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Customer loyalty means nothing if you don’t have loyalty from your leaders

October 11, 2012

Buy any six cups of our freshly ground full-bean coffee and get your seventh cup free. Sky Rewards, exclusive for Sky customers, 2 for 1, tickets to the UKs’ top attractions. Up to 25% off your line rental, for life. McDonalds, Sky and Orange – their current loyalty offers, and now eBay is to start offering loyalty points to its customers – the online marketplace giant has signed up as a member of the Nectar loyalty programme allowing holders of the loyalty card to collect points when they spend money with eBay.

The launch is one of three new partnerships announced by Nectar as it marks a decade in business. The scheme has also teamed up with Oxfam and restaurant group Tragus, owner of Bella Italia, Café Rouge and Strada restaurants, to offer points when purchases are made. For years we’ve become accustomed to living in a fast-paced dog-eat-dog world, told that loyalty gets you nowhere, and that we must look out for number one, because no one else will. Now in business there is a scramble on with customer loyalty schemes.

In our youth, loyalty was easy, you stood by and stuck up for your friends. You kept their secrets, you made sure that no one bullied your younger brother. As adults, loyalty is not nearly so simple. We operate in a network of overlapping loyalties. Some are trivial or temporary, others provide the foundation to our very identity. Paradoxically, while we all value loyalty in our friends, our sense of what loyalty actually means tends to be vague.

Dogs are famously loyal, but that’s not loyalty really, that’s obedience. But I’m loyal back to my dog, that’s what matters. Loyalty is about accepting the bonds that our relationships with others entail, and acting in a way that defends and reinforces the attachment inherent in these relationships. Harley-Davidson is commonly cited as having one of the most loyal following of any brand. A group called Harley Owners Group has more than 1 million members. These Harley enthusiasts regularly meet up for group rides. Going a step further, many loyal fans have the H-D logo permanently tattooed.

Jim Becker was a Green Bay Packer fan who attended NFL games for 56 years. Becker regularly sold his blood to offset the cost of season tickets for himself, his wife and 11 kids. Then Becker’s doctor found that his father died aged 43 from a condition of the blood retaining too much iron.  Donating blood is the only known treatment for this condition. Becker may have also died at a young age had he not given blood as a result of his loyalty to the Green Bay Packers.

Cicero, Rome’s greatest orator, observed more than two thousand years ago: What is the quality to look out for as a warrant for the stability and permanence of friendship? It is Loyalty. Nothing that lacks this can be stable. The great works of literature are almost universally tales of loyalty and betrayal. To the ancient Greeks, a hero could not exist apart from loyalty. Tests of loyalty are the cornerstone of great drama, and we reserve our utmost contempt for the traitors who betray their loyalty for personal gain – a Judas!

Ah, Judas! News that manager Owen Coyle was sacked from Bolton Wanderers rekindles memories of one of the greatest acts of disloyalty and treachery known to mankind. Ok, I exaggerate, but it mattered to us Burnley folk. A lot. Whilst a 2-0 home victory in the opening game of this season versus Bolton was some solace, the second victory the returning turncoat/traitor/defector (delete which you think best applies), Coyle’s departure from Turf Moor back in January 2010 highlights the very essence of loyalty.

Think back three years ago. Burnley’s promotion to the Premier League – our first season in the top flight of English football since 1976 – was one for the romantics. Automatically installed as the favourites for relegation – as if people are incapable of even hoping to dream that anything other than exactly what we expect could happen. Then something happened. Burnley, playing attacking, attractive football and wearing a sumptuous kit based on their 1960 First Division championship winning team, started to win matches – and not just any matches.

August 19, 2009. Burnley 1 Manchester United 0. Burnley’s first goal in the Premier League was something very, very special. For you Robbie Blake, freedom of the borough of Burnley. The defending Premier League Champions. Beaten. I can still recall being awake at 3am that morning reading for the umpteenth time on the BBC web site the match report. It still said 1-0. Putting a man on the moon was now second in the Greatest Human Achievements In My Lifetime. And Coyle was the architect of that achievement.

Owen Coyle was receiving plaudits. Half way into the season the job was half done, we had a strong home record and batting well. We joked he’d turn down the Real Madrid job, such was his affinity with the club, the fans, the town – Sorry Senior Perez, can’t come to manage your Galacticos, we’ve got Wigan at home on Saturday. Then he went and blew it. January 2010, Bolton’s Fatty Arbuckle look-a-like, Phil Gartside, came calling, and Coyle swallowed his ‘greater potential at the Reebok’ line. It proved too much to resist. Bolton got their man.

Previously, Coyle said: The fans know the rapport I have with this football club. We have an exciting challenge ahead of us and I want it to continue. He had turned down an approach from his boyhood club Celtic: I’m a Celtic fan. But I looked at what we had built at Burnley, I thought of the players I’d persuaded to be part of this, and in the end I knew I had to stay and carry on this incredible adventure. Then in the winter, Coyle said: I don’t want it to continue. What changed in those six months? How did the loyalty dissipate so rapidly? Coyle gave me and 18,000 other Clarets the best 18 months in living memory. We dared to dream. An apparently decent, loyal man, his departure was a really grotty tale.

What did we learn about loyalty from Owen Coyle? Well, we learned that apparent authenticity, sincerity and honest personas count for nothing. He had said at a pre-match conference I enjoy being at the football club, I enjoy my work and coming through the door every morning. A week later, he was gone. It was the greatest act of disloyalty since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. At Burnley, the world was his oyster. Alas Burnley were relegated from the Premier League at the end of the season, there was no recovery or happy ending. From Moses, leading us to the promised land, to Judas in the space of 18 months.

The lack of loyalty was mind-boggling, the turbulence he created led to our demise and collapse. His first game in charge, a dreary 0-0 at home to Stoke, was not a glimpse of things to come. He built a team based on togetherness, commitment and team spirit, and he got it back in lumps from the terraces.

But we shouldn’t have been surprised. Loyalty is dead, and the research statistics seem to bear them out: American companies lose half their customers in five years, half their employees in four, and half their investors in less than one. We seem to face a future in which the only business relationships will be opportunistic transactions between virtual strangers.  Josiah Royce in his 1908 book The Philosophy of Loyalty presented loyalty as a virtue, defined as the basic moral principle from which all other principles can be derived.  Without loyalty, you have nothing.

Animals as pets have a large sense of loyalty to humans, which may be more human-to-human loyalty. Famous cases include Greyfriars Bobby who attended his master’s grave for fourteen years, Hachiko, who returned to the place he used to meet his master every day for nine years after his death, and Foxie, the spaniel belonging to Charles Gough, who stayed by her dead master’s side for three months on Helvellyn in the Lake District in 1805. (The fact that Gough’s body was eaten by his dog was ignored in subsequent romantic accounts of the story).

There is now something about Coyle’s leadership and communication that doesn’t feel authentic, and it would be the same for any person who unravels sincerity in such unsubtle and spectacular fashion, a previously cast iron personal commitment to an organisation. In walking out of Burnley mid season, he showed himself to be an opportunist, self-interest before loyalty. I suppose this is fine if you succeed, but he didn’t. He placed a higher priority on personal financial gain, over loyalty, authenticity and integrity. It’s not a recipe for long-term success, and surely you tarnish your reputation forever with such behaviour. Trust, a core element of leadership, has been lost, how do you recover that, and respect?

Our ancestors learned that loyalty towards your tribe was a valuable survival tool. In the jungle, the desert, the cotton mills of industrial Lancashire, loyalty to your tribe increased your chances of surviving harsh weather, unreliable supply of food and water, and built the warmth of human togetherness, humanity and community. Now, please excuse me, but I’m soundly in the camp that Coyle has got his just deserts, while we wait with eager anticipation to watch him fall flat on either of those two faces. He let us down. As you sow, so shall you reap, as the plane flying over Turf Moor in the opening game versus Bolton trailed the banner through the skies. He made the wrong decision, and will be forever tainted by his lack of loyalty and ripping the heart out of Burnley, over shadowing his finest hour.

Coyle’s loyalty was a veil of rhetoric. He lead a team that had previosuly achieved stability and consistency, but no real chance of success, and turned us to something special. A manager in business would be lauded with such results. The images and emotions of the Wembley 2009 play-off final victory, and Martin Paterson’s and Steve Thompson’s goals in the 2-0 away win at Reading in the semi-final, will always be with me. That first home game versus Manchester United will never go away. This was our time. He created it, and his disloyalty dismantled it. The Burnley customers still came through the turnstiles and bought their annual season tickets, our own loyalty card. But without loyalty, honesty and trust, decency and dignity in the behaviour of your leaders, the heart and soul of any organisation will have a damaged, fractured culture that creates a destabilising vacuum with its customers. Three years on, it still rankles.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. si mcinerney permalink
    October 11, 2012 9:54 am

    Amazed you can get Judas into one of yoru posts! I heard about the banner being towed behind the plane, classic.

  2. October 12, 2012 7:57 am

    The last sentence is superfluous, and even then, ‘rankles’ probably doesn’t adequately reflect the emotion in the piece. One question though, would you have him back? And if he came and produced the same as last time, how would that feel? Ask Pompey fans about ‘Arry and his brief affair with Saints. Sadly, your thoughts probably say more about ‘football’ now than about the individuals involved (as mentioned in one of your previous pieces which brought a tear to my eye). Great stuff.

    W

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