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How to Build Loyalty in Subscription Ecommerce

Learn what CX expert Eli Weiss thinks your company should prioritize when it comes to earning customer loyalty.
May 6, 2022

Are you really prioritizing loyalty as a subscription ecommerce brand? 

The idea sounds simple enough: you build trust with subscribers so they turn to your brand first to meet their needs. By doing so, you increase lifetime value and offset acquisition costs through word-of-mouth referrals.

But gaining loyalty is no easy task. You can't just force someone to care about your brand. Instead, you have to make intentional changes that have your customers in mind. We recently sat down with customer experience expert Eli Weiss to get his thoughts on how you actually make this happen. 

Eli is the Senior Director of Customer Experience and Retention at Jones Road Beauty, and before that, he led Customer Experience at OLIPOP. His unique perspective has given him a reputation for prioritizing empathy and nonscalable activities to build loyalty practices in the DTC and CPG spaces.

We hosted him for a Q&A session about his experience in an episode of Subscription Ecommerce Live. During the conversation, he encouraged brands to employ these 5 tips to build customer loyalty in their business strategies.

Don't Neglect Support

Eli says that customer support is the most underutilized part of any CPG or DTC business when it comes to building loyalty, even though it plays a critical role in developing trust between brands and consumers. 

Zendesk found that 97% of customers say bad customer support has affected buying behavior. To get more specific, 58% of those customers stopped buying from the company because of a bad experience, and 52% switched to a different brand.

Eli experienced this firsthand early in his career when he saw companies treat support as a minor role. However, once they started taking that department more seriously, they saw an uptick in loyal customers.

Without solid support, your brand will struggle to build loyalty. Making this department a priority instead of a lower-tiered part of the company will help you set a strong foundation that you can build upon to increase customer loyalty.

Prioritize Empathy as a Brand

Eli believes brands should bring humanity back into the support experience if they want more loyal customers.

"Most brands have a very rigid approach to putting out fires," he says. "It's very black and white." For him and the brands he has worked with, success came when they started loosening the reins and thinking empathically.

Customers appreciated when the brand stepped into their shoes and tried to help them in real, meaningful ways, even if the company couldn't scale its solutions.

What Empathy Looks Like

Eli shared a unique story of how OLIPOP demonstrated empathy with a longtime subscriber. The customer had reached out to cancel his subscription because of a flood in the house. He told the OLIPOP team that he didn't have room for boxes and had stopped receiving deliveries. After canceling the subscription, Eli says he and his colleagues asked a pivotal question:

"If this was a friend, what would we be doing?" The team decided to send the subscriber a nice dinner to help support him in that difficult time. He sent back an encouraging email that reminded him how powerful brand empathy could be for the customers on the receiving side.

"We see brands constantly doing good things, but consumers can feel when it's something you do for them plus 10,000 other people. The magic is doing things you can't scale."

How to Prioritize Empathy

Building empathy in your brand takes intentionality; Eli provided us with a few tips that have worked for his teams in the past.

Stop Thinking About Scaling: While brands can and should bring in plenty of scalable solutions, you won't choose to repeat these occasional, above-and-beyond moments. That's what makes them special.

Hire the Right People: Eli understands that empathy is a team effort. So he looks for people who care deeply about the customer, people who want to use customer support as an opportunity to make someone's day better.

Empower the Staff to Succeed: You can't hire these deeply caring people and then put walls and red tape around them. You have to show that your brand cares about them actually doing the empathetic things you hired them to do.

Eli recognizes the counter-cultural nature of this approach. However, he stands by it, saying: "The bottleneck of great CX is not your employees, it's not the creativity, it's not the execution, it's generally corporate structure and bad management and a lack of empowerment."

As an alternative, he suggests doing things like allocating a couple of hundred dollars "to make someone's day." That is how this level of empathy gets unlocked for brands.

Focus on Creating Brand Promoters

Great experiences lead to loyal customers who trust your brand and want to share it with others. People love talking about surprisingly pleasant moments, which Eli tries to capture by creating these extraordinary experiences.

Eli admits that this work is difficult to track, calling it "the funnel you can't see." Others have more recently been dubbed it “dark social.” But he has still seen exponential growth in acquisition and loyalty from the ripple effects of creating a great experience like sending OLIPOP sending a meal to a customer in need. 

The brand didn’t have to market that story or put a press release. The subscriber told people about his experience, and while you can’t really scale that, it can still have a lasting impact on your customers. 

"Even if they hate the product, they won't stop talking about the experience and the fact that we're doing this as humans," he says.

This talk proves critical for acquisition and loyalty as customers now trust the experiences of real people more than they trust companies, press releases, and advertisements.

By providing every customer with an excellent experience, and a few with extraordinary ones, brands can give their customers something worth sharing.

Learn What Your Customers Actually Want

Most subscription companies love to research. We want to dive in and find out as much information as possible about what our subscribers like and don't like.

But doesn't it sometimes feel like some of the best brands miss the mark?

Eli sees tons of brands doing things for their subscribers that cause him to stop and say, "there is no way people actually like this," and that thought pinpoints the issue.

"People hate getting out of their comfort zones to ask these questions to consumers," he says. "They'd rather just say 'they definitely will like this.'" Others look to other brands and follow their lead, but each approach makes the same mistake:

They treat all consumers the same and don't consider the nuances between customer bases.

How to Understand What Your Customers Want

It turns out that brands who constantly learn what their customers want can better meet and exceed their expectations, making it much more likely that they'll stick around for a while. Eli shares a few tips about how he and his teams have avoided assumptions and gained better information on their customers.

  1. Get out of your comfort zone. It might feel weird to reach out directly to customers for their feedback initially, but it's a necessary first step to getting better information so you can keep giving them what they like.
  2. Talk to your customers. Eli says, "if you're not asking, you're not learning." Send out surveys, ask questions, or even have real conversations. In an episode of Subscription Ecommerce Live, Kristen LaFrance told us that "one hour with a customer is going to tell you more than ten survey emails ever will" because it will help you become more empathetic while also getting better information on your customers.
  3. Experiment and gauge responses. All customer bases have different things that work for them. Eli talks about how OLIPOP stopped focusing on their Subscriber Facebook group because consumers didn't care about it.

Additionally, he tells a story about how customers loved when the brand started including stickers with subscription boxes even though the company didn't think of this as a massive experience strategy. It was just something they decided to do, but they listened to their customers' responses and decided to keep it up.

Prioritize Relationships Over Transactions

Most brands have some sort of loyalty program to incentivize subscriptions, but Eli believes many are based on transactions, not relationships. 

A brand might give you specific points for liking them on Facebook or downloading the app. After a certain period, the points add up to a free product, discount, or something of that sort. Those things work fine to get people in the door, but they don’t necessarily promote long-term loyalty or relationships.

Brands can win more by diving a little deeper. He suggests creating a journey that reflects what a subscriber would want. They’re already buying your product. What else could provide for ongoing customers that better meets their needs and builds a sense of community?

For Eli, this comes down to listening to what subscribers really want. What kind of things would make your unique customers feel uniquely rewarded? Then, get creative with it.

  • Have a Zoom call with the brand's founder
  • Give early access to new products
  • Invite customers to provide feedback on new products

These ideas won't work for every company, but the goal should be to find specific, unique items that will excite your repeat customers in a fresh way. 

Another key idea that is a bit more universal is to cater your email campaigns to subscribers. Eli points out that one-time purchases may need more information in their post-purchase follow-ups than subscribers. The ongoing journey for these customers allows you to space out messages over time that keep them engaged. 

Final Thoughts

Customer loyalty is critical for subscription ecommerce. Finding ways to make your people happy and get them coming back may require some effort and rearranging, but doing can position your brand to win the long game 

Check out the rest of Eli's Subscription Ecommerce Live episode. In addition to discussing CX and loyalty, he addressed what playing the long game actually means. Check out the entire session, or subscribe to get updates about future guest expert Q&As.

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