An ongoing unresolved issue between company and salesperson is a complex one: Whose customer is it?

The salesperson always believes the customer is his and the company thinks the customer is theirs. However, in the absence of a non-compete agreement, it is the customer that decides where his loyalty resides.

A recent study completed by Professors Palmatier, Scheer and Steenkamp looked at the issue of customer loyalty and came to some interesting conclusions that translate in the insurance world as:

The customer is more loyal to the agent. The study found salesperson loyalty made customers more likely to buy the same product again from the salesperson, but owning a product from one company did not make the customer any more likely to be a repeat customer unless the salesperson was involved.

The agent can lose loyalty and the company can gain loyalty. Customer loyalty is for the agent to lose. Due to the interpersonal relationship created by the selling process, the bond between salesperson and customer is much higher than that between company and customer. However, there are things the company can do to increase company loyalty (or the salesperson can do to screw up his own).

  • The more interchangeable the salesperson looks, the greater the company loyalty. If an agent uses the carrier’s slide show, the carrier’s educational materials and bases his presentation on how wonderful the carrier is, the customer is more likely to consider the salesperson as a part of the carrier and feel their relationship is with the carrier.

  • Relationship-enhancing activities build loyalty for both, but ? The study says the salesperson is more effective than the company in building the customer relationship. There will be a more positive effect if the agent calls the customer to say hello than if a carrier service rep makes the call. But if the agent isn’t making the calls, and the same rep is calling from the carrier each time, a relationship to the carrier rep builds while the agent relationship suffers.

If there is a split between agent and carrier, both sides lose future sales, but the carrier loses more. If a carrier and agent compete for the customer’s attention for future sales, the agent will win more times than the carrier, but the customer will be less likely to do business with either side in the event of a split. Instead, the customer will find a new salesperson and new company.

Keeping the customer.The agent begins with greater customer loyalty attributed and can enhance this by appearing independent of the carrier at time of purchase, keeping in touch with the customer, and ensuring that all carrier-to-customer communications either flow through the agent or appear to be at the direction of the agent. The carrier can attempt to combat this loyalty by getting the agent to use only company-specific materials with the customer, having a specific contact rep at the carrier stay in touch with the customer, and building the relationship through value-enhancing techniques like newsletters and special offers. However, this will only increase loyalty to the carrier if the agent drops the ball.

To the old question of “whose customer is it?” the customer is answering they are the agent’s customer unless the agent breaks the bond.