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Customer relationship very like a personal relationship

26 May 2010

Can you love your telecom company? Harbour feelings for your supermarket? You can, says Marnix Bügel. He studied how psychological theories apply to marketing and customer relationship management and discovered that two of the three components of love also occur in relationships with clients and customers. So there is a kind of love between a customer and a company. Bügel will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 3 June.

‘It can’t hurt to study a bit of psychology in order to understand your customers’, Bügel feels. He researched whether the psychological theories explaining the bond a married couple has also apply to the bond between companies and clients. This is indeed the case. There is, however, also a major difference: ‘In a personal relationship people strive towards equality. In a consumer relationship it’s quite the opposite – people are then on the lookout for a superior partner.’

Security and intimacy

‘In psychology, love consists of three factors: intimacy, security and passion. It begins with passion, intimacy comes later, which leads to feelings of security. Two of these constructs can also be found in the relationship between a customer and a company.’ In addition to security, customers also experience a kind of intimacy. It’s quite striking that – just like in marriage – intimacy plays an important role at specific points in the relationship. ‘In the beginning, when someone becomes a customer, and at the end, when the customer is considering ending the relationship.’

Putting at ease

A hotel is a good example, says Bügel. ‘When you arrive at the average hotel, they give you the room keys at the desk and then you’re on your own. In a good hotel someone accompanies you to your room, shows you where the light switches are, gives you a map of the area… They make you feel at ease and create a feeling of intimacy.’

Stable customer relationships

Companies could learn from this, in particular because business relationships are fragile at first. ‘Many companies go to great lengths to reel in a customer but don’t realize how many questions the newly acquired customer will still be left with. The only thing the customer will often see after that are invoices. By spending time on them after that initial period, you can build stable relationships with clients.’

Loyal customers

 Investing in the relationship with a customer in this manner is an important factor in building customer loyalty. Bügel: ‘Dutch consumer television programmes like “Radar” and “Kassa” will often have consumers on them who are extremely dissatisfied but who don’t leave the company they are dealing with.’ This can be explained by the psychological investment model, he says. ‘Just like victims of marital abuse return to their spouses, ill-treated customers will remain loyal to the company they do business with.’

Extra investment

Bügel: ‘The alternatives or opportunities they see elsewhere are too limited, or it’s just too big a step to leave. This is where other companies could step in. If you want to lure a customer away from the competition, in addition to offering a good product, make sure that the transition is easy. By investing extra time and effort at the beginning making a switch becomes more attractive, while you’re simultaneously building customer loyalty.’

Innovative capacity

In his research Bügel derived five independent factors determining the degree of customer loyalty: satisfaction with a relationship, the quality of alternatives, the level of investment in a relationship, the intimacy experienced and the innovative capacity of a company. A remarkable finding is that corporate social responsibility is also considered an important factor, but only for companies that consumers feel are innovative. ‘If you’re not capable of creating good, new products, invest in that before you attempt to improve your business’s social responsibility – that’s basically what the consumer is telling you.’

Conducting socially responsible business is less important

Bügel: ‘You would expect people who are in favour of corporate social responsibility to feel more drawn to companies that do socially responsible business. However, this is not the case. Corporate social responsibility has a positive effect on the customer loyalty of consumers who attach great importance to it, but also to the loyalty of those who don’t, if the company in question is considered to be innovative. If, however, the company is not considered to be innovative, there is no effect on either group.’ 

Curriculum vitae

Marnix Bügel (1966) studied computer sciences at the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences at the University of Groningen. His PhD research was a unique collaboration between two faculties: the Faculty of Economics and Business (Marketing department), where Bügel will gain his PhD, and the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences (Psychology department) of the University of Groningen. His supervisors are Prof. Bram Buunk (Psychology) and Prof. Peter Verhoef (Marketing). His thesis is entitled The application of psychological theories for an improved understanding of customer relationships. Bügel is one of the founding members of MIcompany, which focuses on Marketing Intelligence. His primary interest is in opportunities for company growth, based on insight into their customer data. Bügel works for companies such as KPN, Microsoft and Sanoma.

Note for the press

More information: Marnix Bügel, tel. (020) 715 52 90 e-mail: mbugel


Last modified:13 March 2020 01.57 a.m.
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