Faking Sincerity: The Case of Loyalty

The key to success is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.

If you call a tail a leg, how many legs has a dog got? Four—because calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.

Or so you would think.

But not if you’re in the mainstream of what I’ll broadly call the customer satisfaction business. In that case, there are a lot of multi-legged dogs out there, based on what’s being called “loyalty.”

The “customer loyalty” movement started in the early 90s with Fred Reicheld at Bain, and Jim Heskett and Len Schlesinger at Harvard Business School. The idea was simple, elegant, and empirically airtight—companies with loyal customers were way more profitable. More profitable, in fact, than the leading paradigm of being number one or number two in market share.

They described the components that created loyalty—familiarity, collaboration, switching costs, the creation of common attitudes. As an indicator of loyalty, they chose customer retention. It was great work.

“Loyalty” was a powerful choice to describe the phenomenon. It conjured up “semper fi,” “’til death do us part,” “greater love hath no man than this…” Dictionary synonyms include fealty, devotion, and honor. Loyalty is a virtue.

The choice of words made you sit up and take note.

Well, 15 years ago it did. Things have changed. Today:

Websites discuss price promotions for “loyalty” programs.

A major global IT consultancy advertises its “loyalty factory.”

A world-leading customer service organization equates loyalty with share of wallet.

Exemplifying the new "up is down" thinking, an article says "customer loyalty is the result of well-managed customer retention programs."

Guess what the results of such instrumentalism are? Lower loyalty.

Customer retention was originally an indicator of loyalty. In a bizarre form of business idolatry, the indicator has been substituted for the real thing. (Kind of like the Lakers’ coach saying to me, “Green, put on this Kobe Bryant shirt and go sub for him—maybe no one will notice the swap.” Except here it’s working.)

We’ve taken a supremely emotional word and stripped emotions from it. “Old” loyalty is about intentions and motives; new “loyalty” couldn’t care less about motive—results are all that matter. “Old’ loyalty is about relationships. New “loyalty” is about behaviors—yours, insofar as it benefits me. The only relationship involved is that between your money and my pocket.

Loyalty is just one example. The language of business has morphed from the human commercial relationship between buyer and seller to the financial one between buyers and shareholders. The preferred psychology of business has become Skinnerian, not emotional.

Managing customer relationships is coming to mean measuring just how much of just what kind of food is needed to get the rats to click just the right bar. Who needs relationship skills when you’ve got goals, behaviors, measurements and rewards?

It’s infecting evaluation systems too. How’m I doing? I don’t care to know, unless you input the data into the survey links to my milestones. And would you agree completely, strongly, or just generally, that I provided you with excellent service today?

With a US and global gap between haves and have-nots driving a social crisis larger every day, this mechanistic thinking serves everyone badly. We need business leaders and managers who can conceive of commercial relationships in human terms. We need business institutions that take their share of responsibility for molding our human future, not just our behaviors.

Language matters. A lot. When smart, decent people sincerely say loyalty means share of wallet, when major companies talk about loyalty “factories” with no sense of irony, when leading business publications adopt and promulgate shifts in language with no comment, when we mistake side effects for causes—then we have lost not just a word, but the concept it referred to.

Imagine seeing a dog waiting patiently for its master—and having no word to describe the phenomenon. The dog will not behave differently for our want of vocabulary. But we will have lost the ability to articulate a virtue, receiving in return only a new word for price-shopping.

That would sincerely be a shame. (No, really, it would be! I’m not faking it!)

(The tail and leg joke is Abe Lincoln’s. I’ve heard the sincerity joke variously attributed: my guess is George Burns. Do you know? Do tell.)