You may not remember this, but you dealt with the core principles of customer loyalty at an early age: during grade school gym class. More specifically, while choosing teams for kickball.

Let me explain.

Two captains, probably older “gym stars,” stood up in front of the group choosing sides among you and your friends. You secretly hoped you were chosen for a certain side versus the other due to the quality of players or because bigger kids were on the team or maybe your friends were already on that team so you were more comfortable, or maybe one team was just nicer than the other. Mostly, you just didn’t want to be picked last. There was always a feeling your team would trounce the other in the game if all these scenarios were stacked in your favor. You wished teams would always be built this way.

Similarly, in a business, the owner strives for that euphoric moment when all the right reasons are aligned and the customer happily chooses his or her services before the competitor’s. “There is a desire to repeat those experiences – most likely not only because of the utility of what was delivered, but because of how you were related to, treated and made to feel,” says Jeanne Bliss, customer experience expert and author of “I Love You More Than My Dog.”

We strive for this moment, but sometimes it doesn’t always happen. Sometimes, the kickball game didn’t turn out as expected, suffering a big loss your friends might tease you about for weeks. Geoffery James, writer of “Sales Source on,” and author of the soon-to-be published, “Business Without the Bullsh*t,” notes “when customers leave for other vendors, it’s always your fault. Therefore, you’d best understand why they leave and what you must do to keep your existing customers loyal.” This understanding can lead to better customer retention and a return to the happy customer.

So why do customers choose another business over yours? Returning to the grade school kickball game, it is easy to see if your team had a chance or not. A customer’s loyalty follows the same principles.

They’re nicer

The other team was nicer. James explains, “There is nothing that kills customer loyalty faster than treating a customer like crap when they really need your support.”

Treating a customer in a way that leaves a sour experience in their mind damages your brand and begins an uphill battle to reestablish a good experience with your brand. That uphill battle can be hard to overcome and can come from something as little as a rude tone in a conversation. Keeping customers is as easy as being nice. Sounds as easy as kindergarten? It is.

They play better

The other team plays better. Again James demonstrates with an all-too-common scenario, “If I’ve seen it once, I’ve seen it a thousand times: a company with a great product decides it can make a little more profit by outsourcing manufacturing to China or some other place where cutting corners is a way of life,” he says.

Services that were once your staple have been reengineered and reorganized, and although they feel and look the things they once were, now they are cheaper reproductions. And customers can tell. Nobody wants to be on a team that doesn’t know how to play or forgot the rules. There is no chance of winning with that team.

They care more

The other team cares about you. Bliss uses an example of a company making plastic cups: one company simply concentrates on the cup and another thinks about the ideal end-user experience and works backwards to engineer the cup.

“Product development solutions made on auto-pilot are turned on their ear when customer needs, emotions and desires become the inspiration for product and service development,” she says. “Within the beloved companies, their curiosity for understanding customer emotions in every interaction informs decision-making.”

Companies become beloved, using Bliss’ terminology, and rise in brand awareness when they put their customers first. Customers reward those loyal brands by their choices and recommendations. Who wouldn’t want to play on the team where all their friends were eager and waiting for them to be on the team as well?

In practice, these loyalty principles will further your communication and relationship with your customers. They will help retain and build customer retention.

But James adds one more point. “To do this, it’s not enough to be in constant communication with your customers,” he says. “You must anticipate where your customers will be in a year or two and respond to that reality long before the customers arrive there.”

Be where your customers will be. Be there before they know they need you. Be chosen first.

Nicole Wisniewski is a 15-year green industry veteran. She is senior project manager in The Davey Tree Expert Co.’s marketing/corporate communications department. Reach her at [email protected].