Pardon my French, but I feel like a total and utter s**t.  At least I’ll be punished by having to walk on the other side of the street every time I want to go to the drug store.

Allow me to explain.

I believe in supporting small businesses.  My grandfather, a pharmacist, had his own drug store.  My mom feels very strongly about frequenting privately-owned stores whenever she can – drug stores, book stores, you name it – and I try to do the same.  I still feel the “You’ve Got Mail” horror whenever some big box something or other gobbles up yet another street, pushing out all the small business owners just trying to get by.

Flash forward to the polar vortex of 2014.  I need snow boots and I need ’em bad.  I’ve checked all the usual suspects – Lord & Taylor, Macy’s, Zappos… nothing but Uggs left in my size (ugh).  The shortage is so real that it’s made the newsmore than once.  There is a small shoe store near my apartment, and I saw some boots I liked in the window.  I went in and discovered that they were $245.  Not happening.  But there was a pair that – all in, including tax – was $130, which felt a lot better than $245.  The trained shoe salesman actually acted like, well, a trained shoe salesman:  he knelt before me, unlaced my old boots, put my new ones on, laced them up, then followed me around to hear whether they fit. He delivered a real service experience.  I left the store with $130 boots feeling sort of ok.  But once the $245 phantom price wore off, and I was home with boots for which I’d paid a lot more than I’d planned, I started to get… itchy.

That’s when I went online.

Armed with new information – the manufacturer’s name and model number – I was able to sidestep all the branded retailers who’d burrowed into my brain via their PR coverage and ad spends (I mean, Zappos? Really?  I don’t even like Zappos) and leverage the Internet’s long tail by just typing the specific shoe information into Google.  This allowed me to browse a number of retailers I’d never heard of, including one that was selling the same pair for $83 all in (including shipping, no tax).  That’s a huge difference.  I returned the first pair of boots to the neighborhood shoe store the next day.

Now, I feel awful about this.  I support small, private stores… I do!  But at what price?  At how much of a premium? A 56% premium? That’s a lot of money. I am now officially playing both sides of the argument: SHOP SMALL (“these big conglomerates are killing the little guy!“) vs. I WORK HARD FOR MY PAYCHECK AND WILL SHOP WHEREVER I GET THE BEST PRICE (“all these bleeding hearts who whine about little stores disappearing should put their money where their mouths are… but they don’t“).

The brick and mortar stores that survive will, for the most part, have to provide something that is (a) truly irreplaceable, or (b) at least worth a modest premium.  I’m talking out of my hat here, but take electronics:  people don’t buy the service warranties because they are expensive and don’t get used.  But maybe buying a TV at a physical Best Buy should gets you the 3-year warranty for free – an offer not available online.  Maybe stores that don’t have loyalty programs will have to start them – programs that provide REAL value – like $100 off your next purchase of any pair of shoes over $200 (I’m making this up, but you get the picture).

I know it’s not my job in life to crack the conundrum of showrooming, but I still feel guilty.  That’s why I figure that once I start wearing the boots I bought on the Web – the same lovely boots that Neil the real shoe salesman so caringly sold me in person – I’ll have to avoid walking by the store, lest he see my feet and discover that I was seduced away by a significantly smaller price tag.

From a chair in the marketing department, it’s too easy to look only at the world that, well, you can actually see.  The problem is that – while your optics on other parts of the company may be zero – those other zones may be your greatest weakness.  And they’re operating in the webosphere 24/7.

You know, for example, that your company has plants in the Far East or does business with farms, but – unless you’re on this or that executive committee – your true knowledge of the goings on out in the field is extremely low.

Low, that is, until a video hits YouTube and becomes a sensation. That great campaign your team has been lovingly preparing for six months? Forget about it. No one would believe it, and everyone’s in crisis mode, anyway.

Not having a broad handle on your organization’s practices in the farthest reaches of the value chain might have been acceptable 10 years ago, but –  in the age of social media – companies have to be more aware of their soft spots: the activities that are vulnerable to miscommunication, misinterpretation or true mishandling.

How your company handles farmed salmon or trucker hours or car seat testing isn’t in the CMO’s purview, but you better believe that it sits on every marketer’s desk, every day, like a ticking time bomb.

Tick, tick, tick.

There are also plenty of examples where marketers have voluntarily entered the social media jungle, unprepared for the attacks that even a child could have told them might come.

It is smart marketing  – not “negativity” – to have an unblinkingly honest view of your brand and to protect its vulnerabilities. Every brand in the world has ’em. McDonald’s in the US and Waitrose in the UK (hashtags #McDStories and #waitrosereasons, respectively) are both recent examples of powerful brands putting a toddler in front of a Twitter truck and expecting her not to get run over. Maybe she won’t, but do you really want to find out?

Of course, most of the challenges that brands face in social media aren’t new. People have always groused about poor service or “hated” this brand or another. The difference is that now every consumer is one tweet away from telling the universe about it.

Take the case of Progressive Insurance. When New Yorker Matt Fisher’s sister died in a car crash, Fisher wrote a scathing blog post. In one week, Marketwatch claims the company lost 1,000 customers, with another 1,600 saying that they would never do business with the insurer. Plus the news coverage was unbelievable.

Now, was Progressive wrong in this case? I have no idea. Do any of my friends have any personal knowledge of this particular situation? Nope.  But that didn’t stop them from tweeting and retweeting while the story was hot.

NBC News said it best: “the “lessons from [the] Progressive screw up” are that “when it’s Twitter vs. lawyers, take Twitter.”

The insurer settled the Fisher family’s lawsuit within three or four days.

In essence, social media simply amplifies your strengths and weaknesses. It creates a level of transparency that forces advertisers to live by what they say.  Or else.

And by the way, could a consumer just be “out to get” your company and stage some awful stunt that gets picked up worldwide? Yes, and that’s happened. In the meantime, you endure a week of hell, claiming your legitimate innocence, while the brand gets shredded.

So – what to do? Brands need to prepare for and anticipate the downside. A food company may want to think about how its ingredients are selected. A QSR might want to do the same. A shoe or computer company will want to think about its manufacturing policies and whether there are any parties that would relish revealing a damaging factoid.

This is not paranoia and, as I said, it’s not negativism. In my opinion, it’s actually the greatest thing you can do to protect what you care about. Everything’s easy when everything’s good. If the organic material hits the fan, how will you protect your assets and the consumers who believe in you and who need to understand what happened? What message do you want to communicate, and how, when and who will do it?

Don’t wait to figure this out. Sit down in private with your agencies and your leadership and create a plan for what you’ll do when a true or not-true-but-fast-moving event occurs. Know what you’ll do in the short term, and determine whether there would be any possible adjustments to the marketing message or the business overall in the long term.

The truth is that most brands aren’t doing heinous things, but there is a wide gulf between that truth and what actually might happen to you on the Web. Every week, I see a brand looking like a deer in headlights after some goof-up on a social network. When will we get it?

Prepare for what you should assume will be the inevitable. It doesn’t mean it’ll happen, but – if it does and you’re ready – the payoff is the preservation of brand value, your company’s reputation, your employees’ commitment and much more.

The bottom line is that living in a castle and thinking your brand is just fabulous is a mistake. Everyone’s got vulnerabilities. That’s business.

A version of this post was first published HERE by M&M Global.

I was in a client meeting when an earthquake shook New York City a couple weeks ago.  We all stared at each other for a few seconds and waited for the building to fall down. When it didn’t, we went back to business.

Back to the same agenda, for sure, but not before the New Yorkers in the room had conjured 9/11.  The few, quiet comments didn’t turn into a conversation – no one wanted that – but the sickening feeling was there, in the room with us, as fresh and raw as ever.  Interestingly, the morning actually started with someone remarking that the beautiful weather reminded her of that lovely clear day almost ten years ago.  In New York, good things remind us.  Bad things remind us.  It’s just here.   All the time.

I personally was not in New York on 9/11.  I was in San Francisco, and the flight freeze meant I couldn’t come home.

I felt awful.  I wasn’t there when my city got hurt.  I wasn’t there when friends died.

When I finally did make it back, I took the 6 Train down to the Financial District alone.  I think it was September 21.  When I climbed out of the subway, I discovered a planet I did not recognize.  Crowds were everywhere.  People were crying.  Others were clutching photos of loved ones for whom they were still searching.  The sidewalk was thick with people, milling around, shouting to get each other’s attention, taking pictures, and generally contributing to the chaos.  I took five or six steps and just froze.  When I stopped, I could finally see the gray particles floating in the air, landing on my shoulders and in my hair.  It took me a few seconds to realize what they were.

It was the end of the world, and all I could do was stand there under a big scaffold, staring in the direction of a smoking hole in the ground.

I don’t know how long I stayed immobile, with the flakes wafting down on my sweater.  It must have been a minute or two because, as in some slo-mo movie scene, a cop seemed to emerge from nowhere.  He walked over to me, put his hand on my arm and said, “Are you OK, miss?  Do you need help?”  And then he stood there, waiting, as if I was his only concern in the world.  He maintained eye contact and just – waited – with the kindest look on his face.

Snapped out of my daze, I immediately said I was fine, embarrassed that I’d taken this guy away from others who were clearly in greater disress.

I have never forgotten that moment and never will.  That cop had everything more important to do, but he saw me through a huge mass of people.  He took a couple of seconds to care.  He put a human face on the inhuman.  I think he saved me, in a fashion, right there on the sidewalk.

I’m not saying that I haven’t paid attention to reality in the last decade, but that experience changed my view of the New York City Police Department brand, just a little bit, forever.

I have written before about tiny moments of truth that can make a huge difference.  Small gestures of grace, seemingly disconnected from the main event, which land with such a force (because the consumer expects so much less) that they have a material if not permanent impact on a brand’s ability to truly connect.

Look for the individuals who can do this for your brand.  Take care of them. Because in a stressful moment, you are not there, your CEO is not there, your PR is not there, your advertising is not there.  But that lone person is.  And for a customer, he or she may be all that makes your brand human:  something it seems the entire world could use a little bit more of right now.

_________________________

A version of this post was originally published on the Marketing Executives Networking Group‘s blog, MENG Blend.

Sometimes great minds think alike, don’t you think?

As my clients can attest, I have become obsessed with the story of corporate-marketing-executive-turned entrepreneur Susan Nethero.

During her years working at Xerox, Time Inc. and other companies, Nethero grew tired of the fact that a product she absolutely needed – a product that manufacturers knew she needed and would pay (a lot) for – was never available with the characteristics and benefits she wanted.  That product was the bra, and Nethero eventually became dependent on European offerings because they came in more sizes.

But then she did the magic trick of turning observation into insight, realizing that millions of other women must be as frustrated as she was. Nethero’s chain of Intimacy stores opened in 1992 and, today, she has 15 stores and $36 million in annual revenue.  

Because many women walk around in the wrong size bra (like Nethero had), the key to the entire Intimacy experience
is the professional bra fitting required in all the stores. Why is it not optional? Because the right fit is the brand’s vital differentiator… allowing Nethero, among other things, to charge $90 when the typical department store bra is around $45.

If that sounds like a lot, it’s not.  Any woman will tell you that – compared to working out or plastic surgery – it’s a small price to pay to look younger and 10 pounds lighter. “There is no way that a brand can easily compete in the high-end market without something uniquely special,” says Marshal Cohen.   “With intimates, comfort and fit are way up high in the chart, and price is a lot less sensitive.  In other words, you want to remove price from the equation.” When Nethero went on Oprah – who promptly instructed her fans to get professional bra fittings in 2005 – Intimacy’s business exploded.

So what if a newbie tries to screw up that equation by turning down a fitting?  What happens, you ask?  What happened was that Nethero took the locks off the dressing room doors.

She took the locks off the doors!

This blew me away. Think about it.  Nethero overruled a customer’s express wish, because Nethero knew something that a prospect doesn’t know yet: that a fitter will make her look and feel fantastic.

I guess they don’t call her the “bra whisperer” for nothing.

How many marketers have you known who had such confidence in their brands’ ability to deliver that they would go up against a customer in order to do so?  What would our bosses say about that? Isn’t the customer always right??

Not if the marketer has 100% confidence that specific aspects of the brand experience are vital to brand performance and ultimate customer satisfaction.

And just as I was pondering this thought, I discovered two esteemed friends and great marketers doing the same.  In “The Customer Isn’t Always Right,” Steve McKee, president of McKee Wallwork Cleveland, warns that a marketer must listen to the voice of the customer “with discernment” and offers up three instances when “you might want to think twice” about reacting to customer feedback.

The first is the point proven in the Intimacy story:  customers can’t know.  Henry Ford was a big believer in this one.

Second is a situation in which the customer can’t or won’t say what he wants – as in a B2B sales scenario where a prospect plays coy.  And the third is when a customer won’t stop asking.  McKee is sure that Target’s management firmly believes in the chain’s slogan, “Expect More. Pay Less” – up to some point before the chain goes out of business.

Similarly, Stephen Denny, author of the new book, Killing Giants, writes in a blog post that “it’s your job to do your job.” In a world where total strangers seek out each other’s opinions online (in reviews that might not even be real), you are still very much responsible for what you do and who you are.  Brand managers at Nike, Apple and others are “pretty firm that their brand is their business – they own it, they manage it daily and they know it’s important work.”

In one week, the three of us were studying the same angle on what makes a brand a great brand: knowing that – sometimes – you as a marketer must have the gut-level knowledge that your choices are the right ones.  After all, consumers voted for New Coke, and those who saw the Sony Walkman didn’t think it had a future.

Think about the brands you manage and those with which you have a personal connection.  Chances are that at least one of them wouldn’t exist if there weren’t people who believed in it, protected it, grew it… and ignored a lot of focus groups along the way.

P.S. CTPB = Contrary to popular belief.

————————————–

A version of this post was originally published on the Marketing Executives Network Group blog, MENGBlend.

No Closer Relationship

July 6th, 2011

Today, I get to combine two of my favorite things:

1.  When it comes to customer engagement and loyalty, I am a complete fanatic about the symbiotic relationship between marketing and customer service.   The brand is codified in the moment of contact with a customer or prospect – period.  I can spend millions of dollars on marketing, get wonderful recall and purchase intent scores and have it all wiped out by persistently poor customer care.

And isn’t that the way it should be? Reality trumps promises, after all.

2. Readers know that I’m partial to a couple cartoonists and like to share their work now and then.  On my second blog,  it’s David T.  JonesAdland.  Here, it’s Tom Fishburne’s Brand Camp.

Sometimes things just come together…

 

A couple days ago, I returned a dress to Kenneth Cole in NYC. Clearly criminal behavior, based on the way I was treated. The staff seemed almost surprised that I had the receipt AND the credit card associated with it.

Once the associate began the return, he asked for my phone number. I declined to provide it. He said “they” needed it, or he couldn’t process the return. Since the card associations (in this case Mastercard) do not require a phone number for a return, the “they” in these cases is clearly the retailer. But in some cases – where providing a phone number is the shortest path between me and my money – I provide a phone number. Sometimes it’s mine and sometimes, not so much.

Since I squeaked out a weak protestation, I suppose, the associate snarkily replied, “Are you having a good morning, miss?”

Grr.

I said yes.  What I really wanted to say was, “Why? Does Kenneth Cole require a phone number AND a good attitude for a return?”

How much business do these companies need to lose to Internet shopping before they realize that they’re going to have to make a face-to-face transaction really, really good?

Which reminds me of another experience I had recently at Best Buy. I bought a not-unusual item for about $30. I paid cash. Simple.

‘Turns out the item did not have the feature I needed, so I went back to the store a few days later to return it. I had not opened the blister pack, etc. – the item was pristine.

The rep at Returns asked for my phone number. Then I think she may have asked for my email address. Since I use an email specifically for this purpose (cataloguers and the like) I gave it to her. I did ask why it was relevant for a return, and again it was the mysterious “they” who needed it.

Sidebar: Do you think there’s a “They Club” somewhere where all the theys hang out, eat candy and plot their next diabolical scheme? The TSA could run it.

So anyway, the associate has my phone number and my email and I’m holding on, I can do this, go with the flow. Then she asked for my driver’s license.

This is a problem.

My driver’s license for a $30 item? My driver’s license number is not a retailer’s business, particularly when I make a (low-value) purchase with cash. I don’t recall anyone at the store when I purchased the item having any trouble taking my cash: they only appear to have a problem giving it back.

But this post isn’t about the fact that fraud and theft have driven some retailers to do crazy lengths and that they clearly believe an employee can’t do hard things like ask for a driver’s license only for items priced at more than, say, $100.

No, this post is about creating an environment where employees and customers feel welcome and understood.

This “they” thing is pervasive – and completely unnecessary. What it means is that associates are either trained to say “they” – which would be super obnoxious – or they’re not trained for pushback from the consumer at all, and squeeze out a “they” because they truly do not know what to say. In either scenario, the retailer has pitted some innocent, often 19-year-old kid against an unhappy customer, transforming this stranger across from me into the faceless “they” – The Corporation.  And no harried consumer appreciates this when s/he’s trying to get something done.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The associate is human, the shopper is human. Why aren’t employees trained to diffuse the situation but making eye contact and saying something like (insert head shake here): “I know, but Best Buy requires me to do it. I’m really sorry.” Or replace the “sorry” with an “I know it can be annoying.” Or “I know it seems silly and I will try to get you out of here as quickly as possible.”

Something – anything – that reinforces and reminds the customer that the employee is not the company. We all do things we don’t like to do: when a sincere rep looks me in the face sympathetically and says anything close to the phrases above (and the smart ones do), it is a far warmer transaction for both parties.  Then we’re in this together.

And let’s not forget the employee’s feelings too, by the way: how does Best Buy think this rep feels about her job if half of it is occupied by unhappy shoppers? So the company is whittling away at morale by tossing these kids out on the floor without the appropriate “human interaction” training, as well.

Once again I am inclined to say… Grrr.

So the next time, gentle reader, an employee says that “they” need you to swab the inside of your mouth to prove that you’re you, take a deep breath, consider writing an email or letter to the retailer and assess all of your shopping options. Fortunately for us, there are more choices than ever.

Mojo readers know that I follow two wise business cartoonists and like to share their work once in awhile. On my second blog, Marketing Observations Grown Daily, it’s David JonesAdland. Here, it’s Tom Fishburne’s Brand Camp.

Enjoy!


Anyone remember Mona Shaw?  I wrote about her in March, 2008 after Comcast stepped on her last nerve and she smashed every computer, phone and keyboard within swinging distance at their local office.

She was upset, and understandably so.  It’s worth re-reading the story if you have the time.

Many of the customer service horror stories we hear are characterized by just this kind of anger and accusations of incompetence.  But what if a customer service rep is fantastic, and it’s the brand that falters?

Such was my experience when I called Verizon Wireless to find out why my voicemail wasn’t working.

I sat on hold for two or three minutes, listening to hold messages about new products and services (The iPhone is coming! The iPhone is coming!), before a rep came on the line.  She was a good listener and really got into it.  She tried to reactivate my phone three or four times.  She seemed very competent, so I let her keep trying.  This went on for fifteen minutes.

When she could not solve the problem on her own, she put me on hold while she hunted for someone at the technical help desk.  This time, I was on hold for nearly ten minutes, sitting in total silence.

She then put me on the line with a tech specialist, and stayed with me on the call.  Here’s how that call went:

Tech help desk dude: “Hello, Miss Fierman.  Where are you right now?”

Me: “In New York City.”

Tech help desk dude: “We have a citywide voicemail outage in New York right now.”

Oh.

Wait – WHAT?  I’ve been on the phone for 30 minutes, a customer service rep tied herself in pretzels and Verizon knew about the problem all along? But no worries, said Dude:  it’s been submitted with a “critical” ticket.

Here’s what should be submitted as critical, Ms./Mr. Service Provider: your customers’ time and sanity.   Within a couple hours, voicemail was working once again.

This experience reminded me of a key principle of customer service that seems so hard for many companies to navigate:  We (consumers) don’t need you (product/service provider) to be perfect 100% of the time.  That’s not going to happen.  We’re not perfect and we know you’re not, either.  HOWEVER:  please demonstrate that you can think like a customer by respecting both my time and emotional intelligence.

That’s where Verizon Wireless really fell down on this one, when only one or two small gestures could have made all the difference:

1.  Leverage technology.

a. Use your website. Companies like VW have consumers reasonably well trained to go to their personal home pages on the provider’s site.  While a company may not want to broadcast its failures to the universe, why not give me access to a “Known Issues” list once I’ve logged in?  I’d be one click away from learning that something was happening and when I might expect relief.   No phone call needed.

Assuming that the problem was corrected in an acceptable time frame, this would have been a good customer service experience.

N.B: it’s not always the initial problem that really irritates customers, it’s how a company handles it.

b. Use your VRU.  I occupied the first few minutes of the call listening to hold messages and staring into space.  Had one of these recorded messages mentioned an outage, or if I’d been able to find this information via the phone tree, I would have been satisfied and hung up.  Time Warner Cable offers this feature in New York City, and it’s quite useful.

Ditto the good customer service experience.

c. Use my email address. Why did I give you my email address and opt in for messages if you don’t use it to send me information that is actually important?  A company like VW could use notifications like any airlines and banks do.  And like the airlines and banks, such alerts could be promoted as a customer benefit.

2.  Leverage your team (even if you have to rethink your definition of “team”).

The blowback from this kind of episode reaches far beyond an unnecessary thirty minute call.  A talented customer service didn’t have the information she needed and poured herself into an unsolvable problem.  Then she was embarrassed and apologized when she heard what the tech said (even though I assured her that the situation was not her fault).  This should never happen: there are many ways that a company like VW can communicate with its call centers in real time.  A rep reads a screen, and it’s over.

And how about the tech guy?  He’s taking what I would consider non-technical calls, his queue is endless and he can’t help customers the way he would like.

What do these circumstances do to employee morale?

Will these two employees stay, but harden their attitudes (and complain to fellow employees)?

Will they ultimately talk about their work experiences on the Web?  Could that keep good prospects away?

If you multiply my experience by a thousand or two, will either of them quit, thereby producing more churn, more expense (which VW will pass on via its pricing) and more customer interactions with less-experienced staff?

And so the wheel turns…

Gestures that may seem small can produce mighty ripple effects from one end of a business ecosystem to the other.  As consumer behaviors and habits change, as technology changes, as internal systems change… a company must constantly put itself in the path walked by the customer (and its own staff) in order to discover and address opportunities to make things better.  And the real day-to-day magic isn’t in the big system rewrites or product announcements – it can be in the small adjustments. 

Observe the small things, and the ripple effect might just flow in the opposite direction.

A version of this post was originally published HERE on the Marketing Executives Networking Group’s blog, MENGBlend

It was my pleasure to be interviewed by Peppers & Rogers1to1 Magazine for a story on the evolution of branding.  My responses were folded into the article “Hasbro Gives Control of Its Brand to Customers” HERE

Below is an expanded version of my answers.  It’s a topic that’s at the very core of how I think about brands, communications and the marketplace.  I would welcome your thoughts.

I’m doing a story about the evolution of branding: particularly the growing influence of the customer experience in branding strategy.  How is branding strategy different now than it used to be?
The biggest difference is that a “brand” is something that marketers and companies are accustomed to controlling. In the past, a company sent all of the brand messages that general audiences heard.  Brands pulled the strings – they had all the information that was to be had, and so were able to manage consumer expectations and impressions. In that kind of world, an unhappy customer or supplier – or a disgruntled employee or competitor – could only reach as many people as were in his or her own circle of friends and associates.

Today, any individual can reach literally millions of people in real-time.  The message is whatever each person wishes it to be.  Even if that message is inaccurate or unflattering, its reach is almost limitless.  And a message someone posts can grow in influence as others pick it up and begin circulating it to ever larger circles – that’s how something becomes “viral” – which means that marketers have to be as viral as their customers, ever- vigilant and ready to address whatever comes their way from any corner of the world.

A quick example is Motrin. Motrin created an ad in 2008 that used an irreverent tone in an effort to sympathize with moms who have sore backs from carrying their infants.  This offended some moms,  Had this happened in 1988, you probably would not have heard about it unless you were personally close to one of these women.  Today, moms created and posted angry videos of their own online, the Motrin ad was viewed 400,000 times on YouTube and thousands of comments were posted on Twitter alone.  And this happened on a Saturday, by the way: we’re on consumer time now, not brand time.  So same reaction, perhaps, as many might have had 20 years ago, but much bigger megaphone.

This is something that companies and marketing teams are not organized to address – and it exposes all elements of a brand, warts and all, 24/7.  Brands are no longer the shouters: they’ve got to be the listeners. For brands that embrace a conversational relationship with the market, this can be an exciting experience that ultimately creates even more respect and love for a brand.  But for marketers who are accustomed to maintaining a tight rein, there are fundamental challenges ahead.

Branding used to be a way to gain awareness to a mass audience. But tools like social media, more robust customer data, and increased online activity in general seem to be pushing branding toward more personal engagement. What are your thoughts?
I don’t think it’s an either/or: each makes the other better.  Better data helps companies spend their mass advertising budgets more effectively and more precisely, which in turn provides air cover for more personal, individual efforts on the ground.  But there’s no question that it’s always been somewhat difficult to measure the effect of many forms of mass media, and – as other customizable channels become even sharper – there will be even more pressure on companies and their media partners to “prove” value from TV and other big efforts.

Personal engagement has another effect, as well: it raises consumer expectations.  How many times have you heard a frustrated person say “but they know me!” in response to an email addressed in the wrong language, or to the opposite gender? Consumers now know that companies have all this data, and they expect to benefit from it.  How well this data is, in fact, applied may then have an impact on whether the market listens to any messages a brand might send in any channel.

How do trust and credibility play a role in branding strategy these days, and how is it different than before?
Everything’s laid bare now.  There is virtually no nugget of information that isn’t available with a quick Google search.  An employee can create a pseudonym, for example, and tell the world how things “really” work, or that a company is being misleading or untruthful.  There’s no way to hold things back, or sweep something under the rug anymore. 

This puts intense pressure on brands to be more authentic and more worthy of consumers’ trust.  Let’s say a company manufactures merchandise overseas in unacceptable or even illegal conditions: in the past it could continue to do so for years, if not forever.  Now that people walk the globe with high-speed Internet access and cell phones that capture video, those times are over.  And if a company does get “caught” doing something today, these dynamics make the blast exponentially more damaging.

Where do you see the future of branding headed?
I’m hopeful about the future. My own professional community is full of marketers who understand that a brand is no longer corporate IP that needs to be policed and protected: it’s the beating heart of the enterprise. Instead of being talked at, consumers want to talk with a brand, and see the very human passion behind what you sell.  That can be scary, but it’s also pretty darn exciting.

What’s the biggest challenge to getting there?
One of the most difficult challenges is the uneven level of understanding and expectations of those who surround the marketer: the CEO, the CFO, the pressured head of sales and the Board, to name a few.  Executives already know what television advertising or print is, no explanation needed.  There’s comfort in that.  There’s going to be a lot of uncertainty and skepticism about dipping into a world that looks a little crazy, to do something a brand’s never done before.  And the road won’t be smooth: it’s already difficult to explain why something “negative” that’s said online is par for the course and why the brand must continue to engage, not back away.  I am very empathetic to the people on both sides of that table.

Any other thoughts?
For those who already know that good ideas rarely come from sitting behind a desk and who get charged up by listening to product users, prospects and partners, this is a great world.  Assuming a brand is being authentic, there is no real “bad” feedback – there are only lessons that help make you better and better.  There’s going to be plenty of trial and error, but this is all about getting closer to your customer, and that’s a great thing.

 

Two Small Moments, 9 Years Apart

September 16th, 2010

by Stephanie Fierman

I opine regularly on customer service because for many businesses – particularly service businesses – the phrase is almost a misnomer.  Call it what you will: the employees who take calls, live chat with a shopper or interact in person are the brand.  No amount of ad dollars or coupons or general cajoling can overcome a bad experience(s) long-term.

For me, it’s almost a transcendental point.  Brands are about emotion. They’re about warmth, connection and a true, deep understanding that we must reflect back to the customer in order to create preference and earn loyalty. The sad fact – and opportunity – for businesses today is that it really takes so little. Consumers feel so beaten down by lousy service that the tiniest bit of helpfulness and sincerity has a magnified impact that radiates the brand message back out to the marketplace.  But for many companies, it’s not in the DNA: it can be more comfortable to advertise, fool with pricing and open mega-call centers, because that’s what we’re taught.   Then you get out into the real world and discover that, essentially, the golden rule is everything.

Go figure.

So let me tell you about two small moments that had a big impact.  They are certainly on a different scale, but I think they have something notable in common.

Moment #1:  September 21, 2001 – New York City.  I am a long-time New Yorker.  I don’t think it’s the only place in the universe to live, but it’s my home and I’m proud of it.  No matter how long I live here, the New York skyline still gets me every time I return from somewhere else.

On September 11, 2001, I was somewhere else and the flight freeze meant I couldn’t get home.  It sounds ridiculous, but I felt as though I should have been there. It’s my city.

I wasn’t there when it got hurt. I wasn’t there when friends died.

When I finally did make it back, I took the 6 train down to the Financial District.  I think it was September 21. When I climbed out of the subway, I found a planet I did not recognize.  Crowds were everywhere.  The sidewalk was thick with people, milling around, shouting to get each other’s attention, taking pictures and generally contributing to the chaos.  I took five or six steps out of the subway stairwell and and froze.  When I stopped, I noticed some gray particles floating in the air, landing on me.  It took me a few seconds to realize what they were.  

It was the end of the world, and all I could do was stand there under a big scaffold, staring in the direction of a still-smoking hole in the ground.

I don’t know how long I stayed immobile, with the flakes wafting down on my sweater.  It must have been a minute or two because suddenly a cop emerged from the sidewalk mosh pit.  He walked over to me, put his hand on my arm and said, “Are you ok, miss? Do you need help?” And then he stood there, waiting for the answer.  From me. One little person. He maintained eye contact and just waited, with the kindest look on his face.

Snapped out of my daze, I immediate said I was fine, embarrassed that I’d taken this guy away from the melee.

I have never forgotten that moment, and never will.  That cop had everything more important to do, but he took a couple seconds to care.  He put a human face on the inhuman.  I think he saved me, in a fashion, right there on the sidewalk. 

I’m not saying that I having paid attention to reality in the last nine years, but that experience changed my view of the New York City Police Department brand, just a little bit, forever.  

Moment #2:  September 11, 2010 – a Target store in suburban New Jersey.  I might as well tell you that I’m addicted to online Target coupons at the moment, and had a fistful of them when I rolled my cart up to check-out yesterday.  Among my treasures were two units of the same product, so I had simply printed two of the same $1-off coupon.  I’d been wondering how Target controlled for one person printing the same coupon over and over, but hey: who am I to question a larger life force?  Plus, the last time I was in the same store, the clerk let me use both (yes, I’d done this before), so I thought I was in good shape.

Once this new clerk had scanned and bagged my purchases, I gave her the small pile of coupons.  I don’t think we’d made eye contact yet.  When she got to the two identical coupons, she handed one back to me and said, “Yyeahhh [pause] the story with this is [pause] you can only use [pause] one of these coupons.” Now I wouldn’t say she put her arm up to her face to block a strike, exactly, but she looked… uncomfortable.  It was pretty obvious that she’d said these words before with less-than-pleasant results and was bracing for impact.

Busted!  Darn it. In a split second I decided whether or not I was going to whine to get the second dollar (“But the last time you took them! Wahhhh!”), but it just seemed so not worth it.  She really looked pretty miserable and – as a result – any hissy-fit I might have been working up to just lost steam.

I just looked at her and said “OK.”

She looked back, startled, and thanked me

Odd. And now she was staring at me. 

As I began to wrestle with the bags, the woman said, “Let me see that other coupon.”  I figured maybe there was some other deal she was going to give me, or maybe she just wanted to throw it away, or whatever.

She took the second coupon, scanned it to give me the second dollar off and said [quote], “I just love how you handled that.”

After I pushed out a “Huh?” she just repeated herself, smiling and shaking her head, looking visibly relieved.  I made an off-hand comment that I’d been working on not sweating the details and she responded, “Well it’s great.  It’s working.”

Interesting.

By taking a breath for just a second and factoring in someone else’s vibe, I not only got better service but some seriously positive karma, as well.  The next time I go to that store, that moment is what I’ll be thinking about.

So this post, my friends, is about two things.  One, I wanted to tell a story in remembrance of 9/11 and what was lost.  Second, both stories (plus the one about the JCrew supervisor several weeks ago) are about tiny actions that made a big difference.  Moments in which someone acted human and kept the big picture in sight (when maybe we expected the opposite).  These are the interactions – the moments of truth – that are remembered and associated with your brand in the person’s mind.

If you have a business and/or nurture a brand, reinforce for yourself and your organization what you want that association to be and commit yourself to injecting these moments into the experience of your prospects and customers.  And as I mentioned earlier, the horrible condition of customer service is good for the rest of us: it means that you can create these experiences, frankly, without jumping all that high.

And away from work, I suspect all of us could use a few more of these moments for ourselves and others, as well.  Do something different.  The smallest kindness might produce something surprising.