Tag Archives: Customers

Your brand beyond your customer.

If you’re only focusing on customers, you’re missing a huge audience for your brand.

Avid readers of my blog know that I almost always use stakeholder to define your audience. I am pretty sure people read customer in those sentences—and are frustrated that I make it too complicated or buzz-wordy—but there is a good reason to think beyond the transaction when developing your brand strategy.

Your customers are only one of five distinct stakeholder groups that are influenced by your brand. And I am not convinced they are even the most important one in your brand strategy.

1. Customers are indeed important. To paraphrase Drucker, without them you simply would have a reason to exist. As a stakeholder audience, customers include anyone who is willing to trade their money, time or resources to take advantage of what you have to offer. They buy your product, support your cause, volunteer their support or contribute their skills. They are engaged.

Customers use your brand as an expression of their personal choice; you become a badge of honour in their lifestyle. They expect you to reward their loyalty with consistency & integrity of the promise, and trust that you will continue to feed the relationship with innovation and relevance.

Don’t let your brand strategy stop with customers.

2. Employees are next in this list, but when developing your brand strategy, I suggest this is the critical group. As a stakeholder audience, employees are the people so committed to your brand vision they want to create the experience for others. They enthusiastically bring their skills, expertise and passion to move the organization forward.

Employees—and volunteers who show up to help—are personally committed to delivering the brand experience, sharing the cause and their abilities to make the promise possible. This is the group that embodies the phrase  “authentic”, so consider this group first. When everyone else is judging or borrowing from your culture, this is the group who define it.

3. Shareholders are a different bunch. These are people who are intimately connected to the brand (through financial investment or personal relationship) and choose to be associated with the brand, yet they are not responsible for delivering the brand promise. Or perhaps these people are the benefactors of your organization, receiving help and services.

As a stakeholder audience, shareholders have to believe in the tangible and intangible value of the mission and the capacity of the organization to meet its promises. Shareholders support innovation and leadership’s efforts to pursue the vision, holding the operations accountable for decisions and activities along the way.

4. Vendors make it possible. Vendors supply you with the array of goods or services that you will need so that you can deliver your promise. As a stakeholder audience, vendors share in the commitment to deliver the brand experience. Their compromise is your compromise; their ingenuity is your value; they are your best and worst.

Vendors are links in the chain of the brand experience and share in the integrity of your brand promise. They work with you in your innovation, sharing the push to offer an exceptional experience.

5. A community embraces the brand. As a stakeholder group, the community has the choice to integrate the brand into the local culture, and most importantly, holds the brand accountable for the promises it makes.

Communities make it possible for a brand to flourish and prosper.

Most brand strategy focuses on the customer message first & foremost, hoping that other stakeholders will be able to infer their role in the mission; strategy by osmosis. It’s understandable why it matters—every organization needs to attract customers or supporters just to exist—and why it feels most important during the development of the strategy. But this approach runs the risk of being merely a temporary marketing tactic instead of a defined brand strategy.

Strong brands know that they exist well beyond the customer. Great brand strategies focus on all the stakeholder experiences, engaging everyone in a shared vision.

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Customer Service. A Relationship Strategy.

There is no other element of your brand strategy that will have as much impact on people’s perception of your brand as your attention to customer service. Having an relationship-centric Customer Service Strategy—preparing for the human experience you share with everyone—is where the companies that understand relationships will far exceed those who think success in their business is based only on good products at a fair price.

Customer Service is not about simply moving a product from your hands into your customers’. It’s not about bending to a person’s every whim in some misguided belief that they are “always right.” It’s certainly not about rigourously maximizing the value out of every person.

Customer Service is about being actively responsible for the experience your brand promises. It’s a human connection that moves the experience from a transaction to a relationship. Customer Service—the way you make people feel within the brand experience—is the last great differentiator.

Strong brands define their version of customer service well beyond kind and helpful. They have a service culture that is integral to their strategy.

The attitude and language chosen; the speed and customization offered; the luxury or automation desired—there are plenty of choices made by leaders. There is no right or wrong, just traits and tactics that must be consistent with the brand. However, there are three factors to Customer Service that are non-negotiable, and these are at the root of your strategy.

1. Acknowledgement: When someone decides that they want to be your customer, they need to be confident that you are aware of their desire. No one should ever feel unwelcome or ignored.

An empty reception desk; an unresponsive email system; a locked door; distracted staff; faded signs; broken instructions; quiet social media; …these are all indications that you simply don’t care about the customer standing right in front of you, ready to engage. Every customer must feel that you are interested in their business, and you believe the relationship is important.  How are you ensuring every customer knows that they are welcome and valued?

2. Communicate: It is your responsibility to guide your customers through the experience you’ve promised, anticipating their needs to their advantage and in your favour. Prepare your customers for their own success all along the journey.

Clear signs are helpful. Smart staff who understand the whole process and the customer mindset are critical. Milestone markers, easy options and ‘goal-post’ reminders reinforce to everyone that you are paying attention, and you care about the outcome. Systems that move their experience forward—not just the transaction or data collection—are the secret. How are you sharing your expectations and recommendations of the brand experience?

3. Respect: All relationships are built on respect for each other. A customer must always feel they are trusted, safe, and that their side of the value equation is important.

Neither the routine and familiarity of your efforts, nor the excuse of a broken system, diminishes your commitment to an experience. Safety isn’t an option, nor should it be treated with anything less than diligence. Respect for rules, respect for details your customers are willing to share, and respect for your commitment to value is vital. How are you demonstrating respect for the relationship you share with your customers?

A great product is important—no amount of pleasant customer service is going to make up poor value—but it’s the relationship that is front and centre with an amazing brand experience.

These three elements are so vital to customer service—acknowledge your customers, communicate with your customers, respect your customers—that it almost seems silly to need to mention them. But we can trace most customer service issues back to a breakdown in one of these roots. It’s not enough that you intend to be kind and helpful; customer service must be rooted in a strategy that supports your brand.

With customer service, the relationship is the brand experience.

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.

Be good to be great

Success is found in a simple equation: a good business model plus a strong brand strategy will thrive.

As part of that equation, I will be the first person to tell you how important it is to have a solid brand strategy. I believe any organization in any industry can benefit from being proactive and strategic with their brand. No exceptions.

I will also tell you that a good business model could still be successful without the support of a compelling brand strategy. As much as it pains me to admit it, there are plenty of organizations that succeed regardless of how clumsy, disorganized or just plain bad their brand appears. The team works hard (probably harder than they have to), and they are able to hold enough relationships to support a business. It’s not pretty, and it’s not easy, but it works for them.

The opposite, however, is not true. Even the best brand execution won’t save an organization with a poor model behind their operations. It doesn’t matter how much attention or love or enthusiasm the brand generates; if the organization can’t function effectively, it’s doomed. If the organization doesn’t generate interest and deliver value—whether that’s revenue, donors, supporters, or attention—it simply isn’t sustainable.

While a good business may survive with a weak brand, a poorly run organization will fail, even with the best brand ideas. Always. You have to have a good model to have success with a great brand. No exceptions.

Kodak is expected to file for bankruptcy in the coming weeks. Kodak is an amazing brand; the phrase “a Kodak moment” is synonymous with moments so special they are worthy of a fabulous photo. With a solid brand and a lucrative business model—for many years they had a virtual monopoly on film production—the company was a classic power brand; the choice of consumers, a desired employer, an industry innovator and a leader within its community.

Kodak had the chance to stay relevant and evolve the brand experience, but they missed the opportunity. Love for the brand couldn’t ignore the technology shift that was eating away at the existing business model. The brand still holds a place in everyone’s heart—it’s an American icon—but the business model eroded and has fallen apart.

A strong brand strategy can evolve with the business model. A smart model can evolve around what innovation delivers and what the market demands. A good model is at the foundation of a great brand.