Monthly Archives: September 2012

Customer Service. Strategy or culture?

Customer Service is the great differentiator for your brand. Competitors may offer a similar product or service, but the way you treat people—the way you make people feel within the brand experience—will define the brand. No exceptions.

There are two important mandates for customer service:

The first is the experience you intend to share with your customers—the promise you’ve made. This is rooted in your strategy; fail here and you’re doomed. (But that’s a post for another day)

The second is the experience you provide when things don’t go as planned. The way you treat people in the middle of chaos—chaos you’ve caused or chaos thrust upon you—will have a tremendous impact on the brand story, perhaps even the most impact. Success here is rooted in your culture.

When the shit hits the fan—and it will at some point—we expect the brand to understand and honour the relationship we shared in the good times. We expect the brand to honour our needs BEFORE they worry about their own. We expect the brand to deliver the experience when it matters to us, not only when it’s convenient for them. And we expect the brand to know more about solving our problem that we do; we expect them to be prepared.

Customer Service, for all the tools and techniques and plans and training, is about treating human beings with respect. Respect for the promises you’ve made; respect for moment you’re in; respect for the variables that make each of us unique. It’s an art, not a science. It’s in your culture.

Anyone who has seen my Essential Brand Strategy presentation knows of my admiration for WestJet, a Canadian based airline that focuses on a fun, friendly travel experience.  A few days ago they lost my luggage.

Their customer service culture, not just a problem-recovery strategy, made all the difference.

  • I never felt like Westjet lost my bag because of sloppy staff. It was simply an error, not negligence or apathy.
  • They apologized first. They were genuinely disappointed—not in themselves or their team, but the situation. I never felt like they weren’t 100% positive they would find it, and I always believed they were in control.
  • They compensated me without hesitation, even though they promptly found the bag. The employee recognized their team dropped the ball on the relationship—the flight—and accepted responsibility.

Luggage gets lost. It’s an inconvenient reality of air travel, and like many people, I have lost luggage with other airlines. While the other airlines stopped short of blaming me, there was always the impression that my action somehow broke their system, or that my need to have my bags was now an inconvenience for the airline—a disruption of their normal duties. The report, the solution, the reconnection—all met with just enough contempt to break any promise of friendly skies. Perhaps they loved to fly, but dealing with luggage problems was simply out of scope.

WestJet didn’t just retrieve my luggage; they did it within the experience I expect.

Now, I don’t want to belittle their business model, but good customer service isn’t exactly a secret formula for success. But with WestJet, it’s not really a formula at all.

Their approach to customer service is rooted in a culture that genuinely cares for their customer. It’s in their brand. It’s not a marketing tool; it’s an HR obsession. WestJet doesn’t train nice people to do things right—they hire awesome people and give them permission to do the right things. It shows.

Customer service is never just a strategy. When it is your culture, it is your brand.

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The Rules of Brand Strategy, Part Six

People love stories. It’s not something we learn or develop as sophisticated consumers; human beings are hardwired to respond to stories that inspire us, challenge us, entertain us, empower us and comfort us. Stories that engage us matter to us.

Human beings don’t respond nearly as well to facts or statements. We think we do—we want to believe we are logical beings capable of making rational, practical choices—but we aren’t motivated by a fact until we consider it within the bigger context of a story.

We need to know how we feel about the facts before we decide if a fact is important.

A story is not a single message, nor is it just a series of facts. The story defines the relationship people have with the facts. A story provides the context for the facts, and the story we believe is how we know how we feel about the facts. Those feelings anchor the relationship, and the relationship matters.

People won’t connect with one message, but they will understand one story.

Since the early days of brand strategy, common wisdom emphasizes “one message”—one single message that occupies the mind of the consumer. This basic philosophy—correct, but too simplistic—undermines the complexity of the relationship people will have with the brand. If you focus only on one message, you risk bombarding your stakeholders without engaging them. It’s not about you—it’s about how they feel when you’re part of their experience.

Your brand is deeper than one single message. Your brand is one story—one complex, evolving idea shared through simple narratives which capture, celebrate and reward the human condition. Your brand is the story that puts facts into context.

Facts can be copied; stories are unique. Facts can only be absolute; stories are fluid. Facts change; stories evolve. We learn facts; we love stories.

A great brand strategy is built around one shared story. It invites people to share in the greater vision by experiencing the story, often in a variety of different ways, and continues to reward everyone with new adventures, new ideas, and new opportunities.

Your brand is one story—one awesome story—with many engaging chapters.

The Rules of Brand Strategy, Part Five

Being “The Best Kept Secret” is not a strategy. Unless being a secret is your strategy.

There is something humble and charming about cause-driven and underdog brands. In the drive to be distinct from the dreaded “corporate brand”, they consciously avoid of the trappings of commercial success—bold, consistent identities; clear, consistent messaging; confident, consistent experiences. Or worse, these organizations disrupt and prevent anything that resembles a brand plan so that they (and their peers) won’t feel like they “sold out”.

Yet these hardworking people—more passionately committed to their business and cause than most commercial enterprises—still feel entitled to the same attention and success of their profit driven peers.

Awareness isn’t relative to the passion and purpose of your organization. Awareness is driven by proud, focused communication.

The only way an experience is of any brand value is if I know it’s an experience with you. There are numerous opportunities for touch points, and all the different senses come into play, but if I don’t know which brand is responsible for the experience, an opportunity is lost. If you purposefully avoid identifying the experience, your investment is wasted. And it’s terribly unfortunate if I believe your positive experience is actually connected to a different brand.

In a misguided belief that corporations are evil merely because they strive for profit, investing in the best practices and identity standards that are simply par for the course in corporate world are often shunned. The “best kept secret” might be a cool theory, but it’s a lousy brand strategy.

A great brand strategy thrives on awareness, driven by distinct, compelling, and clear communication. Consistency matters; time matters; frequency & repetition matters; being engaging matters; being bold matters.

A vivid identity matters.