Are our customers free agents?

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Customer loyalty . . . two of the sweetest words in retail. But, is it really still out there or are we now in a time when everyone has become a free agent?

“Watch out for the free agent,” I heard marketing consultant John R. Graham exclaim in a seminar several years ago. It obviously stuck with me a long time. Then, Graham (President of Graham Communications) added: “Free agentry has replaced customer loyalty!”

What brought that speech to mind again was a conversation with another boater at the marina last weekend. We have the same outboards. He was telling me his needed service. “Who’s your dealer,” I asked. “No, I don’t use them,” he said, “I call this service guy to come down.”

Now I was curious. I asked who was his dealer. Of course, I could have guessed it by the brand of boat and I would have been right. I also know the dealer is still in business in the area. So I had to ask the big question: “Why don’t you use your dealer?” His answer: “This guy’s cheaper and faster.” Bingo – my mind flashed back to Graham’s words.

Clearly this boater fit the “free agent” mold. No loyalty for any good past performance by the dealer. Just like in professional sports today -- go where the bucks are or, in this case, where they’re less.

It made me think about two things worth consideration. First, since price and speed were the reasons he gave for not calling his dealer, perhaps the dealer should think about regular direct mail or e-mail promotions to all existing customers offering, in this case, a speedy service pledge accompanied by a discount coupon(s) for maintenance services. Frankly, I often get oil change and tune up coupons from my car dealer that serve as a reminder and I regularly use them.

Second, if even just a small number of a dealer’s existing customers are likely free agents, it becomes mandatory for the dealer to seek out new prospects to replace those lost because of no loyalty. That’s not easy with today’s gutted promotional budgets. Still, there are ways to promote through the Internet and local publicity efforts that will pay off.

Perhaps the clearest way will be the coming winter boat shows. They stand out as the single most cost-effective route to finding new prospects, whether for boats or services. And, at the shows there’ll be opportunities to get someone else’s free agents!

In any case, these days, keeping existing customers from ever becoming free agents is gold, and worth the supreme effort.

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