Turning Shoppers Into Advocates

There are five key steps that retailers must take in order to effectively deploy their loyal customers as a defense against dangerous legislative and regulatory actions.



There are plenty of reasons to build and maintain a customer database. Analyzing buying patterns allows you to adjust inventory accordingly and more effectively target your marketing efforts. Tracking sentiments on social media can alert you to public relations issues and positive opportunities. And, of course, anything that helps establish a relationship that goes beyond the immediate transaction can help to promote loyalty that transcends price and convenience.

But there’s another reason that many pet businesses don’t consider: Your most loyal customers are the best people to tell your story to lawmakers.

This may be counterintuitive when facing legislation that could have a profound impact on your business, but it’s true. And the reason is simple: we tend to trust those whom we consider impartial judges. When we can associate with the person giving the review, we’re even more likely to put stock in their assessment.

In the 2015 edition of its annual Trust Barometer, global marketing firm Edelman measured consumers’ trust of information received from a variety of sources. While messages from “companies I use” rated highly, neither company employees nor executives were considered especially trustworthy. On the other hand, the single most trusted source identified in the survey was “my friends and family.”

The phenomenon also forms the basis of online review aggregators. Whether looking at customer reviews on Amazon or restaurant ratings on Yelp, crowd-sourced opinions have eclipsed experts’ assessments as the most relied-upon measure of quality and performance. In these cases, the people giving their opinions are almost always total strangers, yet their opinions carry weight.

In the case of elected officials, there’s an additional reason to enlist your customers’ assistance. Your customers are, more often than not, their constituents. If enough constituents weigh in for or against something that seemed uncontroversial and easy, it can encourage lawmakers to look at the issue more thoughtfully.

Of course, it’s a big change to go from passively receiving the occasional coupon to writing letters to the editor or testifying in front of elected officials. It is, after all, asking them to give a very public endorsement of your business in the face of pending legislation. The following steps can help smooth the process:

Step 1: Understand Your List
How were these names acquired, and what information do you have about them? Customers who have chosen to participate in a loyalty program are likely to be far more receptive—and better able to provide better anecdotes—than people on a listing of your company’s fans on social media sites. 

Step 2: Get in Touch
If you wait until you are facing a legislative crisis to reach out to your list, you’re not very likely to get many positive responses. Before there’s a need, take a look at your existing contact database. When was the last time you sent out a message that wasn’t a sales pitch?

Step 3: Start Small
Many people are intimidated by the legislative process. They don’t feel prepared to address political issues directly. You can help alleviate these fears by tasking your list with occasional challenges—submitting a letter to the editor of a local paper, for example—and then tracking the results.

Step 4: Refine Your List
You don’t need all of your customers to show up every time an issue comes along. Rather than blasting everyone on your initial list each time, create a second list focused on those who are likely to be willing to speak on your behalf either in writing or in person. Save those big blasts for “all hands on deck” situations.

Step 5: Preach to the Choir
It is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that everyone is as aware of legislation affecting our industry as we are. Unfortunately, that is rarely the case. Before you can even hope to have supportive customers singing your praises to legislators, you need to make sure your supportive customers know what’s going on. Inform them of key details such as bill numbers and sponsors’ names as well as key messages.

The goal is to tap into these ranks of satisfied customers and to have them share their anecdotal experiences with your company in a public setting. Their impartiality can’t necessarily undo any negative pictures that have been painted, but they can certainly offer an alternative (and equally valid) viewpoint. 

If your company doesn’t maintain a database of customers through a loyalty program, sales records or digital engagements, there’s no time like the present to begin. Then, when you’re in need of support that lawmakers are loathe to discount, you’ll know just whom to talk to.

Mike Bober is president and CEO of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council. For more information on ways to engage the public and your elected officials, contact him at mbober@pijac.org.


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