Who's defining your brand?

Written by Daniel Hough on .

A few years ago, while living in Central NJ, I needed to purchase a birthday present for my wife and so, like most people in Jersey who need to go shopping, I went to ‘the mall’. The one nearest us was pretty much your run of the mill NJ mall, complete with a food court (offering decidedly unhealthy & heart stopping fare), a roster of typical mall stores, and the obligatory department store anchors, in this case three of them, each having their own unique brand positioning; one serving a slightly upscale market, one an iconic regional chain with a long and storied history in the Northeast, and one a national chain geared to the cost conscious consumer.

Customer Service

Now personally, I was more or less indifferent when it came to which department store I shopped at. Sometimes it depended on which store carried the item I wanted, sometimes it was simply about the price, and sometimes it just depended on where I found parking and thus which one was closest to me.

This time however, my wife coveted a specific item of clothing at the more upscale store, so it was there that I found myself walking up to a young lady at the register with item in hand to make my purchase. It was then that something extraordinary happened.

As the sales associate was preparing to ring up the sale she stopped, inspected it more closely, and then told me there was a flaw that I hadn’t noticed (but that my wife surely would have). She told me to wait at the register and proceeded to go across the store, came back with a replacement, and inspected it with me to insure there were no imperfections. She then completed the transaction and came around the register to hand me the bag while thanking me BY NAME for my purchase.

I was transformed! I had never had a customer experience like that. Not only was I saved from a decidedly unhappy birthday celebration, I was also treated as if I was a valued and important customer while being thanked personally for my purchase! As a result of that one encounter those many years ago, to this day I remain a devoted and loyal customer of that department store brand, seeking it out whenever possible over many other brands.

Thus is the potential power of the brand’s customer experience. It can transform how a brand is perceived, positively or negatively, and it can happen in an instant but last a lifetime.

Of course, any company worth its salt knows that its customer experience is important for its brand. However, what some fail to realize is the role the employee plays in determining what the customer experience will be. In my transformative experience, the employee I dealt with was a decisive factor. And while I don’t know what motivated her to do what she did, whether it was the training she received, the culture the company created, or the fact that she felt valued and vested in the company, it worked.

The reality is that employees are the ambassadors of a brand, whether they’re in a customer-facing role, involved in producing a product or service, or serve in a support or service function. What they do, and how they go about doing it can and often does, make or break a brand.

But it doesn’t stop with simply making employees happy so they’re effective ambassadors of a brand. It’s also about employee engagement as perceptions of how a company treats its employees have the potential to enhance or hurt a brand as well. Heck, just go into any Starbucks if you want to see this dynamic in action. Starbucks is well known for investing in its employees regardless of position by providing benefits, fair compensation, and a sense of self-esteem and shared sacrifice that is atypical in most large food service concerns. The result is a brand that is not only legendary in some circles, but also one that commands a premium price for what is pretty much a glorified cup of coffee!

That is why much of the work we do for our clients incorporates not only the perceptions of a brand among external stakeholders, but also among internal stakeholders as well. This includes how they see themselves contributing to the organization’s goals and objectives, the extent to which they are valued or not, and what they see as the barriers or obstacles to delivering on a brand promise.

So while it is important to understand what impact the customer experience is having on a brand, it often is even more important to know how employees think, feel and act when it comes to the brand and their role in helping to define it.

Have you had a defining, employee driven customer experience that has impacted your choice of brand? Share your customer experience below!


#5 J.m Rivas 2013-10-22 09:57
Great Blog. Points out a quantum change in our purchasing perceptions over the last 20 some years. Concentrating on good service at reasonable prices just became too much "trouble" for many companies. I think the decision was made to use "low price" rather than "quality service" as the model. That allowed foreign products, cheap labor, and planned obsolescence. I ask what motivates us more now? Great customer service or lowest possible price. Everything has a cost. I'm thinking you paid more for that item there, than you could have purchased it elsewhere. Thanks for reminding us that quality is still important and enduring in merchandising. Just IMO…
#4 Daniel Hough 2013-10-21 15:21
Kristin, while living in Central NJ, the nearest Nordstroms was a long way away, so I didn't discover the joy of shopping there until we moved to Chicago. Sometimes I would use the Nordstroms on the Mag Mile as a pass through from Rush to Michigan Ave so I could simply soak in the service! No, the store in the post was actually Lord & Taylors. While not the level of Nordstroms, I still find them better than most suburban department stores.
#3 Pam Brammann 2013-10-21 13:49
The sales associate likes her job, which was apparent in the way she treated you at checkout.

As you said, "investing in its employees regardless of position by providing benefits, fair compensation, and a sense of self-esteem" will go far.

It's unfortunate that so many corporations in the USA do not understand this simple concept.
#2 Kristin Dafoe 2013-10-09 13:34
Daniel, based on your description of the check-out process, I'd bet anything that you were shopping at Nordstrom.

What was the give-away? The salesperson walking around the counter and handing you the bag. It's pretty amazing that that gesture conjures up all the positive feelings I have towards that brand. Nordstrom prides themselves on customer service and their consistency makes all the difference!

(If it's a different retailer then I am intrigued by the idea that Nordstrom 'owns' that gesture in my mind - still good branding and customer service)!
#1 Ellen Sluder 2013-10-09 13:09
Isn't it interesting that our expectations of customer service are so low that we really get surprised when we're treated well? As much as companies state that their people are their biggest asset, often the investment needed to make employees feel that way (and to pass along the goodwill to clients) doesn't follow.

Customer service never goes out of style! It will always been a source of sustainable goodwill-buildi ng, whether it differentiates you or not. A really solid internal branding and employee engagement program may take resources to implement but the ongoing maintenance will pay off -- it's proven again and again.

It's also a tough reality that sometimes we consumers take service for granted and are only really vocal about it when something goes wrong/expectati ons aren't met. Makes the effort put into customer service seem unrewarded at times. But in this day and age, one negative experience can really bring a brand down. It's not worth the risk.

There are brands that have definitely won me over with their service - from the nail salon that offers a free 5 minute massage while my nails dry, to the incredibly helpful folks at TiVo who clearly want me to enjoy a better TV viewing experience - even though the local provider's DVR is probably a few dollars cheaper. I even had a great experience with my mortgage company's service to the point that when we moved, we didn't even consider shopping it around.

My life is too harried and full to put up with little annoyances. I'm happy to pay a premium to get treated with premium quality.

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