Sunday, October 25, 2009

Reconciling the Brand Between Owner and Employees (2/3)

The title of this chapter section may surprise you. If you are the owner of a small business, you might assume that your employees will accept the brand just as you have presented it to them. Maybe, but I doubt it.

Unfortunately, you probably don't present the brand consistently any day of the week and you are not unlike any small business. In fact, it is darn hard to present any brand consistently. And if you think it is hard to be consistent in how your brand is presented, imagine the impossible problem that major corporations have. Every employee they have (and every customer contact each of those employees have) offers a huge opportunity to present the brand in sharp contrast to how the company would like it presented. But that is life in business. Advertising can influence perceptions about the brand, but an unpleasant experience with one of your employees will undermine all that advertising quickly.

Let's say you have a small service business with 25 employees. If you asked each one of them to pick three words that best describe your company, how many different words would you get? 75? I hope not but I also bet you would get more than 50. And if they could submit those words anonymously, would all of the attribute words be positive? Would any be positive? Now, remember, these are the people who represent your brand each and every day. Scary, huh?

If you are not sure how your brand would be described, I hope you realize that you need to have this discussion soon with your employees. Very soon. No telling how many customers and prospective customers they may each speak with tomorrow and miss an opportunity to represent your brand more consistently.
After all, your brand is not just what YOU say it is.
If you want to have this dialog with your employees, they must be able to respond without fear of reprisal. That means that their responses must be completely anonymous. At some point, employees may feel that they can be candid without fear of hurting their career prospects but, at first, you need to take care not to make them feel threatened in any way. Because you need their honesty! The whole process is futile if they are fearful of losing their jobs. You need them thinking, not worrying.

Understand, this is not an evaluation. Instead, you are beginning the process of rebuilding your brand. More than anything else, it is a reconciliation. After all, your brand is not just what YOU say it is. Rather, it is what everyone who represents your brand says it is. And who represents your brand? A whole lot of folks. And that can be very good news if that group grows at a nice pace.

Think about this dialog. It needs to happen and happen regularly -- not just once. I will tell you more about the reconciliation process in the next post.

Thanks for checking in. More to come!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Authentic Brand (2/2)

Much of modern marketing over the last few decades tried to create facades around brands. Unfortunately, sometimes it wasn't that the brand offered a benefit that was truly unique but that the brand was only positioned that way.

Positioning is merely creating a frame of reference for the consumer so they can more easily understand what a brand stands for. The term was coined by Jack Trout and Al Ries in their book, Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind, in 1981. Truly, it is the best book ever written about branding. It is sad that too many marketers used the concept to create facades for brands that only discussed less-than-significant brand differences rather that trying to create a brand that was actually superior to other brands in the marketplace. But organizations are lazy and risk averse and they play it safe far to often. Few will swing for the fences in an effort to offer a blockbuster brand that consumers will rave about.

All this change will not be good for every business.

All that being said, everything in this e-Book is about building an authentic brand, a brand that is refreshingly candid about what it will and will not do. Or, if it is trying something that might work but is not sure yet that it can do it, that it will inform customers of this so that they are not persuaded to buy something that is not yet proven. If your plan is to create a facade or to only build a brand that will be at parity with others in the marketplace and will not seek to be truly distinctive because of a real benefit, stop reading right now. You have wasted your time thus far and I hate for you to waste any more of it. The approach of Your Brand Reps demands authenticity and you will be easily found out if brand authenticity is not in your plan. This is not simply an ethical issue, but the approach we will discuss can only be achieved if small business owners are completely candid about their brand's value in the marketplace. Only then can a successful and authentic brand be enhanced.

Soon after September 11, 2001, I began hearing "authenticity" mentioned as a driving force in Americans' lives and their relationships. I am an avid reader of business publications, both periodicals and books, and don't recall hearing much of authenticity as it relates to business and marketing discussed before that fateful event that challenged much of what Americans appreciated and valued in their lives.

I am far from the only marketer talking about authenticity. Last year, Time magazine labeled authenticity of the "10 ideas that are changing the world." Writer John Cloud attributed this movement to consumers' "longing" for things real in a world of pretenders and shams.
Strategic Horizons' Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore, who wrote The Experience Economy, encouraged companies to think about the experiences customers had with their brands and how they could actually create favorable and memorable brand experiences. They recently followed up that best seller with Authenticity:What Consumers Really Want. In their book, Pine and Gilmore actually offer a process for achieving authenticity.

Suffice it to say that marketing is changing, changing quickly and, for the most part, changing for the good of consumers. However, all this change will not be good for every business. I hope your small business heeds the call and realizes that marketing in the future will not be "business as usual." Consumers will increasingly demand authenticity from you and your brand.

What does this mean for small businesses? It means under-promising in your marketing communications and over-delivering in your customer service. It means staying in touch with your customers when it is good for them, not just to your benefit. It means pricing your brands fairly and not trying some promotional stunt that makes your customers worry about what your brand is really worth. It means making your brand available to your customers in ways that really make their lives more convenient.

In short, get real and stay that way because authenticity is a hard thing to fake.

Thanks for checking in. More to come!

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Vertical Relationship Channel (Ch. 2)

Some time back I asked a teaching colleague, Marty Flynn, what book he thought was the best book he had read or taught from on customer service. Without hesitation, Marty recommended, The Service Edge by Ron Zemke and Dick Schaaf. It is a great book and I can understand Marty's support of it. By nature of the fact that it was published in 1989 and is still considered by some to be the bible of customer service may be a comment in itself on the value of some of the books written more recently to provide business guidance. My big issue with so many authors is that to sell their books, they have to disparage any book written over ten years ago. However, I have made that point before and will not dwell on it here... at least not right now.

Now, you may be asking, what does a book (even the best book ever written) on customer service have to do with branding? Everything. Simply everything. And let me tell you why.

Remember in Chapter 1/3 ( we talked about the top 10 strongest brands in the world? What did they have in common? One thing they each had in common was that their employees simply loved working there. Many of these companies consider their own employees as the first group that needs convincing of their value as a company and brand. These companies (Google, Ritz-Carlton, Netflix, Costco) know the value of treating their employees well. And when employees are treated well, they treat every customer they come in contact with well also. Makes sense.
What's customer service got to do with branding? Simply everything.

The other characteristic each of these strong brands have in common is that their employees are empowered to solve customer problems as they surface. Three out of four service issues are solved by the person who initially hears the problem. There is very little "Let me speak with my supervisor" or "I'm sorry our policy..." In short, the large majority of issues that can detract from the brand reputation are handled immediately by the first employee who hears of the problem. Smooth, huh?

So, how do organizations that work this well in brand-building by providing extraordinary customer service accomplish this task? Zemke and Schaaf noted five factors present in organizations with exceptional customer service:
* They listen to, comprehend and act on the evolving needs and changing expectations of their customers.
* They establish a clear vision of what great customer service is, communicate if to all of their employees and ensure that the quality of service is personally important to everyone who works there.
* They establish firm standards of customer service and regularly measure themselves against those standards.
* They hire good people, train them adequately and then empower them to work for their customers.
* They acknowledge and reward customer service "wins" when they happen, ensuring that everyone in the organization understands the priority that customer service has in the organization.

That's commitment, isn't it? Does your small business follow this 'best practices' model? As I have detailed in Chapter 1, most organizations do not or the state of customer service would not be in such sad shape. You better just hope that your competition isn't using this model, either.

In this chapter we will talk a lot about how your employees can build your brand in powerful ways.

Thanks so much for reading. More to come.