Winning the Battle for Customer Loyalty
by Jill Griffin

What the Marines Have Taught Us

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II, the U.S. Marines faced a serious combat dilemma. Knowing that Japanese military intelligence was quite adept at deciphering codes, the Marines' high security code system (used to transmit top secret military commands) was purposely complex. The complexity made the code so cumbersome that, using decoder machines, it took U.S. troops an average of 30 minutes to encode, transmit and decode a three-line message. Then, something remarkable happened. A World War I veteran, named Philip Johnston, approached Marine officials with an idea: why not use Navajo for military communication? Johnston knew the language because, as the son of a missionary, he spent much of his childhood on a Navajo reservation. He also knew how impenetrable it could seem to outsiders. While the Marines were skeptical, they gave Johnston and four Navajos a chance to demonstrate their theory.

In tests under simulated combat conditions, the Navajos showed they could encode, transmit and decode a three-line message in English in 20 seconds, a stark contrast to the Marine's 30 minute standard. The Marines were sold, and 29 Navajo recruits or "code talkers," as they were called, were assigned to create a code that was impossible to break.

As the war progressed, the program was expanded and the number of Navajo code talkers increased to 400. Their contributions to U.S. victories in the Pacific were significant. In the first 48 hours of the battle to invade Iwo Jima, six code talkers worked around the clock and sent 800 accurate messages. Without the Navajo code talkers, experts say, the U.S. Marines would not have taken Iwo Jima.

In today's hyper-competitive business environment, you, too, are fighting a war of sorts - a war against customer attrition and churn. To win this war, you need actionable customer loyalty data. You must have timely, accurate information about what's driving your customer's purchase decisions and changing priorities. You must know what specific factors -- faster shipment delivery, electronic billing and payment, better-trained personnel?-- most influence your customer loyalty and retention. You must equip your army of staff members with this critical knowledge so that they become effective code talkers to both customers and each other. Only then can you develop strategies and systems to win fiercely loyal customers. How do you get this information and insight? By unlocking your customer's loyalty code.

Cracking Your Customer's CODE

To break any code you have to be a "code finder." A code finder searches for patterns of letters, words and other symbols which, when combined, lead to a hidden message. For example, the Navajo code used by the Marines in World War II had its foundation in words from nature. Starting with the English alphabet, an English word was assigned to each letter and then translated into Navajo. To signify the letter "A" they used ant, which in Navajo is wol-la-chee. As a customer loyalty code finder, your ongoing challenge is to search for your customers' specific C.O.D.E. which means your Customer's Ongoing Definition of Excellence.

Customers display both conscious and unconscious buying behaviors and cues. When deciphered correctly, this feedback provides vital insights into how to win customer loyalty. Cracking your customers' loyalty code is about understanding customers at their level of decision making. Hidden beneath your customers' buying behaviors is a web of needs, expectations, problems and complaints that, when properly interpreted, tells you precisely what it takes to win their loyalty. By achieving this level of understanding and unlocking your customers' loyalty code, you are ready to proactively deliver products and services that match your customers' evolving priorities.

In helping our clients crack their customers' loyalty code, we use a disciplined and rigorous customer research process with four interconnected steps called P.A.C.E. (Prepare, Assemble, Comprehend and Employ).

Step 1: "Prepare" for the research process

Start by interviewing management/staff, reviewing existing information including prior research, sales reports, complaint data, etc. to determine (1) what the company knows about its customers and competitors and (2) what insights are missing.

Step 2: "Assemble" customer needs and wants

Use qualitative research methods (in-depth customer interviewing, for example) to talk with customers and uncover customer-defined needs, expectations, problems and complaints. With this information, your quantitative customer questionnaire can be designed.

Step 3: "Comprehend" customer priorities

Use your questionnaire to survey randomly selected customers. Analyze the survey data using actionable, user-friendly loyalty graphics and models which prioritize your firm's performance areas according to improvement needs and opportunities.

Step 4: "Employ" your findings

Based on the research findings, develop action plans for improving customer loyalty.

Companies with a clear and accurate picture of customers' preferences enjoy substantial advantages in anticipating customer needs and delivering exceptional products and services. Breaking the loyalty code is about identifying and understanding your customers' ever-changing priorities in order to allocate your time and resources toward those things most important to your customers.

Jill Griffin’s groundbreaking book, Customer Loyalty: How To Earn It, How To Keep It (Jossey-Bass 1997, Second Edition 2002), gained business best seller status in the late 90’s. She was among the first to point out that even customers who are satisfied will readily switch suppliers for greater convenience or lower costs and that companies must do more that merely satisfy customers – they must engender loyalty. In her early career, Ms. Griffin served as senior brand manager for RJR/Nabisco’s largest brand and distinguished herself as one of the youngest brand managers in the corporation’s history. From RJR/Nabisco, Ms. Griffin joined AmeriSuites Hotels where, as national director of sales and marketing, she was responsible for the chain’s nationwide launch. Today, Ms. Griffin is principal of the Griffin Group, Inc. in Austin Texas, specializing in customer loyalty training, research and consulting. Clients include Dell Computer, Wells Fargo, Cendant Hotel Group, Hewlett Packard, Sprint, Raytheon Aircraft, Ford and the U.S. Navy. Visit for additional information.

Many more articles in Customer Service in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2003 by Jill Griffin. All rights reserved.

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