When I was 15, I worked the Christmas rush at my Uncle’s seafood factory and earned enough money to buy my first mobile phone. This purchase started a relationship with Vodafone which has now spanned almost half of my life. Recently I’ve begun to examine my relationship with Vodafone and in general, the relationship between brands and loyal customers.
If you have no interest in the finer details of my relationship with Vodafone, feel free to skip ahead to my phone call. Or, if you just want the insightful part you can go straight to the bit about relationships.
Vodafone & I
Over the last 12 years I have owned 9 phones, had two prepaid numbers and 4 postpaid contracts, all with Vodafone. I worked as a Harvey Norman salesman for almost 4 years and sold countless Vodafone phones and contract connections. I got my original iPhone on the iPhone 80 plan, it was far more than I needed but allowed for a good handset subsidy. When the contract period ended I kept the plan knowing that I could downgrade at any time.
When the iPhone 4S was released I went to buy one outright but the salesman was insistent on a plan. Knowing that I could cancel at any time and just pay out the subsidy, I decided to give the salesman some commission. So why, when I had been saved part of the handset cost, was I so upset at the suggestion that I should pay back the subsidy to cancel?
Let’s jump back a step and look at why such a loyal Vodafone customer would want to leave in the first place. I’ve known for a long time that my contract gave me far more than I required. I rarely make phone calls, most of my friends are on iMessage and most of my phone usage is at home or work, both locations having WiFi. I decided to stop wasting money and downgrade to a plan that would better suit me.
In August, I used:
- 50 minutes of calls (including BestMate calls)
- 186 text messages (including BestMate messages)
- 982MB of data 
- 1 BestMate
However, I pay for:
- 300 minutes of calls
- 2500 text messages
- 250MB of data
- 3 BestMates
 A trip to Wellington massively increased my data requirements for the month, but it still would be nice to have more than enough data each month in case of such an occasion.
The Vodafone Smart $45 plan would probably suit my normal needs, but in the interest of being well informed, I decided to look at alternatives to Vodafone. Telecom plans are a lot better than they used to be, but still a bit expensive so I ruled them out. I found a perfect fit in 2Degrees’ $39 plan (220 minutes, 2500 messages and 1100MB of data). Now better informed, it was time to talk about my options with Vodafone.
The phone call
I rang Vodafone’s call centre to get an idea of cost for either downgrading or canceling. I spoke to a lady who was polite, friendly and followed procedure perfectly. I was told that it would cost me $160 to downgrade. The very suggestion that I should pay to downgrade offended me so I asked for a cancellation fee and was told $550. Somehow, I found myself feeling hurt and betrayed.
The current Vodafone plans don’t suit me but the 2Degrees ones do. I could easily pay the termination fee and switch networks. Vodafone had every right to ask that I repay the handset subsidy. Everything made rational, logical sense but still I was hurt. What had offended me?
Suddenly it struck me. Vodafone’s big crime was that they treated me like I was normal. Over the 12 years of loyal patronage, I had developed a sense of relationship. I had spent all this time being a good customer, often paying far more than necessary and I expected this big corporation to see me as loyal friend and to reciprocate in kind.
It’s easy to see the relationship between a brand and its customers as purely transactional, but that’s not the way to create long-lasting engagement. These relationships should be carefully cultivated and maintained like any other human relationship. Your customers should think of your brand as a friend, one whom they would happily introduce to others. This can be achieved by following a few simple rules:
Trust is the cornerstone of any relationship. If trust is broken, the relationship will suffer major damage. Your customers will doubt your brand and you will face an uphill battle in any attempt to sell to them. But if you strengthen trust, your customers will embrace your brand with open arms. Be transparent, admit your faults and never deceive your customers.
Keep in touch
Nobody appreciates that “friend” who never makes an effort to communicate until they suddenly need something. Keep regular contact with your customers. Let them know what’s happening in your world, what new products or services are available. Ask your customers for feedback. In this age of social media it is easier than ever to engage directly with your customers. Don’t just aggregate news feeds into your Twitter, Facebook, etc but give your accounts a personality that reflects your brand.
Every public/customer facing staff member is a salesperson for your brand. Just like those in a dedicated sales role, all of your staff should look to foster the brand’s relationships by being friendly and approachable. All one-to-one communication with customers should feel personal. When answering a phone call, something as simple as asking how the customer’s day is going can make a huge difference and set the tone for the rest of the call.
Just like any other relationship, not all are equal. It is easy to track how long a customer has been with your brand and how profitable the relationship has been. Expose such information to all staff, even if it’s only in an abstracted form. This allows staff to get an idea of what the relationship means to both the customer and your brand. The more beneficial a relationship is, the more time and resource you can justify to maintain it.
Your customers and you
Customers are emotionally driven, even when they’re not aware of it. No matter how affordable or superior your product/service is, the most important aspect to gaining and retaining customers is how they feel about their relationship with your brand. It is up to you whether you foster this relationship or risk it ending.