Monday, September 19, 2011

Customer Loyalty Chronicles, Vol. I – Roland

Hugely successful companies often boast about their "secret sauce."  They will cite particular ways they manage or recruit their people, their unique methods of quality control or their brilliant Super Bowl advertisements. Successful companies surely have a secret sauce and the greatest companies rise above with long term customer loyalty.  

When customers love the product so much that they are passionate about the company, that is an irreplaceable asset.  Apple sets the bar for its ability to generate long term customer loyalty.  But, there are other companies that have secured long term customer loyalty.

Roland Corporation is a company that I feel doesn't get near the attention it deserves for its success in this realm.   The Japanese manufacturer of electronic musical instruments has been a market leader for over 35 years, supplies major artists as well as amateurs worldwide and has developed the most devoted following in the industry.  In studying Roland, I have observed three elements that have driven its long term customer loyalty.

Innovation.  Roland is obsessively innovative, in ways that might even lead some to at first question it.  Apple is widely revered for being able to create demand with supply.  When the iPod came out, many said, "Why do we need this exactly?"  Today, everyone has one.  Same for Roland's electronic drums. An oddity at first, today they are common because of their flexibility and reliability.

Passion.  An extraordinarily driven and passionate founder seems to make a world of difference when it comes to customer focus.  Roland's was Ikutaro Kakehashi, who was orphaned at age two, spent four years of his early life in a hospital with a protracted illness and started his career as a watch repairman.  The love Mr. Kakehashi has for music and the desire he has to build the best musical instruments in the world is clear in his products and in his moving personal memoir.  If you're interested in an off the beaten path business book, I highly recommend it.  It's as if Mr. Kakehashi is still obsessed with making sure each and every customer who comes by his little store is delighted with his work. 

Freshness.  Roland is able to stay fresh with long time customers and gain new ones by keeping up with emerging trends in music recording and performance.  Among the ways it does this is through promotion of its relationships with young stars, such as Lady Gaga.  Decades after starting his company, Mr. Kakehashi remains a dreamer, writing in his book that Roland is looking at "turning imagination into sounds, images, and even shapes, then combining them to produce new solutions."

Long term customer loyalty is a key element of corporate success. Companies that are able to get there, like Roland Corporation, are great guides to achieving it.

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