Customers spread the word

Just before the general election, commentators thought that Labour's support might be soft, drawn from voters more fed up with the Conservatives than positively attracted to Labour. Writing in the Independent on Sunday just after the result, however, Robert Worcester, the chairman of the polling organisation MORI, reported to the contrary: one elector in 10 felt so strongly in favour of Labour they were actively trying to recruit additional Labour voters.

In uncovering this information, MORI used a model developed not for its political polling activities but in its work for corporate clients. "Success comes from getting your stakeholder groups working for you," according to Peter Hutton, a director of MORI with responsibility for private sector research.

Perhaps surprisingly, that is true in business as it is in politics. After all, to enlist the active support of voters for one party or another in the heat of an election campaign is one thing. For a company to enjoy such intense commitment from its customers day in and day out is quite another. Yet there is evidence that companies that can convert loyal customers into advocates on their behalf gain greatly from it. Advocacy begets more advocacy, Hutton says. "You're getting those advocates to create awareness and trust in others, and so it builds."

In MORI's model, advocacy is the summit of a mountain whose lower slopes are already well trodden. The basic requirement is simple awareness, by which the consumer associates a company name with what it does. The next stage is for this awareness to develop into a favourable impression. Once this trust exists, a person might become a one-time customer or even a regular, satisfied customer. The satisfied customer can further be described as loyal in MORI's analysis if he or she would recommend the company when asked.

The advocate, on the other hand, is that rare person who recommends a company without being prompted; who is, in other words, a willing, unpaid advertiser for it. First Direct grew through customers praising the new service. Marks & Spencer maintains its market position largely without advertising - because its customers recommend it.

Looking more closely at the supermarket battlefield, Marks & Spencer scores roughly equally to Tesco in customer satisfaction, with Sainsbury a little way behind. In loyalty, Marks & Spencer begins to pull ahead; the three companies score 55, 43 and 39 per cent respectively. But when it comes to advocacy, Marks & Spencer consolidates its lead while Tesco holds firm and Sainsbury drops back slightly more. The respective scores are 15, 11 and 9 per cent.

By contrast, petrol companies and traditional banks, with their more or less interchangeable product offers, exhibit low levels of loyalty and extremely low levels of advocacy. .

Customer experience cuts both ways. "An awful experience is a conversation piece. I'm a negative advocate for Currie Motors in Kingston upon Thames, for example," Hutton says. Something to do with a faulty repair 15 years ago, apparently.

Recently, MORI has applied its model to examining the attitudes of employees for one of the main building societies. Here, the production of loyal or disloyal people who convert into positive or negative advocates is higher than in the case of customers. Managers like the MORI model, says Hutton, because it actually measures the connection between internal team spirit and external trading success.

The challenge is to reach the summit. It is easy to conquer the foothills. Advertising can increase awareness and favourability. A consistently high quality of product and service helps to ensure loyalty. But clear differentiation from the competition is required for people to become advocates.

And the difference must be sustained. "How long it lasts depends how continuously they improve," says Hutton. "Advocacy still counts for First Direct versus other financial services, for example. But it possibly won't last for ever".

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