The Customer Loyalty Illusion

There is no such thing as customer loyalty.  Loyalty…true loyalty… loyalty through thick and thin – requires an irrational customer, one who will stay with the bank regardless of the bank’s performance.

Every time a customer interacts with their bank, they may learn something as a result of the experience, and adjust their behavior as a result of what they learn. What we perceive as loyalty is an illusion, rather it is actually the product of an ongoing calculation each customer makes conscious or subconsciously to either initiate or maintain a relationship with a bank.  This is the customer value equation.

Customer Value = (Results + Process Quality + Intangible Benefits) - (Price + Other Acquisition Costs + Intangible Costs)

The customer value equation is simply the sum of the benefits of banking with a given institution minus the sum of the costs of choosing another provider.  If this sum is positive, the customer will act as if they are loyal.  If this sum is negative, the customer will behave as if they are disloyal.

The first term in this equation contains all the possible benefits associated with the bank.  These include the obvious, such as convenience of location or hours, rates and fees, breadth of delivery channels, and customer service.  However, they also include less obvious intangible benefits, such as doing business with a local community bank, or the prestige of one financial service provider over the other.

The second term contains the sum of all the costs associated with the banking relationship.  Again, the obvious are rates and fees.  However, there may be other acquisition costs, such as, the effort of switching providers, as well as intangible costs such as potential risk of switching financial providers. These intangible costs are significant, and play a significant role in what we perceive as customer loyalty, where customers remain with a financial institution more out of inertia, than other reasons.

A common objection to the customer value equation as a model of customer decision making is that it assumes that all customer decisions are completely rational, something that flies in the face of modern research using fMRI machines to probe the biological underpinning of decision makings.  This research strongly suggests that many decisions are neither conscious nor rational.  However, the customer value equation model allows for this equation to be subconscious and the intangible terms on both the cost and benefit side of the equation allow for irrational benefits and costs to be inserted into the customer’s decision making.

The proposition that customers are not loyal, and that behaviors we use to describe loyalty are really the result of an ongoing calculation of benefits and costs at first may seem daunting, but embracing the proposition that customers adjust their behavior based on what they perceive about a provider, gives managers a valuable model to think about customer loyalty in ways that mirror customer decision making. Understanding the customer value equation gives bank managers a rational framework to make investments in product, positioning, price and place to best match their offering with their customers’ value equations.

How might banks use the concept of the customer value equation to manage the customer experience?

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About Eric Larse

Eric Larse is co-founder of Seattle-based Kinesis CEM, LLC, which helps clients plan and execute their customer experience strategies through the intelligent use of customer satisfaction surveys and mystery shopping, linked with training and incentive programs. Visit Kinesis at:

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