Tag Archives: Relationships

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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The Curse of Exceeding Expectations

The concept of Exceeding Expectations is charming wisdom that hijacks good strategy.

If your brand sets up the expectation that you will exceed my expectations, then you must consistently jump over a bar that you’ve set impossibly high, and keeps getting higher. It’s a vague promise with no true meaning—the ultimate failure of brand strategy. Good luck with that.

Trump Hotel Toronto expected to exceed my expectations. Since it was also their promise to me, I expected to have my expectations exceeded. So when they exceeded my regular hotel expectations, they actually only met my expectations for their experience. They didn’t exceed my expectations because I expected them to exceed my expectations.

Confused? Here’s another way to look at it. They bought into the mantra without respecting our relationship.

How do I know they know the mantra but lack the understanding? They are so desperate to have me say they “exceed my expectations”, that anything less than exceeding my exceeded expectations—I gave them a 7 out of 10 on a couple of comment points—was deemed an operational disappointment.  Promising and delivering world-class luxury service isn’t enough. They took the time (three times, actually) to apologize for merely meeting my exceeded expectations.

SAG_Trump Hotel Truffle_01Here’s the run down of the issues: 1) One staff member, whom I assume was a manager, wasn’t smiling at one time and was more concerned with the buffet he set up than taking a moment to say hi. 2) One morning I ordered breakfast to my room, and the omelette was slightly less cooked than I prefer. 3) I asked a staff member for directions within the hotel, and she didn’t know—it was her first day on the job. She asked a colleague and I was promptly on my way.

None of these were serious, but on a post-experience guest survey—and because of the specific questions they ask in the survey—it drops the my perspective from flawless to a more human excellent.

On the comment card, anything less than a 9 gets the attention of the GM. That’s right, a 9. Practically flawless execution of an exceeded expectation—an ill defined benchmark if there ever was one—is the only pass. I’ve struggled with my thoughts and comments.

Perhaps it comes back to my preference for a more casual experience; I don’t appreciate all the pomp and ceremony within Five Diamonds. But that’s not it, because one of the things I loved about my experience was how easily staff respected and responded to my casual style within the delivery of their elegance. Perhaps it comes back to my simple requests; I didn’t really put them to the Five Diamond test. But that’s not it either, because they handled even the simplest requests with genuine grace and skill.

So I suggest it’s because excellence is arbitrary. The only promise was to exceed, but what they were exceeding was left to my imagination (which I assure you can run wild, especially around customer experiences). The questions and standards by which they asked me to judge them didn’t reflect their clear promise. And that is what I expect from a brand—a clear promise. Excellence needs a benchmark by which it’s judged, and as a customer, I expect the brand to lead the way.

Brand Strategy—and the experience you commit to deliver—should define the expectations you promise. And then it’s okay to exceed those.

The phrase “exceeding expectations” is wonderful little tidbit of wisdom to encourage good staff who could use a reason to try a little harder. It’s the goal of empowerment—a great way to offer your team permission to use common sense in uncommon situations and put the customer first. It’s a great way to think about adding value to moments.

Putting the phrase into your strategy and messaging is reckless. It’s a vague promise that says I can expect nothing specific, and yet anything is possible. And putting the onus on your customers to assess random expectations as exceeded shows you’re not in control. A brand strategy of Exceeding Expectations demonstrates a clear misunderstanding of how a brand strategy supports your vision and values, and how it should drive your culture. It shows that you are desperate to please—to give in at any cost—rather than honouring the relationship and promising an experience. It’s terribly vague while pretending to make a promise or set a standard.

Exceeding expectations isn’t the benchmark you strive to reach; it’s the passion that drives your culture of service and your innovation behind the experience you’ve promised.

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.

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 Three

The Rule of the Fluid Formula.  

I am a firm believer in the concept that ‘Everything Matters’. Every single touch point factors into the brand experience equation. How much each elements factors in is a matter of debate and strategic preference, but make no mistake about it—everything matters.

If you’re looking for a proven formula, though, you’re out of luck. Great brands embrace the fluid nature of the experience. Here’s an example:

As I walk into a local cafe, music plays in the background. The coffee is good and the seat is comfortable, so I sit down to work. The soundtrack is a cool retro 70s funk—loud enough to recognize the song, but not so loud that I can’t think. If the total brand experience is equal to 100, the music is probably a 5. Maybe less.

So, the music in the cafe is equal to 5% of the total brand experience score. Not really significant. I’ll be back, but not for the music.

As I walk into the same cafe the next day, there is no music playing. The coffee is still good and the chairs are still comfortable, so I sit down to work. There’s a weird silence. Lulled by the sound of refrigerators humming, the soundtrack is punctuated by sounds of coffee machines buzzing, mugs hitting tables, and chairs sliding across the floors. I can even hear the person three tables away tapping on their keyboard. The lack of music is distracting. If the total brand experience is equal to 100, the lack of music probably distracts 50 or more points away.

Now, the music in the cafe is equal to 50% of the total experience. Pretty significant. I won’t be back, simply because the music was a mistake.

Is the music worth 5% or 50% of the total brand experience? Actually. It’s both.

Often, it’s impossible to define what makes a great experience great; it’s the collection of every little detail working together in a constant, fluid experience. However, when one detail fails—one detail that contradicts the expectation—it becomes pretty clear why the experience is negative.

There is no strategic formula that defines how much each touch point is worth to the brand. The key is complete understanding of the experience you are promising, being aware of every possible detail, and giving your team the necessary tools, training and permissions to act. You have no idea which detail will have an impact.

Poor brand strategy relies on a few key touch points to wow their stakeholders—assigning fixed values to an arbitrary formula—while believing the failure of less important touch points doesn’t damage the brand. Poor brands ignore the details. Great brands know that everything matters, and leave nothing to chance.

Great brands embrace the Fluid Formula.

The Power of Positive Disruption

Brand value—the intangible equity derived from a desirable and reliable experience—is rooted in moments of Positive Disruption. Within every experience, a brand has opportunities to disrupt our expectations—disrupt what is generic and familiar—and imprint memories.

Strong brands take the time to consider the whole experience for different stakeholders, and rather than just slapping a logo on every surface, the brand immerses each stakeholder with positive, affirming touch points; unique clues in imagery, language, rituals and total sensory impact. Strong brands add value with a well-considered experience.

We are surrounded by brand experiences. Almost everything in our lives is experienced because someone somewhere at some time made a choice in an effort to define the experience. Someone made a choice based on; a) an experience they wanted to create or an idea they wanted us to believe; b) the resources and budget available to them at the time; and c) the values guiding their behaviour. Yet while we are constantly exposed to those brands and those choices (whether it’s a product, service, cause, community and even a country), most of the choices are completely imperceptible. That’s right, most of the brand experience is completely missed.

That chair you’re sitting on; it’s part of a brand experience. The screen you’re reading this on; it’s part of a brand experience. That coffee you just sipped; it’s part of a brand experience. That music playing in the background; the lamp-post in your neighbourhood; the composting bin in the garden; those are all part of brand experiences. The sound of the alarm clock and the bed you woke up in and the clothes you put on this morning and the spoon you ate your cereal with—all part of brand experiences. And I bet you missed most of them.

Positive Disruption—a conscious choice to identify a brand—anchors the experience. It’s in the moments of disruption the brand greets us, reminds us of our relationship, and moves us forward to continue the experience. We, the stakeholder, are reassured while being rewarded.

The challenge, of course, is to disrupt the experience in a way is positive and inclusive to stakeholders; an experience that reinforces the brand strategy—the story we want people to believe about our organization—with respect.

Forcing stakeholders into behaviours that are uncomfortable, unnatural, wasteful or arrogant will backfire. Forcing people to support your brand’s distinction without providing any more value for them—or establishing the boundaries of the relationship—is irresponsible and will fail. Negative disruptions push your agenda without buy-in; positive disruptions enhance the experience and deepen understanding.

Your mission is to deliver a product, service, cause or idea to meet the needs of your stakeholders. A brand strategy maps out the core experiences, exploring from the outside perspective while considering the capacity of the organization to have influence or impact. Along the path, a good strategy recognizes the mindset of your audience at specific moments, identifying unique opportunities to engage individuals with your story and evolve the relationship.

A brand strategy defines the positive disruptions which reinforce and complement the brand. Positive disruptions are brand value.

Where do we find Positive Disruption?

Visual identities are common disruptions. Colours, shapes, imagery and structure are significant reference points and make it easy to connect. But an overwhelmingly unique visual experience isn’t always reasonable or positive, and just repeating your logo everywhere is less productive that you’d think.

Language clues are helpful. Language drives the culture or the organization, and the tone delivers the brand with character. Sharing a familiar language with your stakeholders builds relationships that are hard to break. Language can polarize audiences, though, so make sure to have message strategies that are inclusive across different yet relevant stakeholders.

Patterns and rituals are valuable, creating habits that are the equivalent to a secret handshake— conspicuously absent when expected; comfortably reassuring when shared. A ritual that enhances the experience is rooted in the culture of the brand, celebrating points of distinction and rewarding loyalty.

Have you mapped your core brand experience from start to finish? Have you considered all the senses, beyond just marketing campaigns and whimsical creativity? Have you considered all stakeholder groups, thinking beyond only the customer experience? If you’ve only considered a single moment of interaction—or you’re simply adding your logo to every surface—you are missing plenty of opportunities to engage your stakeholders in the full brand experience.