Before FICO was founded in the 1950s, it wasn't uncommon for a banker to deny you a loan because he didn't like the way you looked.

Today, we've all accepted the notion of a "credit score." That's because everyone's score is derived from a universal, impartial system that uses hard data to gauge our creditworthiness -- like whether we pay our bills on time, whether we have outstanding debts, and so on.

The system is far from perfect, but for the last 60+ years, it has proven to be an effective, forward-looking metric to help financial institutions everywhere better predict a borrower's future behavior.

Better yet, it's transparent. We can access our number in real-time, and use it to guide our financial decisions. Plus, we all have a pretty good idea of what behaviors make our score go up or down. Financial institutions, likewise, have a fair, apples-to-apples way of discriminating among borrowers without fear of retaliation.

Here's a radical question: I consider myself a loyal customer at a few retailers across the U.S. So why can't I access my "customer score" to see exactly how valuable of a customer I really am to them?

Wait, what's a customer score?

Today, customers have no idea where they stand relative to other customers. Sure, we may be racking up loyalty points and have a general sense of how much we spend, but there's no way for us to really keep score of our own value to the companies we frequent.

And that's frustrating. Because when you know your status, you behave differently -- and you understand why a firm may treat you better or worse that others. As a prime example, think about airlines. As much as we dislike them for a variety of reasons, at least you recognize why some people get upgraded to first class while you're stuck in coach. You understand the decision and have a good sense of what you' d have to do to get the same special treatment.

A customer score with each retailer would give us, as consumers, a meaningful number to help us better comprehend our actual value to a company. Our customer scores would be as trusted, transparent, and actionable as our credit scores.

And to retailers? A customer score system would be like having a magic wand that would give them the power to see the future value of every single customer who walked through the door, whenever they wanted. It would be a game-changer.

Loyalty Programs Are Backward

The closest thing we have today? Loyalty programs. The problem is that most don't go far enough in conveying each customer's true value to the company. Here's why:

1 | Tiers are too coarse. Sure, you might have reached the Silver tier in Plenti's loyalty program, but what does that really mean? Whether you're on the higher or lower end of the Silver tier doesn't matter. Plenti just lumps you in with all the other Silvers, and there's no way to distinguish yourself as a better customer than the next guy.

2 | Your status doesn't really reflect your value. In many cases, your status is derived from activities that aren't necessarily as indicative as they could be in determining how valuable you'll be to the company over time. For example: Before Starbucks changed its loyalty program in April 2016 from points earned to dollars spent, customers found all sorts of ways to game the system -- like asking the barista to ring up their scone and coffee as separate transactions. Why should these customers be ranked higher than someone who actually spends more? (Bravo to Starbucks for having the guts to make this radical shift.)

3 | Loyalty programs are backward-looking. Think about it: in many cases they're called "rewards programs," which summarizes the fact that they reflect the past rather than project to the future. Let's go back to the credit score: its goal is to determine your creditworthiness in the future -- it's not a reward for past activities. The customer score should be forward-looking for the same reason; it should capture the number and size of purchases that you're likely to make in the future. This would make it a more useful and meaningful metric for the retailer and the customer alike.

A Glimpse into the Future

In the near future, I predict the "customer score" will become a new organizing principle for retailers everywhere. It will function as a new linchpin in the evolution of the entire company -- guiding next steps, future product initiatives, customer acquisition efforts, sales strategies, and much more. For example: Supply chain managers would no longer be measured on units sold; they'd be judged on the value of customers who buy the products and the impact that those products have on their future value. Customer service reps would no longer live or die by a murky "satisfaction" score; instead, they'd be motivated by whether they successfully elevated a customer's future value to the company. The marketing team would stop worrying about how cheaply they could acquire low-value customers and instead experiment with campaigns designed to impact future value. Front-line sales associates would no longer be trained to just shake down as many people as they can. Instead, they may experiment with value-building perks at the checkout -- like offering a more lenient return policy to those with higher customer scores.

A step in the right direction

As a long-time advocate of genuine "customer centric" strategies, I get to talk with all sorts of companies who are experimenting with unique ways to identify and reward their high-value customers. To do this, they're starting to look at metrics like Customer Lifetime Value (CLV), which are more granular, meaningful, and forward-looking -- in sharp contrast to coarse, meaningless, and backward-looking metrics such as loyalty points.

As more retailers start to catch on to the power of measuring future value, we may all see a massive shift take place in the next 5-to-10 years. Retailers will no longer be fearful of treating customers differently, and CLV will be the only metric that matters.

And as for consumers? We'll all finally know where we stand, and what we need to do to step up higher.

Published on: Oct 17, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.