Loyalty is a Function of Risk and other Christmas Stories

It is the day before Christmas. And I’m writing my newsletter 🙂 How is your Work Life Continuum going? Our dog trainer keeps telling us that repeated behaviour becomes habit. After nine months of COVID-led isolation and digital working, I think it would be habit for many, even as they crave a return to the office to renew their social ties. It is a sad realization for many employees and employers that the work wasn’t fun – the office was. Many job application forms ask you to list your weaknesses and a favourite is ‘inability to manage work life balance’. It’s a bit of shameless virtue signalling – you work so much that you don’t have time for other things. This worked well for me until I interviewed with Mr Azim Premji then Chairman of Wipro. He was genuinely puzzled as to why you would want to segregate the two – wasn’t work fun? At the time I was rather shocked, but in retrospect it makes sense. Revenue activities and non-revenue activities should be a seamless continuum and we should be able to do both at the best time for each. Efforts should be around finding the best match of timing rather than seeking a return to the archaic 9 to 5 routine. 2021 will be the year of the Work Life Continuum.

Growing up in a very small town in Tamil Nadu, I looked forward to visits to a great Aunt. She had a colonial bungalow and doled out tiny pieces of cake on old china, along with cups of weak tea. The cakes and cookies varied as per season and Christmas would see a variety of tiny fruit cakes. Everything in her house was under lock and key – the refrigerator, the meat safe, the cabinet with the tea, sugar, and cookies. She believed that her housekeeper of very long standing would rob her if given an opportunity, and it was her duty to protect her from temptation by locking everything up. I asked her the obvious question – why not just fire the lady and hire a trust-worthy person? Her response was it was not possible to figure that out without actually living with them for many years, and a known devil was better than an unknown one. And so the tea parties continued for nearly 40 years with the soft jingle of multiple keys at her waist. In other words my Aunt’s loyalty to her housekeeper was based on a risk mitigation strategy, not on trust.

When companies and marketers talk of loyalty it is in the context of a customer emotion, an irrational choice based on liking. Am I loyal to Apple because I buy a new iPhone when my previous one is smashed to smithereens? No, I just think it is less painful for me to get another iPhone rather than learn how to use an Android. I perceive a known iPhone is less risky than an unknown Pixel. I bolster my decision with the tidbits that Apple throws me – it is ’safer’, operates better with the tools I need, is taking a strong stance on privacy. But hey, I used to say similar things about the Blackberry – till I switched to an iPhone. We may be loyal to a creature that loves us unconditionally but not an object or a brand. 2020 has been a year both for experimentation and sticking with the tried and tested. Both are based on our risk perceptions – trying out an unknown online service is less risky than venturing out to a physical store, and a hand sanitizer from a known brand seems more reliable. What is the marketing takeaway from this understanding that loyalty is nothing but a risk mitigation strategy?

I believe that the ‘money back guarantee’ is one of the best customer loyalty tools ever – it reduces the risk perception tremendously. Legal safeguards for damages due to a product misbehaving are another. Any time cancellation with no penalty is super too. So in 2021 leave the fuzzy wuzzy happy new year emails and loyalty programs behind and work on risk mitigation strategies for your customers.

My Christmas reading is Malcolm Gladwell’s “Talking to Strangers’. One of the tenets he explores is that humans spot truth far better than they can spot a lie. That’s because apparently we are wired to trust people rather than distrust them. We start with the bias that they are not lying to us until the evidence is so big that it cannot be overlooked. Otherwise we’d be paranoid and have trouble with our social lives.

Which is why it is so disturbing for me when people, particularly marketers, run campaigns that either attempt to deceive or at the very least smack of serious conflict of interest. For example, I know it is dubbed ’thought leadership’ but it is troubling when manufacturers of processed food are involved in published research, with 39% of the articles with industry involvement having links to these companies. As per this study Coca Cola and Mars actively promoted research that blamed obesity on lack of exercise rather than consumption of the wrong food. Or products dubbed as “No added sugar” or “No sugar” when the reality is they use sweeteners that are just as bad from a calorie or diabetic point of view? I’ve shared my diet journey in this newsletter before – my biggest learning has been to read the food labels and understand what they are actually saying.

The exceptions to trust as the default are locations or categories where experience tells us that the humans there are more likely to be lying than not. For example, when you enter certain markets in India – fish, vegetables and real estate – you assume that all the sellers are fibbing about their ‘final price’ and all the buyers about their ‘budget’. Your interactions here are far more fraught and exciting than those at your local supermarket where even if you assume the chain is robbing you, you do not have to debate each purchase price. IT services used to be an area of much haggling and dispute – one of Infosys’ early reasons for success was to make the pricing way more transparent and consequently, reduce risk for the customer. Tanishq’s entry into the gold market also played on the general distrust for ‘buy-back’ and purity – they tested your gold in front of you! There’s a business idea for 2021 – differentiate through risk reduction.

Machines on the other hand just deal with the facts and don’t suffer qualms about assuming that everyone is a liar until proven otherwise. As AI and automation become more widespread the nature of our interaction with customers and businesses will change and the markers of trust will move from an honest face to infallible data.

This has been an interesting year to say the least. I wish you all a warm and happy Christmas and hope that 2021 will be one of love, happiness and trust.

Merry work-life continuum to all 🙂

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Jessie Paul is the Founder and CEO of Paul Writer, a firm she founded in early 2010 to raise the bar for marketing in India. Previously, as Chief Marketing Officer of Wipro’s IT business and as Global Brand Manager at Infosys, Jessie has been recognized for her contribution towards putting the Indian IT industry on the global map. With over 18 years in services marketing, including a stint with Ogilvy & Mather Advertising, Jessie is considered an expert in brand globalization and has been named one of the most influential business women in the Indian IT industry.

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