customer instead of just doing transactions with them. The customer can then feel like they're breaking up with someone, rather than just changing a supplier, when they feel it's in their best interest to switch.

    But this dilemma isn't the only guilt-inducing one out there. Two other quick examples I've had to face just in the past week:

    1. A piece of electronics gear can be had most cheaply at a web retailer. The savings is more than $50 over any local store. But because it's expensive, I'm reluctant to buy without having actually tried the gadget. Am I justified in trying the demo at a retailer, then placing my order online? How much loyalty do I owe the retailer for the 10 minutes I spent there - $50 worth?

    2. An online reservations service has excellent research material online. But when I reserve through them, hotel clerks treat me like a second class citizen. "Oh, you're an XYZ," they say, as if my very identity is set by the sales channel I used to book the reservation. And, I'm convinced the rooms were of lesser quality than those I booked myself. Am I justified in using their research to find the best places, only to book directly? Do I owe it to the online service to be treated poorly when I travel in order to be "fair" to them?

    Great topic, Danielle.