Tag Archives: Rules

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 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.

The Rules of Brand Strategy, Part Four

A great brand does not happen overnight. Your entire organization—from leadership to the front lines—must commit time and attention to building your brand. Always focused, always moving forward, always one step ahead.

An important rule—and likely the most frustrating of all the rules—is that time & attention are an unforgiving part of the brand strategy equation.

Great brands never just happen. There is no single silver bullet idea, concept or initiative to accelerate brand success or create an overnight success. There is simply no replacement for the value of time spent focused on your mission, and the attention to detail in the execution of a desirable experience.

Cool logos are only positive reminders once they are familiar and synonymous with the experience. Catchy messages are only believable after the promise has been proven consistently. A strong culture is only deep when it’s shared through challenges and purpose.

Be prepared to spend months or years delivering an amazing experience, nurturing your stakeholders, innovating your product/service and being proud of the community you’re building. Be prepared to keep your story consistent and your messages relevant after endless cycles, successes and set-backs. Be prepared to work hard at staying ahead of the curve, rewarding those who share your brand with innovations, excellence and leadership. Be prepared to become bored with the “stuff” that identifies your brand, and resist temptations to change rather than evolve.

Smart brand strategies respect and plan for the time and attention required to build strong brands. Smart brand strategies pay attention to all the details that make an experience special and memorable; not just the big idea.

Time and attention matter because it’s only once you’ve established a solid brand—a story people are willing to believe about your organization—that you are able to take advantage of critical moments—societal shifts, market forces, competitive circumstances, technology or simply good fortune—and thrive.

It’s not a silver bullet. It’s a strategy.

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 Rules of Brand Strategy, Part Two

Be amazing at the one thing you promise. Every time. No exceptions.

You have a lot of options for your brand story. You get to explore different ways to deliver your service, how your culture fuels the brand experience, how leadership pushes new boundaries and how you continue to engage and excite your stakeholders. It’s your brand; it’s your story to tell.

Every story, though, is based on a familiar plot. Just like an action story needs an adventure or a love story needs a romance, a brand story must live up to the core promise. If your brand can’t manage that one thing, nothing else matters.

Too often brands get caught up in the elements that make the brand unique but drop the ball on the one simple thing that anchors the relationship. Poor leadership gets in the way— it’s either laziness (just too uncommitted to care), complacency (believing people will judge the brand on intent and flair rather than action and results), or ignorance (having no clue about expectations).

Brand Strategy always starts with clarity about your capacity to do the one thing you promise. Without a solid grasp of this reality—and a commitment to deliver an uncompromising experience—success is simply out of reach.

Photo Note: I snapped the accompanying photo in 2004 during a vacation in Oregon. In 2011, while traveling the same route, I couldn’t find the business. Not surprisingly, Golden Touch Signs is no longer in business. A keen eye will notice the company name in red letters over the door; another fine example of this company’s stellar work.