The Quest to keep Tech Customers Loyal

on July 30, 2014

As early as 1999, I started looking closely at the concept of customer loyalty and, more specifically, what would it take to keep me loyal to a particular OS or service.

As a heavy technology user going back to the early 1980’s, my own computing journey took me through various PC operating systems, applications and dozens of hardware devices and platforms that delivered a lot of functionality but, in most cases, were proprietary to each platform with data localized and hard to keep straight. I had some files on one system, other files on another system, etc.

My biggest problem in those days was with email clients. As a small business user, I did not have access to things like Lotus Notes or even richer email programs that had some semblance of synchronization as part of the program. My email was highly localized and tied to a single machine, something that caused a great deal of frustration since, as an analyst, I had to use many different PCs in my work.

Thankfully by 2000, I was able to switch over to Microsoft’s Outlook and ActiveSync and I was finally able to have an email client on multiple machines. My email was now always in sync no matter what machine I was on. In another fortuitous event, I started consulting for a company called Intellisync and during that time came to understand the importance of synchronization and how it would eventually become the glue that kept all of my files, data, content, etc. up to date at all times.

This consulting assignment also shaped my view of the loyalty question. It became clear, at least to me, that if a company could create an OS environment or service that would allow me to have my digital world synchronized at all times, then this company would earn my long term loyalty. In the end, I wanted my email, files, contacts, docs, etc. all in sync and available in this updated mode all of the time. I would use these products and services faithfully because of how it would impact my digital life.

In a sense, this is what Apple, Google and even Microsoft are attempting to do as part of their grand strategic visions. Microsoft calls their version Microsoft ONE, Google’s might be called “Google Everywhere” and Apple uses the term “continuity” to describe their approach to this idea. My friend Walt Mossberg over at Re/code wrote a good piece entitled “How the PC is merging with the Smart Phone” which talks about Apple’s continuity approach to make the PC act, look and work like an iOS based iPhone or tablet. He also mentions how Google is doing something similar with their Chromebooks and Android.

These are good first steps but I really believe consumers are asking for this merged experience on all of the screens in their digital lifestyles. Apple’s CarPlay program has this in mind as they offer a version of iOS to automakers and I am hoping they soon apply this concept to the Apple TV too. In the end, this idea of a single UI, with connected and synced screens and apps, will go a long way towards helping these companies keep their customers happy and, at the same time, use this to entice them to stay in their Apple, Google or Microsoft ecosystem.

This does not mean some people won’t also have devices from other ecosystems. Today, my primary smartphone is an iPhone but I also carry a Samsung Note 3 tied to a Gear 2 smartwatch and one of my key laptops is a Windows PC. In today’s world of diverse devices, especially among knowledge workers, this mixed OS and mixed ecosystem is the norm.

I believe the three big players – Apple, Google and Microsoft – are all driving towards this vision of all of their devices being connected, synced and working the same. The company who pulls this off in the most concise and elegant fashion stands to build an extended loyal customer base that lives within this ecosystem and, because their customers invest more and more in the devices tied to that ecosystem, they will most likely become lifetime loyal customers and not easily swayed to jump to another ecosystem easily.

Of these three companies, Apple seems to have the best chance of delivering on this vision in the short term. I have been testing the new version of Mac OS X called Yosemite and am struck by how close the Mac and iOS are becoming in terms of look, feel and functionality. More importantly, the role iCloud plays in keeping all of our content in sync and easily accessible across the Mac, iPad and iPhone should create in those who buy into Apple’s ecosystem even more loyalty.

I don’t see the same level of continuity and clarity of this concept yet in Google or Microsoft’s world but as I stated earlier this too is a big part of their longer term strategy. I also see this type of continuity in a lot of services. Facebook and Twitter have the same UI across all devices and keep everything in sync. Same for Twitter, Instagram, etc. I also find it in productivity apps like Gmail and my favorite productivity tool, Evernote.

In the future, I really think that, when it comes to developing loyal customers, this issue of creating an environment that has the same look and feel and keeps people’s UIs, apps and services in sync will become a major differentiator for hardware and software companies and services and, in the end, drive the greatest level of loyalty. If they don’t deliver, it will be hard to compete in a world where customers expect all of their digital stuff to be easy to find, instantly accessible and always in sync.