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I’m a bit of an early riser and for various reasons I prefer to get to work at 6 every morning, but getting up early is not easy, especially in Johannesburg where the temperature is almost always single figures in the wee hours of the morning. So I like to take the edge off by getting covered up head to toe in the warmest clothes I have (hey don’t chastise me, I’m a Durbanite), and I have to buy a cup of coffee in the morning – just to jumpstart my day.

Being new to Johannesburg, I initially struggled to find decent coffee in those early hours. I tried a couple different brands at the various petrol stations around the city, tried making my own while at home and then tried the coffee at work.

For some reason, it never quite met the grade. I was after something else, something a little more refined, a little tastier, who knows really, I was on a mission to discover the best coffee – which I could get before 6am.

Then by divine intervention, pot luck or maybe it was just careful observation, I noticed one of the coffee joints near work (walking distance I tell you – convenience at its best) was open at 5:30 every morning. By far they were open a lot earlier than other dedicated coffee cafés and their coffee was, to say the least, well above the sludge I was putting up with. I was hooked.

This would be MY new coffee collection depot.

After some time, I began to get to know the guys who worked there – eventually, they got to know me by name, had my coffee ready before I arrived each morning and entertained me with games of Ching Chong Cha, their own version of a loyalty programme. If I won I got 5 – 10% off my coffee.

Can I just say, everything about the coffee shop was pure experience, and great experiences at that. I felt like a valued customer, someone who these guys depended on. The coffee shop and I were in a symbiotic relationship, they couldn’t do without me, I couldn’t do without them. We were going steady, in relationship terms, we were third basing it, as strong a relationship as you could get. But there was still room for improvement, I wanted to go all the way, I wanted to feel even more valuable and I wanted to know that I wasn’t just another customer.

Then through some form of telepathic thought or maybe it was just good business sense, the coffee shop launched their reward program. I was like a teenager again and the experience just felt so new and fantastic – everything about this coffee joint was making it easier to wake up in the morning. At this point I was now buying two coffees at a time – I was bolstering my reward program, looking forward to a free coffee every Friday. They were making a killing off of me – they were the high school sweetheart who never said no, and I was practically buying them jewellery to show my appreciation.

Then one Monday, I arrived at the coffee joint, it was time for a new loyalty card on which I could plaster my stickers to get the store to put out on Friday. Shock horror, no cards were available. The joint ran out of them. I asked what was happening and they said they were only running the program for periods at a time. I was devastated, I felt like I had been cheated on. I felt undervalued, even a little angry. Even Ching Chong Cha couldn’t console me.

Needless to say I haven’t been back. The appeal of the store is gone and I even cross the street at the road before the coffee joint now – trying to avoid eye contact as much as possible. I pretend I have never even been in there. It’s left a bad taste in my mouth, so to speak, and through it all the quality of the actual coffee didn’t change.

It’s so telling of the way that people want to interact with brands. It’s human, and like a relationship, trust can be broken. Bad experiences don’t only inconvenience, they feel like I giant flaming ball of disrespect in the customer’s face.

Brands often fail because they don’t return on the relationship investment that customers are so willing to make. Yes, if great service and convenience are in place, a customer will bite. But long-term loyalty involves more than just attracting customers – it’s something that is maintained, nurtured, managed and kept safe in the hands of the company.

It’s simply impossible to deny that experience is the deciding factor in where consumers shop, eat, socialise and ultimately spend their time and money. So what is your company doing to influence experience and improve loyalty? Or does your company think that experience is a “nice to have” and not critical to the bottom line?

If the answer is ‘nice to have’, I’m happy to make my relationship investment elsewhere.

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