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The Brand or the Bland – why generic customer service is no longer enough!

© Paul Stewart, 2004 All Rights Reserved
*This article is based upon extracts from Branded Customer Service – the new competitive edge, by Janelle Barlow and Paul Stewart, publishers Berrett-Koehler (San Francisco), released in mid 2004 

Some time ago one of New Zealand’s leading banks ran a major television advertising campaign with the tag-line “Knowledge Makes the Difference.” The bank was implicitly saying they had more information, ideas, and expertise that allowed them to better meet the specific needs of individual customers than their competitors.

One of my former colleagues heard the bank’s radio ad in which a free “Hot-Tips” brochure for residential property investors was available to all and sundry. Although he was not a customer of the bank, he was hooked. He stopped by a branch to pick up both bank literature and the brochure. To his dismay, not only was the brochure not available (he needed to call an 0800 number), but a very pleasant customer service representative, had “no idea what he was talking about”. “They never tell us about these things,” she said apologetically. Needless to say this prospective customer was not swayed to set up an account with the “knowledge makes a difference” bank.

Organisations spend millions to tell the world how they would like consumers to think about their brand offerings, and then a human-being with a few simple words shatters the illusion. A strong brand has power in that it motivates customers toward a positive response or specific action. In this case the television and radio campaign appealed to our friend and delivered him to the bank to take advantage of the service.  One could argue that he received good generic service at the bank.  But one thing we know for sure: “I have no idea” flies straight in the face of the bank’s promise that Knowledge makes the difference.  We know this bank trains its staff in customer service, but it is safe to bet that they did little or nothing to appropriately prepare their thousands of staff how to be “on-brand” for the influx of customers coming to try out their new offerings.

David Burrows with TDA (The Design Agency) in England says that “40 percent of marketing investment is wasted, as ill-informed or demotivated behavior by staff unwittingly undermines the promotional promise. The result is that 68 percent of those who do buy go away because of how they were treated.”1

One major cause of this is simple, in our estimation, but normally overlooked in the rush to develop a strong brand. Many branding agencies, and the companies for whom these brands are created, are so focused on the physical product and articulation of the product’s brand promise that they pay inadequate attention to (or forget about, or overlook, or choose to ignore, or are afraid of addressing) the largest part of the delivery system of a service brand—namely the interaction service providers directly have with customers.

First-hand experience strongly influences consumers about repurchase decisions. In other words, customers become primed by every experience to create more positive memories of earlier brand experiences. Based on their research, Richard Elliott and Kritsadarat Wattanasuwan at Oxford University in England, conclude, “lived experience with a brand, through purchase and usage over the life cycle, will tend to dominate the mediated experience of advertising…”2Reinforcing a brand through every customer touch-point, therefore, can provide the repetition necessary to inspire repeat purchasing decisions.

Indeed, the Gallup Organisation polled 6,000 passengers and discovered that, by a ratio of between three and four to one, employees of airlines are more important than advertising messages in building brand loyalty. Banking customers are more likely to return, by a ratio of 10 to 20 times, if the organisation has outstanding employees. And in the telecommunications industry, the loyalty of customers is influenced by employees of the organisation at a ratio of between three and five to one, compared to advertising.3

Yet, these dynamics are constantly ignored. We recently worked with a large company to develop a complaint handling solution. After meeting with the marketing department, I suggested building the staff workshop content around the new brand position that was about to be launched in a nationwide advertising campaign. The relief expressed by the marketers was almost overwhelming. They knew the organisation’s service needed to be aligned with the brand and the new campaign, but they simply did not have the time or resources to do anything about it and meet their own deadlines. The need to grab new customers was given greater priority by the executive team than ensuring that new and existing customers would experience what they had been promised.    

It is no wonder then that dissatisfaction with customer service is burgeoning. Not only is this discontent reflected in many nationwide and individual organisational surveys, but now this grumbling is also the talk of the Internet with entire Web sites devoted to attacking different brands.  Even as businesses struggle to improve their customer service and top management aims at a strong brand, we are regaled by many telling us that service stinks, that service is getting worse, and that service standards have fallen.

In many ways, branding can be best understood as a business strategy in great part to gain consumer trust. We also know that trust is hard to come by in today’s world as witnessed by deceptions from a growing list of our most revered institutions. A recent study put a large exclamation mark on this point. Sponsored by the respected Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals, 4,000 customers of nine Blue Chip Australian organisations were surveyed. The study revealed that only one in 20 customers trusts the organisations that serve them; even worse, only one in 40 believes organisations trust them!4 

So, consumers do ask: Can I trust this organisation? Are promises met when it actually delivers its products and services? Is it following through on commitments, or is its advertising just so many words and images with no action behind them? Clearly, a company’s ability to deliver what it declares is fundamental to its reputation. Therefore, the ability to move from a compelling strategy about a brand to authentic delivery is paramount in building trust.

The conceptualization of branding strategy needs to be looked at in terms of its long-term market impact. If you want to get into the marketplace, make some quick revenue and then get out, then branding is not for you. Branding is more transformational in terms of how it ultimately shapes organisations precisely because it is trust based: we promise, we deliver.  When this is not done, customer relationships are more likely to be short-term, immediate, and transactional—and do little to build brand trust.

If you are to achieve the type of customer-staff interaction that enhances your brand, you must offer more than lip service to the value of trust. Harvard Professor Gerald Zaltman cautions that people who manage customer relationships must grasp how consumers store, retrieve, and reconstruct memories of every interaction with a firm. These interactions may be direct, as when customers deal with a global account manager. They may also be indirect, as through word-of-mouth. And every new encounter alters a customer’s recall of a prior encounter—often in trivial, but sometimes significant ways. Zaltman relates the unlikely example of a manufacturer of paints, a commodity product. The organisation discovered that purchasing agents were willing to pay premium prices for branded paint when sales people linked self-esteem to the sale. Who would have thought that volume paint sales and self-esteem could be linked?5

Ever since Jan Carlzon, former CEO of Scandinavian Airlines, wrote the book called Moments of Truth, the phrase has become de rigueur in customer service.6 The phrase has come to mean those defining moments when customers evaluate products and services and pronounce, “This is good.” or “I don’t like this.” Industries, such as the hospitality industry with many complex customer interactions, can have thousands of Moments of Truth every day.

The term has become so integrated into customer service language that many do not know it originated in bullfighting. It is that critical point in the bullfight when the matador faces the bull in the defining Moment of Truth. That is, is the matador going to defeat the bull or be defeated? Through arduous training, matadors have been trained for their precise Moments of Truth. They know exactly what to do. They seldom lose, rarely are even injured, although fighting live, angry bulls is admittedly dangerous work. Matadors clearly understand the essence of their Moments of Truth. They have rehearsed pictures of just about everything that can happen and behave precisely with those pictures in mind, or they are matadors no longer.

Unfortunately, too many organisations simply put their customer-facing staff into the service ring without an ounce of brand training. At best, they receive generic service training that many refer to as “smile training.” Most organisations assume that people who interact with customers are knowledgeable about basic human interaction and will therefore intuit the appropriate way to behave towards customers. That could be the situation if your aspiration is simply good generic service, but there is no way to intuit appropriate on-brand behaviors without at least rudimentary brand knowledge. Since, in many cases, employees do not even know what the brand promise is, through no fault of their own they simply do not have enough information to deliver branded service.

And who do you suppose notices that? Who do you suppose is experiencing that off-brand Moment of Truth?

The heart of the challenge is delivering brands through service experiences. The most successful brands in the world, most of which are product brands, are tightly managed. By employing precise guidelines, it is comparatively easy for marketers to manage consumer brands such as Coca-Cola, Colgate toothpaste, or Bayer aspirin. Assuring that a consistent container of Coca-Cola will end up in the consumer’s hands, however, is considerably different than guaranteeing what will happen when customers and service providers have either direct or indirect contact.

When humans get involved with delivering service brands, meeting expectations created by advertising is far more difficult to guarantee. Human service interactions, because of their dynamism, richness, and uniqueness, are much more illusive to control. This is the key challenge for companies with products that have a high degree of customer service contact or whose product line is delivered exclusively through people.

You can reinforce a brand idea, make it stronger with pictures, language, and behaviors—all of which evoke emotion. Human behavior is the primary means of brand reinforcement within the realm of customer service. It is easy for us to underestimate the impact of brands delivered by “collections of people joined together in pursuit of a common cause, and it is people who create value,” as stated by brand expert Nicholas Ind.7

When service representatives and customers dance together in brand space, it is difficult to predict, or control what will happen.

While few managers who purchase customer service programs for their staff think they are buying generic customer service skills training programs, in fact, that is what many do. Most customer service training companies have service programs (delivered on tape, CD, or in person) that they offer to a wide range of high-end and low-end companies across a variety of industries. They sell the same program to multiple companies based on the idea that the same style of service delivery is going to create loyalty to an infinite range of different brands.

The public has leaped ahead of organisations on this one. Consumers do not hold one idea of service in their minds; the public is not generic when it comes to service. When evaluating customer service, consumers hold a multitude of personal, specific, and unique expectations about services and products relating to specific brands.

Brand experts Bob Tyrell and Tim Westall make the same point with a slightly different caution. “Branding customer service requires something much more complex than the bolt-on activities currently parading as ‘relationship’ building. It implies developing a recognizable style and personality, and that has important implications for brand marketing.”8

Think about it. If you want to distinguish your brand position from another organisation’s brand, it is difficult to do that when offering advertising that looks like everyone else’s. In the same way, generic service will not enhance your customer’s experience about the uniqueness of your brand. Customer exchanges must illuminate features of the brand promise or brand values.

It is possible to offer a commodity product, such as coffee, and then create such a unique brand position that the average consumer visits a location 18 times a month—as Starbucks has done.9 But you cannot wrap that coffee service in generic packaging or experiences and expect to stand out from the local cafe. And you miss a real opportunity to distinguish your brand if your staff offers generic service, albeit good generic service. From a business perspective, you miss the opportunity to elicit the feeling in consumers that they absolutely must return to Starbucks despite long lines and coffee twice as expensive as that of some competitors.

If you place a branded service lens in front of your organisation, you make it easier for your staff to evaluate whether they are on-brand or off-brand. Contrast this with a generic service lens approach where the service staff look at customers through the lens of satisfaction.  Then the service standard becomes: Did I offer good service or bad service? The lens through which your staff evaluates their service delivery drives their behavior.  

The “customer satisfaction” lens produces behavior tending to gravitate to the ordinary; i.e., delivering the same generic service standard as competitors—and honestly believing that is good enough. Viewing service through a branded service lens amplifies branded service uniqueness. The questions staff ask become: “Did I create a brand experience for my customers? Did I reinforce our brand? Did I deliver on our brand promise?” Behind these questions lies the most powerful latent question: “Am I creating brand loyalty among the customers we are targeting?”

1 David Burrows and Juliet Williams, “Who is Killing CRM?”, Admap, July 2001.
2 Richard Elliott and Kritsadarat Wattanasuwan, “Brands as Symbolic Resources for the Construction of Identity,” International Journal of Advertising, Vol. 17, No. 2, 1998.
3 As reported in the London Sunday Times, May 12, 2002, op cit.
4 Consumer Emotions Study, by SOCAP (Australia, 2003):
5 Gerald Zaltman, How Customers Think, Chapter 10. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Business School Press, 2003.
6 Jan Carlzon, Moments of Truth, Ballinger Publishing, 1987
7 Nicholas Ind, “Living the Brand, Why Organisations Need Purpose and Values,” The Journal of the Marketing Society (Issue 15), 2001
8 Bob Tyrell and Tim Westall, “The New Service Ethos, A Post-Brand Future—And How to Avoid It,” Market Leader, The Journal of the Marketing Society, Issue 2, 1998.
9 Statistic cited in Elizabeth Goodgold, “Talking Shop,” Entrepreneur (September 2003)

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