As a consumer, we’re all faced with questioning our loyalty to brands and products as time progresses. Whether a new product is released, or we experience poor customer service, we ask ourselves if we could be happier if we take our business elsewhere. For example, I’ve always had a crush on the iPhone, but I am devoted to my BlackBerry on Verizon, based on all my positive experiences with them. However, I am going to seriously consider getting an iPhone if Verizon picks it up. It’s no surprise that consumers are faced with these types of questions everyday.

About two weeks ago, I was faced with a similar situation when I had several poor online experiences with my favorite grocery store. If you live anywhere around the Mason-Dixon Line, you’ve probably heard of the food market chain Harris Teeter.  I immediately became a fan when I moved to North Carolina over three years ago. It’s hard not to like their wellness program, numerous fundraising events, education efforts and of course, their fine wines club. To me, they offer a lot more than just a place to buy butter and milk. I went to their website last week to sign up for their email program, something I had surprisingly not done yet. This is where things started to get ugly. I completed the 3-page registration form and thought I was good to go. Immediately after my account was created, I wasn’t able to login because my email address wasn’t recognized. So, then I clicked on the link to answer my “Challenge” question. This was also incorrect. (Side note – I’m pretty sure I know my mom’s maiden name). At this point, I was starting to get frustrated. So, I went to the Contact Us page to send an email asking for my “proper” login information. Once I landed on this page, I was immediately faced with this warning: “We are experiencing a very high volume of emails. We will respond as soon as we possibly can. Thank you for your patience.” No wonder… My frustration got the best of me and I fired off a quick message asking for assistance with my newly created account.

As days have passed, I have yet to receive any type of communication from them in response to the message I sent. I realize they had the courtesy of placing a “very high volume of emails” notification on their website, but this is absurd. In my opinion, I shouldn’t have to scour the internet and look through numerous social media platforms to find somebody at Harris Teeter to listen, or respond to me. The sad thing is, we as consumers are faced with these annoyances everyday. This got me thinking… As a customer, how “loyal” are we really? When does a brand cross the line and force us to take our business elsewhere? According to the Dictionary, loyal is “characterized by or showing faithfulness to commitments, vows, allegiance, or obligations.” Obviously my experiences above were nothing life changing and I still consider myself an advocate of Harris Teeter, but that doesn’t mean Joe down the street feels the same way.

At the end of the day, the marketers at Harris Teeter need to realize there’s a difference between perception and reality, both from the company side and the consumer side. The easiest way to mend this gap is through communication and they seem to be lacking that already. Yes, they know I am a loyal fan (fair perception), but the reality is, I’m bummed out by their online presence. Perception may not be reality, but it drives feelings and actions by the customer. My advice for Harris Teeter is to take the time to learn about their customers and LISTEN, because if they don’t, our perceptions going to become their problem.

Besides the obvious answer of communication, there are other tactics that Harris Teeter should adopt to avoid these types of issues in the future. For starters, they need to fix their subscription process. How are they ever going to be able to increase their subscriber base when the 3-page opt-in form doesn’t even work? Often times, a sign-up page is the first impression that a potential customer has with a company; this needs to be addressed immediately. Secondly, they need to work on their customer service. I don’t expect them to know by my email address that I’m a loyal customer, but I do expect them to respond in a timely fashion. We all know that it costs money to lose potential and current subscribers and these issues need to be assessed. Companies work very hard on creating a consistent brand with consumers, but the online voice shouldn’t be too different than the in-store experience.

I don’t have a concrete answer to this, but I can say that my positive experiences with Harris Teeter far outweigh the negative and I’m not going anywhere. So I ask, is there a line that can be drawn through marketing efforts, or lack there of, to push us faithful folks away…?