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Where does loyalty come from?

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Gift Economy and Loyalty Programs

This is a tale about where loyalty comes from. It involves making a garbage man very sad.

The second home we purchased was left with all sorts of furniture by the previous owners. We called them and put the furniture in the yard. But they never returned and their furniture sat in our new yard for too long. Rain and sun and more rain—these people never came.

GarbageBurner-3-08112014

But Ace Solid Waste came. And they took it all for free. And they won our loyalty. Is this a commercial for Ace Solid Waste? Maybe, although I am not employed or directed or in any communication with Ace Solid Waste. In fact, I pay them. On time (mostly).

Their gift of removal (you might say Ace blessed us with the absence of a soggy couch and other wet furniture), is easily and quickly remembered by Mrs. Kirkistan and I, still, to this day.

In The Gift (NY: Vintage Books, 1983), Lewis Hyde described how a gift economy works: people give gifts to each other as a sort of payment. But not in the transactional way most of us expect today. One gift was not given in exchange for another gift. No, Hyde described how gifts move on. Or, you might say, moved forward. The gift you gave me, I gave to someone else, and so on in an endless cycle of giving. In the gift economies Hyde cited, trade was greased by gifts.

Of course, gifts carry with them an obligation: a sort of unwritten sense that I must pay this back, or “I owe you one.” Gifts also carry a sense of relationship. We give gifts to friends or relatives. It is a way of saying, “Hey buddy!” or “I’m thinking about you.”

One long-time strategy for business is to give gifts to woo loyalty. I buy plumbing supplies at Beisswengers because they are patient with my simplistic plumbing questions. They provide answers along with the new drain. The answers are even more valuable than the drain. All sorts of free apps become so indispensable we finally buy them. We frequent the vendor who gives away their knowledge.

A competing garbage gentleman stopped at our door with an offer of savings. When I said I wasn’t interested, he probed:

Why?

I told him my story of the furniture that wouldn’t go away and how Ace helped us out.

Will you be in debt to Ace for the rest of your life?

And here is the surprise: as I listened to my own words, I wondered at the strength of the feeling and the depth of loyalty for this good deed done to us—and the longevity. Maybe our retelling of our furniture story kept giving fresh reasons to continue.

Maybe.

And so the man of seeming excellent garbage-manship walked away sadly.

So that’s one way to build loyalty: help someone with a need. And as you help, try not to see the gift as a transaction.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

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