7th January 2021

The dangers of disloyalty

Traders’ efforts to entice new business can not only leave loyal customers out of pocket – they can create knock-on problems for enforcement too.

By Matt Allwright
Matt is a journalist and presenter of the BBC’s Watchdog and Rogue Traders
Brand loyalty, and the fear of reputational loss that goes with breaching that, has always played an important part in our consumer landscape

They say turkeys won’t vote for Christmas. In my house they might have, because my mum’s sense of consumer justice ensured that any poultry products to be readied for our big day would have had the sort of pre-prandial lifestyle to which Melania Trump would aspire. We once received a sub-par bird from the local supermarket where she shopped every other day. The poultry manager, fearing for his career, visited our home to inspect it, agreed it was a wrong’un, and ensured that, on Christmas Eve, another was brought BY TAXI thirty miles from an independent butchers. That’s how important our loyalty was to them.

The centuries-old equation of rewarding loyalty with improved service and incentives seems in many quarters to have been turned on its head recently, and it’s something that has troubled me. The highly competitive market of broadband/mobile/TV is a case in point, with providers luring in new customers with attractive deals, but failing to offer the same deals to customers who may have been with them for years.

It’s led to the #treatloyaltylikeroyalty campaign, which highlights areas where customers receive worse treatment the longer they stay. It’s most obvious in utilities, but you can see elements of it across supermarkets, the high street and online. Brand loyalty, and the fear of reputational loss that goes with breaching it, has always played an important part in our consumer landscape, rewarding the businesses that give satisfaction over an extended timescale.

Deregulating markets in what we buy has given us many positives – consumers can pick and choose, switch quickly and easily, and entertain disruptors who do things differently – but there’s a downside. You have to ask yourself if, at some point, the marginal and temporary gains from switching justify the headspace given over to weighing up the benefits of a move, not to mention the waste that comes with constantly enticing new customers, installing new equipment and setting up payments. After all, the products themselves often don’t change substantially – a kilowatt hour is a kilowatt hour and, not to put too fine a point on it, quality customer service may well suffer if the relationship is on the basis of a series of one-night stands rather than a lengthy engagement.

The other thing that suffers in this new, flirty, commitment-phobic consumer landscape is enforcement. If firms don’t worry about reputational loss because customers are easy-come, easy-go, then the powers that we have to make them behave are also diminished. We know that prosecutions are a last resort, and in some ways represent a failure to persuade firms to reform by other means. If we continue to pretend that we can instead use a threat to a company’s good name to bring them in line, we could well be the prize turkeys for whom someone’s just called a cab.

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