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Mar 30, 2023

Quick – what’s the most important marketing weapon a brand has in its arsenal?

Clue: It’s not advertising. It isn’t PR. It isn’t social media. And it isn’t even the products themselves.

The answer is, of course (well, to HR folk anyway), its people.

For even though more and more people now do much their shopping online, it’s often how an organizations’ employees have interacted with customers (and the brand experience they delivered), that matters most.

We know this because the customer experience is a social one driven by emotion. Whether it’s a restaurant, a shoe store, or an airline, the way customers feel about their interactions with the people serving them on the frontline is the heart of the brand experience.

Each exchange either strengthens or weakens the customer’s bond with the brand. And what customers think about a company and the way it treats them has the power to make or break that relationship. Great products and smart advertising are potent marketing weapons, but the customer experience trumps everything. That’s why it’s so crucial that companies build great cultures and pay attention to their people.

It all seems simple enough. Big or small, as your company expands, you hire people, train them up in your way of doing things, and hold them accountable.

On paper, it should work. But way too often it doesn’t. So why is this?

It’s not about training, it’s about hiring

For decades, companies have spent billions of dollars getting, developing, and implementing bigger, better, longer training – but often it hasn’t delivered.

To us this mean the solution isn’t training at all.

To us it’s hiring the right people to begin with.

When a customer’s experience of the brand — that is, his or her impression of what it’s like to do business with the company — fails to meet the expectation set by the advertising, it creates a disconnect.

This disconnect is often irreparable, and in some circumstances, it has the power to create a passionately disaffected customer, otherwise known as a “brand terrorist.”

Compare this situation to the best advertising – which leverages something inherently true and valuable about a brand and delivers it to current and new customers in a compelling way. This advertising is the type that invites people to experience the brand and makes an implicit promise to deliver what it’s selling.

But that’s why promises can so easily be broken by a surly, inattentive, or otherwise disengaged employee. In this case, hiring this person does more harm than good to the brand.

Research on word-of-mouth communication suggests people are 10 times more likely to talk about a negative experience than a positive one. And social media makes it easier than ever to share that misery with the world.

Evangelists are your greatest asset

On the flip side, great customer experiences have the opposite effect. An army of wildly satisfied customers can function as brand ambassadors or “evangelists” and dramatically reduce the need to advertise in the traditional sense.

Starbucks, Harley-Davidson, and The Container Store are just a few of the companies that rely almost exclusively on positive customer experiences to do the bulk of their advertising for them. While Chick-fil-A is a heavy advertiser, the company’s high customer service level allows it to steer clear of product discounts — a margin-erasing tactic that drives the rest of the industry.

Instead, Chick-fil-A uses its advertising dollars to build and reinforce its already formidable brand and to create further identity distinction in a category consumed by parity.

As a result, its legions of loyal followers are the envy of the industry, as are the revenue and profits the brand generates per location.

Until a company is delivering an optimal customer experience through excellent and consistent customer service, it isn’t well positioned to achieve maximum benefit from advertising or any other marketing activity.

The marketing process should begin and end with the customer experience.

Service excellence requires a shared commitment among leadership, sustained institutional attention, and deliberate practice over time. But it’s a critical starting point for the entire marketing planning process.

Great marketing only happen when firms hire the right people.

That’s why HR and marketing should share an office.

Keys to success (from the ultra-successful)

In researching his book Firms of Endearment, Dr. Raj Sisodia discovered that companies holding excellent customer service as one of their core tenets returned an average of 1,111% over a 10-year period as compared with 122% for the S&P 500 over the same period.

“What’s most significant about this is that we didn’t set out to find companies that outperform the stock market,” Sisodia said in a presentation. Sisodia was looking for examples of companies driven by passion and purpose when he found the corresponding impressive financial performance that also tied back to a relentless focus on the customer experience.

The list of companies he identifies in the book as standouts include Amazon, BMW, CarMax, Commerce Bank, Container Store, Costco, eBay, Harley-Davidson, Honda, IKEA, JetBlue, LL Bean, Patagonia, REI, Southwest Airlines, Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, UPS, Wegmans Food Markets, and Whole Foods. Among the practices

Sisodia says these companies ’employ to ensure great customer experiences’ by doing the following things:

  • They hire people with a passion for their work, resulting in better employee retention
  • They pay relatively modest executive salaries, but giving rank-and-file employees more in salaries and benefits than comparable companies
  • They cultivate a culture of openness from the top down
  • They devoting time to developing employees
  • They empower employees at all levels to make on-the-spot decisions to ensure customer satisfaction
  • They create close relationships with customers
  • They view corporate culture as a great business asset
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