Relationship marketing and regular customer cards: daily product retailing in Finland.
Customer relationship marketing is essential
for success in today's and tomorrow's
retailing (e.g. Berry and Gresham, 1986;
Kanta-asiakaskortit, 1995; Orama, 1993).
Acquiring and keeping regular customers
by means of regular customer cards is one of
the ways to handle the relationships, and
this kind of procedure is growing in importance
in Finland (e.g. Kanta-asiakaskortit,
1995a; Kanta-asiakaskortit, 1995b; Katse,
1996; Orama, 1993).
Sounds good in principle, but are these two things -- regular customer cards[l] and (customer) relationship marketing -- really connected? Or is there some conceptual or terminological ambiguity in what (customer) relationship marketing actually is and how it can be applied to the retail context? In industrial marketing buyer-supplier relationships have been investigated more thoroughly, but for consumer markets the area is less investigated, thereby constituting an interesting research area.
In this paper the characteristics of the regular customer cards (RCCs) of four major Finnish retail organizations in the daily product sector are investigated with respect to the basic characteristics of relationship marketing. The purpose is to study, whether, and to what degree relationship marketing is the right framework in this regard for today's retailing in Finland, and how this "new paradigm" can be applied in future to improve the effectiveness of the regular customer cards. First, the basic issues of relationship marketing are briefly investigated, followed by an introduction to four regular customer cards of major Finnish retail organizations in Finland. Second, the characteristics of these cards are set into the framework of relationship marketing to see how well they will fit. Finally, managerial implications of using regular customer cards as a tool in relationship marketing are discussed.
Relationship marketing is marketing seen
as relationships, networks and interaction
(Gummesson, 1994; 1996).
It is to identify and establish, maintain, and
enhance, and when necessary also terminate
relationships with customers and other
stakeholders, at a profit, so that the objectives
of all parties involved are met; and this
is done by a mutual exchange and fulfilment
of promises (Gronroos, 1996).
Relationship marketing centres on developing a continuous relationship between buyers and sellers (i.e. not just getting, but also keeping customers) and other parties in the marketplace, so that the objectives of the parties involved are met. Such relationships are usually, but not necessarily always, long-term (Bennett, 1996; Christopher et al., 1993; Copulsky and Wolf, 1990; Gronroos, 1994; Gummesson, 1987; 1994; Orama, 1993) as well as dynamic (Halinen, 1994). Relationship marketing covers a wide range of different parties involved with a company (Gummesson, 1987). Another and perhaps somewhat narrower term in the literature, stressing the roles of buyer and seller, is that of customer relationship marketing. This type of marketing is a central part of relationship marketing, and consists of relationships with current and potential customers of a company (Lehtinen, 1995). Both the buyer and seller can be active, and they should be seen as equal partners in a win-win relationship (Bennett, 1996; Gummesson, 1994).
Relationship marketing has been considered as a shift in paradigm from the familiar marketing mix approach, usually associated with four (or more) Ps. The marketing mix paradigm (sometimes even called the theory of marketing) is especially criticized for being a mass marketing-related, US-perspective list of categories of marketing variables to be considered and reconsidered in the context of consumer goods, huge domestic markets, nationwide commercial mass media and a highly competitive distribution system. However, companies are seldom clearly just consumer goods companies, but also industrial goods and service companies. The relationship marketing approach especially captures these two latter aspects. (Christopher et al., 1993; Gronroos, 1994; 1996; Gummesson, 1987; 1994; 1996; McKenna, 1995). In general, the "Ps" are always needed, but they should not be seen as the founding parameters of marketing. Instead, relationships, interaction and networks should form the core of marketing (Gummesson, 1994). The emphasis is moving from transaction focus to relationship focus and from mass markets to target markets (Christopher et al., 1993; Copulsky and Wolf, 1990; Gronroos, 1994; Jackson, 1985).
At the heart of customer relationship marketing is the quality of customer service; quality not as some separate discipline but as the central part of service marketing (Berry and Parasuraman, 1991). Further, in customer relationship marketing, service and its quality are not a matter of some separate marketing department alone. Because of the multitude of relationships, everyone in an organization is a potential "part-time marketer" (Bennett, 1996; Blomqvist et al., 1993; Christopher et al., 1993; Gummesson, 1987; 1994; McKenna, 1995). For example, the employees of a retail company on a sales floor represent the retail company to the customer and become thereby the marketers in the situation, not some specialists from the marketing department (Berry and Gresham, 1986; Gummesson, 1987).
Customer relationship marketing entails information about customers as individuals and bidirectional communication between the company and an individual customer. Information should be arranged in a customer or market database and besides quantitative data it should contain qualitative information as well. This information should be the basis for action, not just to stimulate reaction. Information is based on communication, i.e. on customer dialogue. Bidirectional communication leads to a strong relationship satisfying both parties, which in turn leads to increased loyalty. Communication should be proactive rather than just reactive, but yet happen on the customers' terms (Bennett, 1996; Blomqvist et al., 1993; Christopher et al., 1993; Kotler, 1991; McKenna, 1995).
Customer relationship marketing can be put to use on various levels. The level depends on the type and number of bonds used by a company to increase customer loyalty. The higher the level, the higher the potential payoff. At the lowest level primarily price incentives are used to increase the value of customer experience (e.g. frequent flyer campaigns). However, relationship marketing at this level seldom offers long-term competitive advantages, because price is the most easily imitated and a very difficult element to differentiate. At the second level, besides using price incentives, social bonds are sought to be built on top of any financial bonds. These may be established with services beyond the ordinary (e.g. personal gifts), based on learning about clients' wants and needs, customizing the service and the relationship, and continually reselling the benefits of the relationship. At the third level, besides financial and social bonds, structural bonds are created by providing clients value-adding systems which are not possible for the clients to build or use solely by themselves and which are not readily available from other sources. These services are often technology-based and designed into the delivery system (e.g. computer installation for inventory control) (Berry and Parasuraman, 1991; Blomqvist et al., 1993).
Relationship marketing can be applied to various kinds of relationships as well (see Figure 1). Long-term relationships and relationship marketing may exist in the network with which the company is connected, in the relations between two individual companies, and also between the company and an individual consumer. Additionally, the company is connected with public authorities, financial institutions, employee markets, and other stakeholders, all potential fields for relationship marketing. Finally, internal marketing plays a vital role affecting the level on which the company as a whole is customer or client oriented. Employee commitment to the "service vision" of an organization, as a result of skilful internal marketing, is a key mediating variable in determining organization's outcomes (Berry and Parasuraman, 1991; Christopher et al., 1993; Gummesson, 1987; Iverson et al., 1996).
[Figure 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
Overall, relationship marketing is a strategic issue and a matter for the whole company. The aim is to build bonds on different levels to achieve long-term profitability by solid customer relationships.
Regular customer cards
Many companies and organizations in Finland have ended up using the so-called "regular customer (or frequent-buyer) programs" to get and keep customers. This means that various kinds of "regular customer cards" have been launched at an increasing pace. There are four major retail organizations in the daily product sector in Finland and today all of them have some kind(s) of card system(s) for regular customers as a tool in practising, at least what they themselves call, customer relationship marketing. The issue is not a minor one; there are well over two million of these cards in use in a country of five million people (Kilpailjoiden, 1996).
In this section the characteristics of the above-mentioned cards are investigated. The investigation concerns naturally the whole system the cards represent. There are some differences in the details between the four retail organizations' cards (see Table I), but there is no need to investigate them one by one in this study. Instead, the cards will be dealt with together to form an overall picture of what these cards represent.
Table I Examples of regular customer cards in Finland in daily product retailing
K-card S-card Cash card special offers special offers bonus membership mail membership mail Annual payment savings association membership fee Credit card as above plus: as above plus: credit credit extra credit costs extra credit costs means of payment means of payment K-card Tradeka-card Cash card special offers special offers bonus membership mail membership mail Annual payment extra bonus if a member in the savings association Credit card as above plus: as above plus: credit credit extra credit costs extra credit costs means of payment means of payment K-card Stockmann-card Cash card special offers special offers membership mail membership mail annual payment one-time payment Credit card as above plus: as above plus: credit credit extra credit costs extra credit costs means of payment means of payment
The cards include a bonus system, by which the customer is rewarded with bonus points for being loyal to the organization, or they entitle the bearer to several kinds of special offers meant only for these card holders. The cards are not free of charge; they include a one-time payment, an annual payment or they are included within a co-operative membership fee. Card owners receive some kind of letter, magazine, newspaper or corresponding membership mail meant only for them. The cards come in two different versions: a "cash-card" and a credit card, and besides the retail stores of the organization in question all the credit card versions function as a means of payment in various other instances, such as in hotels, service stations, restaurants, insurance companies, etc. Altogether, the basic idea of the cards is to function as a tool for customer relationship marketing by offering special advantages (usually in the form of price reductions or bonuses, or some kinds of "happenings") for the card owners (e.g. Korttitapahtumat, 1995). At the same time, the cards serve as the basis for a customer database. In what way and how efficiently these databases are used varies between the organizations, and further, at the ground level between individual retailers (Kanta-asiakaskortit, 1995a; Kanta-asiakaskortit, 1995b; McKenna, 1995; Orama, 1993; Ota asiakas omaski, 1996; Posti, 1996).
Regular customer cards as a means to relationship marketing
As stated earlier, the retail organizations consider their regular customer cards as being customer relationship marketing. Is this really the case, and if so, to what extent? In this section the aforementioned characteristics of the regular customer cards are set against the basic features of relationship marketing presented. At this stage, regular customer cards are investigated as they are functioning in practice at the moment. The future possibilities of the cards are discussed later on in the study.
Continuing relationships clearly are one objective of the regular customer cards (RCC). However, in the daily product context the continuity may be easily broken, because switching to another seller is fairly easy whenever the situation calls for it. Jackson (1985) calls this kind of situation the "always-a-share model", which means that the customer can easily share her/his patronage among multiple sellers. Jackson (1985) even suggests, that in the case of these always-a-share customers transaction marketing should be preferred over relationship marketing. Thereby RCCs do not fully correspond to this aspect of relationship marketing (see Table II).
Table II Regular customer cards as relationship marketing
A = 3 [checks] B = 2 [checks] C = 1 [check]
Relationship marketing basics Regular customer cards Continuous relationship B Objectives of both parties are met C Long-term relationship A Dynamism C Both parties can be active C Relationship focus instead of transaction focus C Target market focus instead of mass market focus C Quality of customer service as the primary issue C Everyone in an organization is a marketer ? Information on customers as individuals A Customer databases B Quantitative information A Qualitative information C Bidirectional communication C Proactive communication B Communication on customers' terms C The level of relationship marketing Lowest
A = high correspondence B = medium correspondence C = low correspondence
The objectives of both parties are not fully met. The objective of the organization is to tie the customers to the organization and because no additional purchasing power will appear from anywhere, the objective is also to get the customers to concentrate their purchases on the particular organization. Organizations may to some degree succeed in this objective but the assumption that special offers or bonus points are the only objective of the customer may be too simplistic. There is a vast amount of research on the subject of "why do people shop" (see, e.g. Boedeker, 1993) and the economic aspects are only one dimension of the benefits for which consumers seek. Therefore RCCs have only limited correspondence with this aspect of relationship marketing.
Besides continuing relationships, long-term relationships clearly are one core objective aimed at with RCCs. Sometimes "long-term" means a life time relationship (Copulsky and Wolf, 1990; Kanta-asiakaskortti, 1995b). Although perhaps not being strictly continuous, relationships formed with RCCs may indeed be very long term by their very nature. This means, that the customer does not abandon the one particular organization, though he/she occasionally switches among different organizations. Thus in this case the correspondence is fairly high between RCCs and relationship marketing.
Although relationships built with RCCs may be long-term, they can be considered rather static instead of being dynamic. This means that the relationships do not evolve and develop in an interactive relationship, where both parties together try to improve it to achieve mutual advantage. The development of RCCs is mainly "dictated" from the organization's side.
In relationship marketing both parties can be active. Certainly, the organization with its RCC can be and is an active party, but the active role of the customer is not that clear. In principle, the former is the marketer and the latter the object, and RCC offers few special means to the customer to be active towards the organization. One way, of course, is not to use the card in order to express some kind of dissatisfaction, or the opposite, but this kind of "activity" has no real substance in it. There are in some cases "boards of clients" formed to find out customers' opinions about various matters. These kinds of activities are not any kind of general practice yet, however. Thus a correspondence between RCCs and relationship marketing is low in this regard.
With RCCs the focus still seems to be more on the transaction than on the relationships. This is in accordance with Jackson's (1985) already stated view and suggestion with the "always-a-share" customers. Even an organization which makes consistent sales with a customer is often forced to continuously give good immediate reasons to the customer (e.g. special offers) for continuing the relationship. In the case of a co-operative membership and bonus system the reward is not immediate and thus the relationship itself has some importance. However, in the end the price reductions seem to be the ultimate and rather transactionist goal and focus of the RCCs. Thus only low correspondence between RCCs and relationship marketing can be found in this case.
Currently, the focus of RCCs lies somewhere between mass marketing and target marketing, though nearer to mass marketing. They are not pure mass marketing, because the card itself may be targeted to some particular group (e.g. co-operative members), while on the other hand, membership mail is targeted only to the card owners. Although one particular goal of the RCCs is to be able to modify and target the organization's offerings to increasingly sharper segments (based on both quantitative and qualitative information), this procedure is used only to a minor extent today. Therefore only low correspondence between RCCs and relationship marketing can be found in this case as well.
When the perhaps most important aspect of relationship marketing, namely the quality of customer service, is investigated as a characteristic of RCCs, the technical dimension of quality may appear. This concrete dimension refers to what the customer gets (Gronroos, 1990), i.e. the technical quality of the card itself and of the membership mail. However, more important is the functional dimension of quality, i.e. how the customer experiences the delivery of the service. This more abstract and subjective dimension is not the primary focus of RCCs, and so only low correspondence between RCCs and relationship marketing exists for this aspect.
In relationship marketing everyone in an organization is a marketer. This aspect is fairly difficult to relate particularly to RCCs. If all the personnel of an organization can be made more involved in customer service by emphasizing that the organization's goal is to increase the amount of regular and loyal customers by means of RCCs, then the RCC may be seen to enhance this aspect of relationship marketing as well. Whether and how the introduction of this kind of"regular customer programme" actually influences the customer service and marketing orientation of an organization's personnel appears to be a fairly unknown area in need of investigation. At least organizations are beginning to acknowledge the importance to train their personnel with this respect.
Regular customer cards clearly are a means to get information on customers as individuals. To get an RCC, the customer has to give certain information about him/herself to the organization. This information may in some cases be very detailed. Thus, in this aspect the correspondence between RCCs and relationship marketing is high. Related to the collection of the information is the formation of a customer database and the nature of the information in it. The value of such a database is in the usage of the data. In this respect, and related to the discussion of mass vs target marketing, RCCs do not fully correspond to this aspect of relationship marketing yet. The information in the customer databases is still mainly quantitative, thereby missing the qualitative characteristics of the customers, and this certainly limits the possibilities of various kinds of target marketing efforts.
As was the case with the activity of both parties, bidirectional communication can not be seen as any particular characteristic of RCCs. The direction of the communication is mainly from the organization to the customer. Therefore, virtually no correspondence between RCCs and relationship marketing can be found related to this aspect. Communication certainly is proactive from the organization's side, but the level of the communication may too often be that of unidirectional advertising, not some bidirectional genuine interest in customers' needs and wants, for example. In relationship marketing, communication should happen on the customers' terms and not, for example, according to the organization's norms or rules. This is hardly the case with today's RCCs, due to the mass marketing-oriented, transactionistic, and unidirectional nature of the communication, where mainly the organization is the active party. It may be that some customers are well satisfied with this kind of communication, but what the customers' terms would really be is beyond RCCs at present.
Finally, in terms of the level, RCCs can be considered as corresponding to relationship marketing at its lowest level, and thus at a level where the benefits of relationship marketing are lowest as well. This level, based mainly on price, seldom offers a sustainable competitive advantage, because price is the most easily imitated element of the marketing mix (Berry and Parasuraman, 1991). The type of relationship with RCCs is the one between an organization and an individual consumer. This relationship itself is one basic reason for the generally weak correspondence between RCCs and relationship marketing; there are such huge numbers of customers and potential customers. But is this some kind of insuperable barrier preventing a better correspondence? The possibilities for RCCs to develop into a "deeper" form of relationship marketing are discussed in the next section.
The reality of regular customer cards in the daily product sector undoubtedly is that every single customer cannot be treated as a genuine individual, or better yet as partners. In addition, relationship marketing is not a magic solution to all kinds of problems and difficult situations. However, there is the possibility to make the customers feel that they are being treated as individuals by the particular organization. Two strategies to differentiate retailer's offers in this sense are customization and augmentation (Berry and Gresham, 1986).
The "technical" basis for relationship marketing, or particularly relationship retailing (see Berry and Gresham, 1986), is the customer database, which should include both qualitative and quantitative information about the customers. And this information should be used as well! The "principle of exaggerated equality" has ruled too long a time, i.e. the custom to target campaigns, etc., to all customers or to nobody (Ota asiakas omaksi, 1996). On the basis of the customer database retailers can direct highly customized marketing to selected existing customers, i.e deliver differentiated messages based on the customer's characteristics and preferences. This is the way to transform customers into clients. Clients in turn are served by specific personnel who handle their particular accounts -- at least they should feel so (Berry and Gresham, 1986; Copulsky and Wolf, 1990). Thus, reaching the second level of relationship marketing with regular customer cards is quite attainable. Even the third level is not beyond reach, for example with home computers installed in the homes of the "best" card owners for them to get varied information from the company, to make orders or reservations, to pay their debts, etc.
An integral element of relationship marketing and retailing consists of the promises given to clients and the expectations these promises generate. An organization can manage these expectations, establishing a "customer franchise" by exceeding the expectations (Berry and Parasuraman, 1991). First, it must be ensured that the promises reflect reality, i.e. customers' expectations are kept on a realistic level. In other words, it requires careful consideration of what can and should be promised to the client as a benefit of the RCC. Second, a premium must be placed on reliability, i.e. the expectations -- the benefits promised with the RCC -- have to be met already the first time. Third, regular communication with clients is essential to understand their expectations and to explain the service they receive. Ultimately, the retailer has to have a thorough understanding of the customers' perception of the value delivered. Customer dialogue is initiated and sustained by building interactive links to the marketplace. This can be done for example by regular-based meetings with selected clients, i.e. with a "board of clients". Another way which has been suggested is that to increase sales by 10 per cent, four clients have to be contacted personally each day. In other words, the communication has to be bidirectional and not just mail from the retailer and it has to happen on the clients' terms. Fourth, when clients directly experience the service at the "moment of truth", the retailer has his best opportunity to augment the offering. Therefore there should be some "extra" to offer to the regular clients at the "moment of truth". Fifth, as emergencies and complaints arise, they must be dealt empathetically and with quick resolve to change the negative experience to a positive one. In other words, it has to be ensured that the complaints and problems of (particularly regular) customers are skilfully resolved. After skilful handling of a complaint, the customer's loyalty may even increase significantly (Berry and Gresham, 1986; Berry and Parasuraman, 1991; Jones and Sasser, 1995; McKenna, 1995; Ota asiakas omaksi, 1996). It is a human tendency to repay favours (Bennett, 1996).
Additionally, any retailer who is serious about transforming customers into clients must place emphasis on their personnel. Everyone in touch with the clients should be trained to be an involved "part-time marketer" and to understand the quality of customer service -- "personalization" (Mittal and Lassar, 1996) -- as being the primary issue. Thus the meaning and objectives of the RCCs should be made clear to the personnel, not just to the clients (Katse, 1996; Ota asiakas omaksi, 1996; Panosta, 1996).
In conclusion, with the strategies of customization and augmentation, as well as with proper internal marketing, the weaknesses of RCCs in corresponding to relationship marketing can be overcome, at least in a "technical" sense. Although maybe not yet today being relationship marketing or -- retailing in its fullest meaning, RCCs provide a promising means to practice, at least, more relationship-based marketing and -- retailing in the daily product sector. This, however, requires a lot of work and development in the area, and it should be remembered that RCCs are just the means to an end, not the end itself. A plastic card with some unidirectional, transaction focused "membership mail" will not be enough to turn anonymous masses of potential and existing customers into interactive, "truly" continuous and long-term relationships with well-defined clients (see also Kanta-asiakasmarkkinoinnin, 1995, p. 55) It may, instead, create only "false loyalty" (Jones and Sasser, 1995, pp. 90-8), when customers are ready to change companies whenever they feel they can get a more outstanding value elsewhere[Ill. Relationship marketing in its fullest meaning is not just "technics", how ever sophisticated; there has to be the philosophy involved as well (see Gronroos, 1996).
Characteristics of the regular customer cards of four major Finnish retail organizations in the daily product sector were investigated with respect to the basic characteristics of relationship marketing. The purpose was to study, whether, and to what degree, relationship marketing is the right framework for this matter of today's retailing in Finland, and how this "new paradigm" can be applied in future to improve the effectiveness of the regular customer cards.
Regular customer cards were considered to correspond to relationship marketing mainly on its lowest, "technical" level, and thus at a level where the benefits of relationship marketing are lowest as well. This level seldom offers sustainable competitive advantage. The type of relationship itself, i.e. the one between an organization and a huge number of individual consumers, is one basic reason for the generally weak correspondence between regular customer cards and relationship marketing. On the other hand, the regular customer systems and programmes are not yet developed enough to fully take advantage of the possibilities of relationship marketing. This does not have to be some kind of insuperable barrier though, since there is a lot of potential to improve regular customer systems and cards towards more relationship-based marketing in the daily product sector in retailing by customization, augmentation, and internal marketing. Whether it would then be "real" relationship marketing, depends on what is finally meant by "relationship marketing"; one important topic dealt with the shift in marketing paradigm. For example, RCC-based direct marketing or database marketing, or established customer clubs as such are just another instrument in the marketing mix toolbox, not "real" relationship marketing, if they lack the philosophical "heart" of the matter (Gronroos, 1996). In any case, thus far, the issue has been marketing customer "relationships" rather than customer relationship marketing. (See Figure 2.)
[Figure 2 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
However, it is interesting to note that the wheel is in some sense gradually turning back from anonymous mass marketing to the days of relationship "marketing" when the local grocers and other retailers knew their clients personally (see McKenna, 1995). As Bennett (1996) states, the practice of relationship marketing is as old as commerce, based on understanding and interacting with customers and empathizing with their needs.
 It is the customer's "membership" in these retail organizations that actually counts, the card being only a device (Katse, 1996). Therefore, in this paper the term "regular customer card" has to be understood to represent all the aspects of the membership, not just the piece of plastic.
 In the literature there is no general agreement on a definition of relationship marketing and relationship marketing is presented in a number of ways referring to a philosophy, a school of thought, a database marketing, a seller-buyer dyad, customer relationships, stakeholder relationships, a paradigm shift, a new general marketing theory, an add-on to the traditional marketing management (see Bennett, 1996; Gronroos, 1996; Gummesson, 1996). In this study no precise definition is formed, nor needed; more meaningful are the characteristics describing relationship marketing.
 If every kind of instance dealing with the company can be considered as "customer", the distinction between "relationship marketing" and "customer relationship marketing" is unnecessary. In this study, the terms are used interchangeably.
 Especially by the Nordic School (see Gronroos, 1994; Gummesson, 1994).
 In fact, relationship marketing has emerged within the fields of service marketing and network/interaction approach of industrial marketing (Gronroos, 1994; Gummesson, 1996).
 Berry and Parasuraman (1991) use the terms "customer" and "client" to highlight the shift in marketing orientation according to the level of customer loyalty.
 There are various ways to categorize the different relationships. As an example of a 30category way of presenting the relationships, see Gummesson, 1996.
 "Service" has to be understood here to include any kind of tangible or intangible product or service related to RCCs in the daily product sector.
 The "value" concept itself is under heated discussion at the moment; however, it is outside the scope of this study.
 "Moment of truth" is a service marketing jargon stressing that each customer contact creates a moment that influences the organization's relations and reveals its ability to keep a customer (Normann, 1991).
 Perhaps one step for a retailer before even dreaming about "real" relationship marketing would be a deeper concentration on customer-based marketing, as taught by, for example, Quinn (1990).
 Bennett (1996) suggests phenomenological approaches, besides the behaviourist "stimulus-response" approach, to view relationship marketing as a philosophy of marketing.
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|Publication:||Marketing Intelligence & Planning|
|Date:||Jun 1, 1997|
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