Forget loyalty, just get my name right

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Click above to hear Scott Donaton, CEO of Ensemble, discuss his new column in Direct Marketing News with senior editor Rose Gordon.

I'm just off a late flight from New York to Los Angeles, tired, cranky and — for reasons hopefully related to Avis' available inventory and not some perverse recommendation engine — driving a bright-yellow Camaro.

I pull up to the West Holly-wood hotel where I spend at least three nights a month, an almost-trendy boutique off Sunset. I'm in LA often while growing my branded-content agency (Note to self: column integration needs to appear seamless rather than forced). As a result, I tend to stay at the same hotel each time to feel at least partially grounded while here. No easy feat in Tinseltown.

At the front desk, I hand my license and corporate card to a clerk who pulls up my reservation and, as she's encoding my key card, smiles and asks, “Have you stayed with us before?”

“I don't know,” I say, and then point toward her computer screen: “You tell me.”

Okay, I don't actually say this out loud, but I want to. I want to scream it. Instead, I walk toward the elevator bank, mumbling under my breath and questioning my loyalty to a hotel that can't tell the difference between me and the fanny-pack family checking in behind me, who clearly booked their reservation on obnoxiousgnome.com. It's a striking difference from the hotel I used to stay at in Westwood, where even the valets greeted me by name.

Call me irrational — you won't be the first — but these sorts of events really grate and can do a lot of damage to consumers' perceptions of brands. I'm a very loyal customer and will happily fork over a premium if the value exchange works out. When that loyalty isn't rewarded, or even recognized, it stings. It also underscores the degree to which front-line employees are brand ambassadors, yet are rarely trained for that role.

In an age when our every transaction is monitored with an eye to monetization, the benefit consumers expect is that the same databases that supposedly “know” us will be able to use that knowledge to deliver a better experience.

It doesn't take much. Anyone who has ever traveled abroad knows that feeling you get on the return trip when the customs agent hands over your passport and says, “Welcome home.” That same sentiment — a simple “welcome back” during check-in to a hotel — could make all the difference between keeping or losing a loyal customer.

For businesses, this isn't about the niceties; it's about churn rates and the bottom line. Every marketer knows it's far easier — and more profitable — to retain an existing customer than to recruit a new one.

Hotels aren't the only ones. After recently deciding to shell out a pretty high price for the privilege of having The Wall Street Journal delivered to my iPad, I was irked to be bombarded with e-mails offering a special rate to subscribe to — you guessed it — The Wall Street Journal. Do the newspaper's print and digital operations not share a subscriber database? While we're at it, why has this “limited-time offer” been made for six weeks and counting? The New York Times isn't much better. I get it delivered to my doorstep seven days a week and am a registered user of the paper's website. Yet each time I log in, the site urges me to sign up for home delivery.

So-called privacy experts wring their hands almost daily about the amount of personal information being harvested by corporations for marketing purposes. But if those companies prove to be as inept at interpreting that data as my least-favorite hotel clerk, consumers have little to worry about.

Scott Donaton is CEO of Ensemble, the branded-entertainment arm of Interpublic's Mediabrands. The End (USER) is his consumer's-eye view of life.

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