One of the highlights of the January 2010 SLA Leadership meeting in St. Louis was James Kane’s   presentation on loyalty. Kane is the author of The Loyalty Switch and Virtually Loyal. His research is on the science of loyalty. (Did you know there was such a thing? I didn’t.)

He started off his presentation by showing a few slides (okay, actually quite a few slides) about himself, his house, where he’s lived, where he went to school, what brands he likes and buys, and what brands he does not like. The New York Yankees and US Airways both fall in the latter category.

He did this in order to make the point that we want to find connections in our lives. We want to have a community where we can share things. When we establish connections, life is better. We are stronger when we share. On a primitive level, Kane said that connections support our survival. Toward that end, we are always looking for people we can trust, who are looking out for our best interest.

The way Kane explained it, loyalty is an emotion that comes from relationships. There are four relationship levels: 

  • Antagonistic—these relationships occur when you dislike something, and act on that dislike.
  • Transactional —you pay something of value and get something in return. It’s a business relationship – it’s not personal.
  • Predisposed—where people have positive feedback, but were leaning in that direction already.
  • Loyal—loyal relationships contain very strong bonds. This is action-oriented behavior, and occurs in about 20% of your customers.

In the science of loyalty, there are actually several different components. To describe them in more detail, I’m going to continue talking about the allegiance of fans to their sports teams. Earlier, Kane mentioned his strong dislike for the New York Yankees baseball team. Detractors describe the Yankees as condescending, conceited, and overpaid. On the flip side, Yankees fans use words like classy, consistent, clutch, and in 2009, championship. The Yankees have been described as one of the most valuable sports franchises in the world not because they look great in pinstripes, but because of fan loyalty.

See if you recognize yourself and how you feel about your favorite sports team in these attributes.  

Component Explanation
Trust This component is made up of character, consistency, competency, and capacity. Is your team trustworthy? Kane puts this attribute first because trust is baseline; that is, you HAVE to have it in order to build loyalty, but, interestingly, clients don’t give you credit for having it. Sports fans buy tickets because we trust our team to try hard and give a good effort. When teams are just going through the motions, they break these bonds of loyalty, and that bond is hard to rebuild.
Competency It’s hard to be loyal to losers, but it happens when your team is truly trying to win. The Chicago Cubs haven’t won the World Series in a century, but hope springs eternal. They bring in new managers, draft new talent, and clearly keep trying, and that’s enough to maintain the loyalty of the fans.  
Capacity You need to have the ability to handle relationships in a meaningful way. If we had 50,000 fans, what infrastructure would we need to support them? 
Belonging This is about shared contribution, for example: “I’m a Raiders fan.”  If you wear the team’s logo on your hats, shirts, and socks, mount posters in the basement, and participate in forums and blogs, you increase the sense of belonging. Some people are just natural “joiners,” who think “these are my people” when they are with other fans.
Purpose Sports franchises have a singular purpose – to win. But nobody can win them all, so there is an ebb and flow in a team’s fortunes. Yet for fans, whose loyalty hinges on a shared vision, as long as the team is true to its purpose, the loyalty will continue.
Recognition I am a unique person, not a barcode, and I need you to provide me with unique services based on my preferences. Teams, like any other business, have to recognize that their income depends on fan loyalty, and they have to provide a variety of venues for fans to embrace their team.
Insights When you collect data on your client and use it to take a burden from them, you engender loyalty. Your insights and understanding about what keeps the client up at night should allow you the ability to proactively do something to solve their problems.

Kane’s points about loyalty are very germane to how we craft and deliver information services. Loyalty is NOT talking about ourselves. Repeat: Loyalty is NOT built by talking about how great we are.

Loyalty is about shared identity, and making your identity mesh with your customer’s perceptions. To demonstrate this point for the SLA Leadership Summit, Kane did something very clever. He showed a video which included a little something from the blogs or Facebook accounts of about a dozen people in the room. For example, from my blog, he said I liked movies with sub-titles. And an interesting thing happend: when he showed familiarity with a few people in the room, other people in the room felt included as well!

Kane’s message hit home for me on a personal level. My Aunt Carmen, who passed away two years ago, was a devoted fan of the Portland Trailblazers. The team won the world championship in the late 1970s, but in 1990s, they were mocked as the “Jailblazers”. Through it all, Aunt Carmen stayed loyal and never gave up on them. She embodied every part of what Kane was talking about; she was completely loyal.

How do you demonstrate loyalty? What team are you loyal to, and why?