Some people credit their successful careers to a good education, solid mentoring, and a few lucky breaks. I’d say the same for myself, with one significant addition: a few gallons of exterior latex paint.
The paint was for a summer job I created for myself years ago while in college. At the time, I wanted to be a doctor, but that little painting business awoke in me a slumbering entrepreneurial streak that guided my career into marketing. What I did not realize at the time was that painting houses also taught me a lot about customer loyalty.
It is often the case that the traits we require for excelling in our fields aren’t necessarily learned in the classroom or the boardroom. Quite the contrary; in my more than 20 years in the customer-loyalty field, I’ve found that some of the most important skill sets don't even come from the marketing department. For me, they’ve been discovered at the kitchen table, the grocery aisle, and on the sides of houses.
In fact, I can identify three strong parallels between the practice of painting and the art of customer loyalty. Here is what painting houses taught me:
Don’t paint over the cracks: A coat of latex will not fix foundational problems--they will eventually emerge even more ugly than before and all you’ve done is waste money on cosmetic improvements. The same can be said for new loyalty programs or similar engagement initiatives.
It is a common mistake that many organizations launch such programs to resolve a product, service or distribution problem--loyalty programs are, after all, very topical right now. But they are not the panacea for a poor value proposition.
Instead of painting over the metaphorical cracks, the organization should first analyze the issues that are hampering growth and then develop solutions to address deficiencies. While loyalty programs won’t single-handedly solve these issues, they do provide one very valuable ingredient: customer information. And among the best ways to glean meaning from this information is through measured marketing--marketing based on the measurement of actual consumer behavior.
There is one constant: If an organization does not use its collected data to create value for its customers, the willingness of those customers to further share their information will deteriorate.
For long-lasting color, establish a base coat: Whenever a painting customer requested an exact color, such as “field mouse” or “twilight,” I always made a point of asking why. Once I understood why the color was important to them, I took the necessary steps to ensure the coat would last, unblemished.
Likewise, organizations gather data about consumers to better understand them. But after gathering and crunching all this customer data, most have little or no idea how to use it. Oftentimes, the organization is working on an interpretation--it is not appreciating the color through its customer’s eyes. I realized this once when speaking with top corporate executives who automatically assumed the best experiences for engaging customers should involve a frequent flyer program. The executives believed this because that is what they valued, even when it was irrelevant to their customers.
To succeed, an organization should seek insights that reveal more than mere demographics, but also the inspirational triggers of a customer. To make my case, I’ll share a story I call “coconuts to calling cards.”
At LoyaltyOne, we have technology that allows merchants to analyze their sales information at a customer level. We wanted to test this platform and needed an arbitrary product to run. So I blurted out the first word that came to mind: “Coconuts!”
The team ran the word “coconuts” through the database and was surprised to see the third-highest product that correlated with coconuts was a prepaid calling card. Why? It turns out that many consumers who buy coconuts emigrate from other parts of the world. And since coconuts are a staple of their native diet, the tropical food makes them homesick. So they buy calling cards.
It makes perfect sense, but I am not sure we could have seen it through a rational exercise, because consumers are not always rational. They are emotional, harried, and just plain hard to figure out.
Choose the right equipment: We all have a general idea of what it takes to paint: a few rollers, some pans, edging tape and a good brush. But there are also a lot of tools you wouldn't expect, such as brush spinners, drop sheets, and a calculator to determine the amount of paint needed.
Similarly, just as the decision-makers of organizations must see through the customers’ eyes, they also have to see customer engagement through the eyes of their peers and associates. They have to open their minds to pretty much any idea or discipline that could help foster loyalty, and use the needed tools to get the job done.
Within the organization, that means bringing other departments into the fold and shifting the conversation from the marketing analytics group to the boardroom and eventually to the front lines, where the consumer lives. It means sharing meaningful customer information with those on the retail floor or in finance, with the end goal of using these insights to enhance the customer experience. Because winning loyalty today requires gaining knowledge across a broad spectrum of disciplines.
For instance, there is more to being a 21st century marketer then merely understanding the mechanics of one given communications channel--even if you are an online merchant. Take social media. Anyone can learn to embed a "like" button, or to create conversations. But just like interior paint won’t work on an exterior wall, a marketer won’t create momentum socially without a deep understanding of the mechanics of the medium. Central to gaining this insight is recognizing that there is a human element to database marketing, and that it can be better understood, and served, with help of the entire organization.
By connecting with people on their grounds, through communications that make sense to them and enhance their lives, we can color the customer experience in ways that will deliver dividends down the road. Just remember, any customer relationship requires constant growth and adjustment.
To endure, we must listen, understand and respond in a way that brightens the brand experience like a fresh coat of paint on a weather-worn wall.
Find more leadership lessons in the Fast Company newsletter. 
--Bryan Pearson is president and CEO of LoyaltyOne  and author of The Loyalty Leap: Turning Customer Information Into Customer Intimacy.  Follow Bryan's blog. 
[Image: Flickr user Monique Popp ]