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When it Comes to Companies and Customers, What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Josh Barro, a correspondent at The New York Times, recently wrote in his column, Sorry, but Your Favorite Company Can’t Be Your Friend, about consumer love affairs with certain companies. And, of course, the anguish we feel when the relationship goes sour.

He uses the pending merger of Starwood Hotels & Resorts with Marriott International as the backdrop, a topic that in recent months has been discussed and covered extensively. The strong negative reaction Starwood devotees feel is all too real; many are angry about Marriott’s acquisition and are genuinely worried about losing the exclusivity, or at least perceived exclusivity, of being a Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG). As Barro summed it up this November in the The New York Times: “It seems less like a company they do business with is merging and more like their mother is marrying a man they disapprove of.”

Barro cites data that Marriott’s rewards program (as one measure) is actually more generous to its customers than Starwood’s. But that’s not all that is really being discussed here. Starwood’s strong relationship with its customers means that, when there’s change, customers get emotional. They feel out of the loop. Concerned. Angry, even. A loyal customer may see Starwood not “as a large public corporation with legal obligations not to leak word of its merger” but “like a friend who failed to let him in on some important life news.”

In Customer Quotient (CQ), part of our proprietary research on customer-inspired companies that drive disproportionate growth, we don’t focus on “love” per se. But we certainly include feelings of empathy and emotional rewards as key elements that successful companies use to differentiate and succeed. For example: Are the products relevant to me? Do I feel like they really care and want to engage with me? Is it a great experience end-to-end? And, ultimately: How does interacting with this company make me feel?

So what happens when transactional corporate events disrupt the great progress that has been made in building a genuine relationship with consumers? In this case, Marriott is going to have to prove to SPG members that they can still be special, still feel special.

That requires continuing to work hand-in-hand with them. Starwood is no stranger to a guest-centric approach. The company has worked with C Space for several years to better understand and meet the needs of its global clientele. Most recently, Starwood partnered with us and SPG members around the world to explore the evolution of modern family travel. About half of families revealed that, now versus five years ago, they are traveling longer distances for vacations and are therefore staying longer once they reach their final destination. This work validated Starwood’s introduction of new complimentary kids clubs, special family packages, and perks at its Le Meridien and Westin Hotels & Resorts properties.

Continuing — and strengthening — this bond will demonstrate even more value to SPG members and make them feel special, proud, and rewarded for their loyalty…long after the ink on the Marriott merger has dried.

M&As are just one of the many big challenges companies face in creating Customer Inspired Organizations. Barro’s column in the Sunday New York Times is a reminder that, now more than ever, customers themselves are key to success.

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