Building customer loyalty: ten steps toward obtaining this valuable commodity

Pat O’Brien

Customer satisfaction is a common goal for park and recreation professionals. Corporate America, on the other hand, looks beyond customer satisfaction and seeks to build customer loyalty. The difference is key–a satisfied customer is obviously better than an unsatisfied one, but a loyal customer is one whose behavior supports your very existence.

To use the marketingese, customer loyalty means that you “secure desired behavioral outcomes” from your constituents. This isn’t as manipulative or nefarious as it might sound. In a parks and recreation setting, “desired behavioral outcomes” resulting from customer loyalty might mean:

* Park users being more inclined to help keep park facilities clean and safe for all users; thus, being less likely to litter, more likely to show respect toward other park and trail users, more likely to take steps toward minimizing graffiti, etc.

* Park users being more willing to pay parking or entrance fees at park facilities.

* Voters being willing to support bond measures or tax initiatives to enhance park and recreation facilities and programs.

* Members of the general public wanting to join your foundation or otherwise participate in advocacy and fund raising efforts.

* Park users being more inclined to volunteer.

* Citizens being willing to become an advocate when public support is needed for park-related programs.

Interest in this notion led the East Bay Regional Park District, headquartered in Oakland, Calif., to commission a research effort to investigate whether the agency should build “loyalty” components into its daily business. The study aimed to detail differences between customer satisfaction and loyalty in a parks and recreation setting.

Measuring Customer Satisfaction

The East Bay Regional Park District routinely receives high marks for customer satisfaction. Since 1988, when Strategy Research Institute conducted its first customer satisfaction survey on behalf of the district, the district’s satisfaction index has remained in the mid to high 80 percentile, and rankings have moved into the mid to high 90s in some categories.

The new, customer-loyalty research involved telephone surveys of just more than 400 people, evenly distributed among these groups:

* Members of the district’s Regional Parks Foundation.

* Customers who had reserved district camp sites in the recent past.

* Customers who had participated in one or more recreation or education programs sponsored by or through the district.

* Randomly selected park users from the district.

Therefore, not only were all of the respondents users of the district’s facilities and programs, but they included a mix of paying and non-paying customers.

In the customer-loyalty survey, when asked whether the parks, picnic areas, wilderness areas and trails pro vided by the district represent a valuable public resource for all East Bay Residents, 96 percent of the respondents agreed; in fact, 93 percent strongly agreed with this notion. Nearly everyone (98 percent) said these recreational resources improve the quality of life for those who reside in densely populated urban and suburban communities throughout the district’s two-county service area (Alameda and Contra Cost counties).

Usage of regional parks in the East Bay is extremely high among the four user groups tested; 92 percent of the respondents use the district’s parks and recreational facilities on a routine basis, and 82 percent routinely use the district’s regional trails.

Satisfaction with the quality of the East Bay regional parks and trails is also high; 88 percent of park users are satisfied, with nearly half of these being very satisfied. Slightly fewer (84, percent) are satisfied with the number of regional parks and trails.

The table below left shows rankings on various dimensions that made up the “satisfaction index” in the customer-loyalty research effort.

Measuring Customer Loyalty

To make it possible to test customer loyalty, the research design incorporated phenomena identified by academic research as reliable measures of loyalty These measures included:

* Credibility (Measure: District officials don’t exaggerate when they claim additional funds are needed.)

* Trust. (Measure: District officials are trustworthy and, through the years, have demonstrated high levels of integrity)

* Accountability (Measure: District officials are clear about how they plan to spend the money when asking voter support for additional funds).

* Voting support. (Measure: Agreement with the statement, “I almost always support a reasonable tax increase for the East Bay Regional Park District.”)

With these distinct measures of customer satisfaction and customer loyalty identified, we set out to test if high levels of each, or both, lead to desired behavioral outcomes. Toward this end, respondents were asked, “Would you support a modest tax increase in order to provide additional funding for ongoing maintenance and operations of the East Bay regional parks and trails?” The hypothesis, of course, was that high levels of customer satisfaction and customer loyalty would result in a “yes” vote for such a tax initiative. (Of course, the need to build customer loyalty among park users extends far beyond tax initiatives. All of us have many different stakeholders that we deal with on a daily basis. These include boards of directors, city councils, committees, employees, special interest groups that advocate the interests of their respective constituents and more.)

In short, the test found that while customer satisfaction isn’t significantly related to how one votes, customer loyalty (as captured in the measures listed on p. 51) is. Specifically, the more loyal respondents felt toward East Bay Regional Park District, the more likely they were to vote “yes” for the hypothetical tax initiative. (This article discusses the research process in broad terms. If you’re interested in learning the specifics of the survey discussed in this article, use the author contact information found at the end of this article.)

One interesting finding is that, while it’s true that overall customer satisfaction doesn’t predict voting behavior, several predictors of customer satisfaction are significantly related to voting behavior. That is, the differences between the determinants of customer satisfaction and customer loyalty are, in many cases, subtle. For the most part, customer loyalty subsumes customer satisfaction; in other words, by earning customers’ loyalty, you inherently make them satisfied. The table below left lists, from highest to lowest, the 9 strongest determinants of customer loyalty uncovered in the study. Because of the relationship between customer satisfaction and customer loyalty, the table includes elements originally included only in the customer-satisfaction ratings. As the table shows, maintaining accountability–spending tax dollars as promised–was the strongest predictor of customer loyalty.

Very or Somewhat


Past experiences when visiting or

using East Bay Regional Park District 98 percent

Present class or program attended 96 percent

Convenience, accessibility or

availability of parklands and facilities 92 percent

Cleanliness of parks and facilities 90 percent

Level of courtesy extended by

district employees 89 percent

Level of public safety in parks and on trails 82 percent

Key Components of Customer Loyalty

(in descending order)




Always support district

Public safety

Customer service

One’s past experience

Integrity of elected officials

and professional staff

Access to regional parks and trails

RELATED ARTICLE: 10 Steps Toward Building Customer Loyalty.

With the findings of the research in mind, we recommend taking the following 10 steps to gain your customers’ loyalty.

Step 1: Identify desired behavioral outcomes.

Make a list of specific behavioral outcomes that your agency is interested in among various constituent groups (park user groups, the community at large, special interest groups, your local electorate, etc.). Examples might include less litter and graffiti, more volunteerism, acceptance of the need to pay parking or entry fees, voter support for a pending bond measure or tax initiative, and so on.

Step 2: Review the predictors of customer loyalty.

Review the table of predictors at the left. Give the greatest attention to the top three determinants of loyalty: accountability, credibility and trust.

Step 3: Remain cognizant of and stay in touch with, your advocates and your opponents.

It’s imperative to remain cognizant of your advocates and your opponents alike; furthermore, stay in touch with these stakeholders as much as possible and speak to their collective interests and concerns.

For example, the fourth determinant of customer loyalty rests with those who support your agency over time. Thus, you should ask these people precisely what led them to becoming so supportive. Once armed with the answers to this critical question, you’ll be far better positioned to know what priorities to establish and where to invest your agency’s limited resources.

In East Bay Regional Park District’s case, maintaining public safety is of great concern to all four categories of park users tested; as a result, the district needs to remind its advocates of the steps it routinely takes to keep its regional parks, trails and recreational facilities safe for public use. The district can’t assume that these facts will remain in the forefront of its advocates’ collective mind.

At the same time, you should communicate with those who aren’t strong supporters. When you do this, you’ll discover specific areas that merit immediate attention. It’s highly likely that you’ll discover that people who aren’t strong supporters of your agency are unaware of the very facts that led the first group to become strong supporters. Once you have access to this form of intelligence, you can take specific action that will, over time, enhance customer loyalty.

Step 4: Use the intelligence secured from steps 2 and 3 to help guide policy-level decision making.

Clearly, you’ll already be aware of much of the intelligence you secure from communicating with your strongest supporters and non-supporters. Nonetheless, you undoubtedly will become sensitized to certain facts that will be instructive and even surprising to you. This form of intelligence can be used to develop public policy that’s truly responsive to the collective desires, perceptions and needs of the various constituent groups and organizations that your agency was formed to serve.

Step 5: Avoid the “trust me” factor.

Whenever possible, document the need when establishing policy or addressing the financial concerns of your agency. This process of documenting all of your facts through an objective mechanism will eliminate the “trust me” factor when dealing with your colleagues and superiors, thus helping you to contribute to the agenda in ways that might otherwise not be possible.

Step 6: Don’t exaggerate.

Take care not to be perceived as exaggerating when discussing publicly the needs and challenges facing your agency.

Step 7: Be clear about how you’re investing your agency’s resources.

Be clear to your constituent base precisely how your agency is investing the funds within its authority. Create opportunities to share this information with key constituent groups whose members have a vested interest in such matters. Stay in touch with the community at large and with specific stakeholder groups; make it your business to communicate with these groups and organizations specifically about topics of concern to their respective agendas.

Step 8: Keep your employees cognizant of their role in building loyalty.

One common sense finding from the customer-loyalty research effort is that a key determinant of customer loyalty is customer service. Further, the importance of all agency employees doing their job well is made salient in two additional determinants of customer loyalty: the impact of one’s personal experiences while using park facilities, and respondents’ collective perceptions of the level of integrity of the district’s elected officials and professional staff.

As obvious as these findings may be, share them with your employees. Indeed, specific steps should be taken to reinforce with your employees what they can and should be doing to provide the best possible customer service possible, thereby maximizing the likelihood that your agency will continue to realize its mission.

Step 9: Act on what’s important to your constituents.

It’s imperative that you act on what’s important to your agency’s overall constituency, as well as various stakeholder groups and organizations.

East Bay Regional Park District’s model, for example, shows how providing public access to the regional parklands within its domain leads to building loyalty to the district. This can have huge implications as elected officials make decisions about the balance between providing public access and dedicating certain properties to permanent open space, for example.

Whether your agency has the resources available to commission a study similar to the one discussed in this article, it’s essential that specific steps be taken to remain cognizant of the collective perceptions and desires of the majority of your constituents, rather than allowing yourself to become embroiled in the agenda items of a limited few.

Step 10: Build in an annual review of your agency’s business practices, using the above nine steps as one of your measures.

It’s far too easy to get caught up in the pressures of the moment and, as a result, lose sight of the fundamental determinants of what has led to your agency’s success. One step toward not falling into this trap is to build into your routine a formal annual review of your agency’s business practices; one element of this review would be to revisit the above nine steps to make certain that there aren’t additional measures that will allow your agency to go beyond traditional customer satisfaction to enjoying the benefits inherent to attaining customer loyalty.

Pat O’Brien is general manager of East Bay Regional Park District, in Oakland, Calif. G. Gary Manross, Ph.D., is chair of Strategy Research Institute, in Fullerton, Calif For further information about the process discussed in this article, contact O’Brien at 510-635-0138, Ext. 2000 or, or Manross at 800-224-7608 or

COPYRIGHT 2002 National Recreation and Park Association

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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