Customer loyalty is understandably highly valued in any selling organisation. We all know it’s a lot easier to sell to existing clients than it is to new ones. So what can neuroscience offer to explain this? And are there further insights that can help us sustain customer loyalty more effectively?

To get a better understanding of this, we need to recognise that there are three very distinct layers of the human brain and they operate on different principles. The basal layer (the reptilian brain) is the home of our instincts, whose primary role is to keep us alive. The limbic system (the mammalian brain) sits at the centre of the brain and is the home of our emotions. This is the region which seeks to build cooperative relationships with those who share our environment. Thirdly, the cortex, which can be loosely described as the human layer, sits at the top of the brain and is the centre of our rational thought.

When exploring loyalty the two critical regions are the instinctive and emotional layers. It has little to do with rational thought.

In fulfilling its role of being the guardian of the survival of our genes, the instinctive brain constantly surveys our environment to spot any threat. This is the first obstacle that any selling effort has to overcome. Don’t underestimate this. We are not here talking about obvious physical threats; the considerations can be very subtle, such as loss of face or control. When we sense a threat our brains withdraw like the proverbial drawbridge to hold us in a safe place. Courtesy or protocol may oblige us to offer a semblance of interest but the decision has already gone against us.

Rather the first job is to visually create and present an environment where the audience will sense it has an opportunity to thrive. If such an opportunity is identified by the instinctive brain, the rest of the brain will open up to potential engagement: brain chemistry will change and the oxygenated blood supply will flow to the parts of the brain needed for effective collaboration.

Ok, so hopefully we have jumped the first obstacle, what then about loyalty? Whilst the instinctive brain will typically make its mind up in seconds, now we are dealing with the emotional brain. Our emotions, as we all know, are equally capable of reacting very quickly but loyalty comes only as the result of building a trusting relationship, and trust takes time. Emotions are designed to enrich our life experience through others: as such, we feel deeply fulfilled when we have someone we feel close to; on the other hand, we feel frustrated and isolated when we are denied such opportunities.

The journey of building trust is best understood as a constant interplay between our instincts and our emotions. Our emotions want engagement but our instincts will always serve to protect us first. Loyalty therefore can only come as the brain experiences a pattern of trustworthy behaviour. This pattern will firm up the neural networks in the brain that recognise the proposition being offered as a safe environment. As our protective instincts recede, the emotional brain is given permission to go out and engage.

Customer loyalty is therefore a function of the degree to which we are able to sustain a productive relationship. When the initial proposition was sold the seller offered a promise: the buyer would have captured that promise as an internal visual image, an environmental assessment that sensed an opportunity to thrive. Post selling, the challenge is to keep that image alive. I have witnessed many times a lack of real understanding of what this customer image is. There is a tendency to move on as soon as the sale is in the bag and exploration of the real drivers behind the customer’s decision are left to assumption and chance. Misunderstandings will reappear later as a customer retention challenge. Every disappointment will weaken the trust network established in the brain and the instinctive guardian will reappear on the relationship horizon ready to pull the plug when patience runs out. Our protective instincts will only be kept at bay if the relationship is nurtured on an ongoing basis.

The proposition originally promised needs to be matched by the ensuing experience. The gap between promise and experience is a chasm filled by many a disappointed customer.

About the author Clive Hyland:

Having been brought up in the South Wales valleys and educated at Pontllanfraith Grammar School, Clive went on to study Sociology at Warwick University. He then embarked initially on a Human Resources career, which lasted for about twelve years, before switching to business management. There then followed a series of leadership roles in large corporate organisations before becoming the CEO of an IT outsourcing company. In 2005, Clive “returned” to coaching and has worked since then primarily with business leaders and their teams addressing strategic and cultural challenges. He also runs masterclass programmes for coaches, trainers, HR and Learning and Development practitioners. Additionally, he has coached in sport, education, public services, charities, prisons and faith organisations.

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