Customer Appreciation in the Age of the Weaponized Consumer

At Fabric, we recently designed a study to help us understand the emerging culture of customer appreciation. Our goal was to dive below the surface, gaining insight into how customer appreciation and recognition feel emotionally to consumers. We wondered: Do customers perceive a distinction between appreciation and recognition? What are consumer expectations around appreciation and recognition, and how have they changed over time? Which brands are exceeding expectations and how are they doing it?

The results? We uncovered 5 trends that suggest a striking power shift in how customers view their role in the business-consumer relationship, illuminating tangible tips companies can act on in order to create a meaningful appreciation program, or to enhance what’s already in place.

Here’s a look at how we set things up, and what we found.

The Insight: The Rise of the Weaponized Consumer

Our study unearthed a strong undercurrent around two important concepts: Power and Validation. Although consumers don’t believe they are as powerful as any massive corporation, the most share-worthy experiences that surfaced in the study suggest just that. A perceived transfer of power is beginning to be realized, where consumers are implying they are to be treated as equals by corporations, thereby shifting consumers’ expectations from simple appreciation to deeper, more meaningful recognition.

Let’s break this down into 5 lessons:

Lesson #1: Appreciation is viewed as personal for consumers, and promises to deepen brand relationships

Consumers said it loudly and clearly: Bring on the personal touch. When they’re singled out, customers shared that it makes them feel important, which leads to loyalty. In addition, they believe appreciation fosters a virtuous circle, triggering mutual care and respect, and encourages repeating the cycle. On the other hand, unappreciation hurts: feeling unappreciated gets noticed too, and leads to insecurity, a dynamic the company is certainly not aiming for.

Being appreciated emotionally makes me feel important and gives me a sense of value. And I think it’s important to be appreciated just because someone’s acknowledging that there was an effort made on your part and that, in turn, you were doing something good or doing something to help out another.

~ N.S.

Lesson #2: Recognition is seen as public, acknowledging an achievement relative to others in a group

Unlike appreciation, recognition often hinges on a declaration for others to hear about, beyond the recipient. Recognition is about doing well relative to others, at work or at school, and as a result, the consumer wants to stand out. Meaningful recognition from companies can take the form of awards or accolades, and ultimately, it shows that the company is paying attention: people feel proud to be recognized for their hard work.

But it also suggests that the most original and modern exchanges – and those most ripe for innovation – are now public. Public recognition gives consumers the added benefit of elevated social standing by associating themselves on equal footing with a powerful corporate entity.

I think everyone is pretty familiar with rewards programs, but an idea of a spotlight post would be a customer posting a photo using a product from the company and then that company reposting it to their own social media site which could make a customer feel special and feel a connection with the brand. I myself enjoy writing reviews of businesses I visit, and I always feel appreciated and connected when that business actually goes out of their way to respond to my review.

~ R.N.

Lesson #3: Recognition today comes to consumers not from one single act, but many little things

When it comes to what matters most, it turns out that “little things” remain timeless in the eyes of the consumer. As in, small things that add up and put a smile on their face— perks, discounts, birthday cards— contribute to brand loyalty. Even more, customers want to be recognized for their loyalty. When companies keep track— noting what the customer has bought and how many times, and then act accordingly— this makes them feel special. And also, the element of surprise retains its allure. Although customers value regular rewards, they admit they enjoy the unexpected ones, too

To me, that’s recognizing— they appreciate you as a customer. I get little happy birthday cards, some of them actually in the mail, from utility companies and things like that and I’m a member of several loyalty programs and it’s nice when they remember little things like your birthday. It’s a small thing, but just that and offering a little perk or discount and I feel appreciated.

~ R.B.

Lesson #4: Brands that are exceeding customer expectations: Southwest, American Express, Starbucks, Sephora

So which companies are winning with customers, and why? What does it take to make the who’s who list of corporate America? Respondents shared some strong words on this topic. Like love. Let’s face it, “love” isn’t a word that’s thrown around often to describe brands, but it is with these companies. For example, one customer couldn’t say enough about how Sephora goes above and beyond with their rewards program. And Starbucks? They have a handle on fun. The company doesn’t simply reward purchases, they make a game of it. From sincere thank you’s to surprise free-be’s, what’s clear is that top brands are showing that they genuinely care.

I think the most recent time that I felt specifically appreciated by a company and specifically a loyalty program that I’m a part of is with the Southwest Airlines. I’ve achieved one of the highest status levels, the A-list Preferred. They sent to me a letter. I already knew that I made that. It was something that I was striving for, so I was aware of the exact time that I achieved that status level. But I got a letter. It had a sort of a congratulatory postcard in it as well as sort of a identification card as part of that achievement.

~ C.M.

Lesson #5: Consumers embrace companies interacting with them, not just reacting

These days, it’s not just about responding to and resolving issues. Great companies are speaking up, actively looking for ways to do little things for customers, interacting with them instead of simply reacting. There’s almost a dizzying array of creative gestures rolling out, from interactive spin-the-wheel prize games to a return program in which no receipt was required. This fosters honesty and sincerity, two values that shine when it comes to loyalty.

I feel like companies now are being more vocal about their appreciation. I’ve had a few companies reach out to me on social media when I had issues. UPS did that. For example, when I had an issue, they reached out to me via DM. They resolved my issue. They followed up with me. They even followed me back. I’ve had companies show me appreciation through credits on my account, just for being a valued customer, or waiving ATM fees for me.

~ X.C.

So what does this mean?

In our modern world, the bottom line is that recognition has become more elevating than appreciation. Recognition is what deepens loyalty. Social media and other technology have given consumers the option of a mighty sword; to complain in front of thousands on social media, and to demand a response. This “nuclear option” for consumers opens the door for companies to engender deeper brand loyalty by publicly addressing, calling out, awarding, and/or thanking consumers who have gone out of their way and worked hard to praise the brand. If the corporation is deaf, uncaring, willfully inflexible, and unwilling to transfer power to the consumer, a public spiral of negativity and frustration can ensue.

Top brands today are being highly creative, detailed, generous and trusting in how they show appreciation for the customers. The very smartest are recognizing them publicly, rewarding and awarding them, thanking them for their hard work.

How to create (or enhance) a Customer Appreciation Program:

  • Make sure your accolades are public,not just private: Demonstrate Recognition (seen by others) not just Appreciation (1-on-1).
  • Be creative:Companies that are creative in their approach stand out.
  • Don’t forget the little things: Incorporate large numbers of small things that make people happy today.
  • Implement game-like tiering:Develop rich game-like levels to show appreciation for both big and small efforts.
  • Create share-worthy stories:Enable protocols that will make for loved, share-worthy stories, often revolving around unexpected, “above and beyond” company actions to be made public by consumers.

Unique Research Methodology

Mobile video surveys are revolutionizing the qualitative research industry because they enable respondents to speak freely in an environment that is comfortable for them. This methodology not only captures emotion and nonverbal cues that uncover customer truths, but is especially relevant in the context of customer appreciation and recognition because often the company to customer interaction is 1-on-1 and personal.

Who did we talk to?

We recruited consumers across the US from a diverse range of cities and states, and each responded to 10 questions crafted by the Fabric team. The recruits included active rewards/loyalty members across various categories (airline, entertainment, retail, etc.), as well as consumers who do not select rewards/loyalty programs solely on value/discounts. There was a mix of genders, household income, education a socio-economic status.

Want to learn more about mobile video survey design?

If you’re interested in learning more about using mobile video for consumer insights, visit our website for free resources on mobile video ethnography, use cases, methodologies and study design.

About the Author

Tom Basset

Tom is the Founder and CEO of Fabric. He has spent over 20 years in consumer market research and strategy for some of the world’s most iconic brands, including Nike, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Sonos.

A specialist in using mobile video survey technology for ethnographic research, Tom has completed such studies on behalf of F500 global brands in the US, Asia, Latin America and Europe. He also has led Fabric collaborations with Carnegie Mellon’s Human Computing Interaction Masters program, Wharton’s MBA program, and Stanford Engineering.

Tom was a panelist on the London Design Festival’s Global Innovation Forum, and he has interviewed leading creative visionaries including Frank Gehry, David Rockwell, John Boiler, Yves Behar, John Jay and Maira Kalman for a documentary film he created and produced called “Briefly.”

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