Part four of a new series from Smith+Co exploring business value, communication and empathy. Part one: Lessons on brand values from sinners and saints. Part two: How to adopt a value-led approach to handling a brand crisis. Part three: How leading brands build empathy into their CX - and how you can too.
If you're not moving forward, you're going backwards; because in today's markets there's no room for a static brand. If a team's success is simply down to a group of individuals accidentally gelling, then that brand is doomed. Individuals come and go, and there's not two of them the same.
If a brand just happens to have a good team in any given department at any given time, and its culture and training hasn't been delivered as intentional employee engagement, then that business is simply very lucky. Sadly, luck has the tendency to run out.
So what is it that keeps a team at the top of their game?
If you have a holistic brand vision, an ambitious strategy, and the need to deliver an empathetic customer experience, the next step is to embark on a branded customer experience training initiative to make this the reality.
Earlier in this series for MyCustomer, we explored empathy and its nuances, but there's a danger with customer experience content that the argument can become entirely theoretical. What actually needs to happen in the daily tasks of brand leaders to move the business forward? How do you galvanise the new generation of employees and align the unique nature of today's work teams in an ever-complex digital context?
Many organisations have company or brand values or a customer focus statement, yet only a few bring these alive for their people in a way that enables them to bring it alive for their customers. The reason for this is that most organisations see training as the solution; but all too often, it’s actually part of the problem. Here’s why: it’s based on generic customer service programmes rather than grounded in the brand promise and desired customer experience. Coupled with this, training is usually wholly HR-owned and often seen as ‘just training'. Training content is often bland, formulaic and rarely delivered when people actually need it or have the time for it.
So what’s the solution?
In short, if you want to create a differentiated experience, create differentiated training at three levels:
- HEAD - knowing what to do and why it is important.
- HEART - being motivated to do it.
- HANDS - having the skills and tools to behave in that way.
So, without further ado, let me describe for you our Smith+Co approach to branded training.
To give you some context, this is the approach I took when working with a particular luxury cosmetic brand to redesign a differentiated customer experience, one that would set them apart from their competitors and improve their sales, conversion and client retention rates.
Let’s start by getting the bad news out of the way – first off; quick-fix, off the shelf, training solutions rarely work. Why? Because the objective is all wrong; they seek to change behaviour based on what they believe 'good' looks like. It’s totally hit and miss, based on assumptions about what generic customers consider a great customer experience to be. At best, some of those traits identified might be relevant to your target customers – but even then there will be nothing unique about the experience or your brand.
Let’s start by getting the bad news out of the way – first off; quick-fix, off the shelf, training solutions rarely work.
Never is this more relevant than in the world of luxury brands, where customer expectations are high and competition is fierce. Providing a good, or even great customer experience isn’t enough. You need to differentiate from your competitors in a way that is completely on-brand, you should be looking to create positive lasting memories that get your customers talking, sharing and coming back for more.
Lead from the top
It won’t surprise you to learn that the most successful customer experience initiatives are led from the top. Senior management buy-in is key, if your business heads don’t see the value of developing an aligned branded customer experience, then sadly it’s bound to fail. So put simply, this is your starting point – seek not only an endorsement but a commitment to stand behind the project, put their name to it and communicate its importance to others.
In the case of the luxury brand I was working with, the CEO took the lead from the outset, clearly laying out to her own direct reports the purpose of the project, her expectations and how success would be measured. In turn, those direct reports filtered down the information to their own reports, their field managers and the stores. From the outset, the expectations were set and everyone was aligned.
Your brand proposition is your foundation
Your next priority is your brand proposition and desired customer experience. Ensure that you are absolutely clear on the brand proposition, the expectations of your most profitable target customers, and your desired customer experience.
This then creates a context for the training of management and frontline staff so that the behaviours you facilitate are directly linked to the experience you want for your customers, and most importantly, the elements of your experience that your customers value and cherish. Your frontline people need to know, at a detailed level, what customers expect and value, what the brand promises and what their role is in delivering it.
Think innovatively about the hallmark touchpoints
These are the areas where your people will really need to dramatise the promise in order to differentiate the experience. This is where to dramatise the training also. For example, if you want to make simplicity a hallmark of your customer experience, then the style of learning needs to be really simple too. If innovation is a key brand value, then guess what - innovate.
Evolutionary training not revolutionary
One common mistake when trying to create differentiated training is to label all the old training initiatives as redundant. It‘s important to honour the learner’s previous learning experience, so try and build on the positive aspects of existing programmes where possible and integrate them within the new initiative.
If you want your branded customer experience training initiative to really work, if you want behaviours to change, not just in the frontline, but in every area of your organisation, then you need to promote ownership.
One way you can do this is by enabling your people to take ownership for designing the training (and not just HR). Whether you’re using external experts to help you in the design, or simply your own internal people, we recommend creating a design team of experts. In the case of the retailer I was working with we had representatives from training, marketing, HR and retail field managers, who helped us shape the training design and ensure it was relevant, realistic, engaging, and appropriately linked to other initiatives.
Keep it loose/tight
It's common to find organisations that want to create a deliberately consistent customer experience setting tight guidelines, rigid standards, or strict service rituals that need to be followed.
For example, before starting their project with Smith+Co, the luxury brand I was working with had trained all their sales associates to share the story of their heritage with each client – their desire was to form a strong connection, a link to their past. Very sensible, but it wasn’t working for them. Why? Because it wasn’t authentic, it seemed staged, rehearsed and slightly robotic. And this is quite common – the desire to provide consistency is often at the cost of authenticity, but it doesn’t have to be.
One common mistake when trying to create differentiated training is to label all the old training initiatives as redundant.
Be tight about the things that are important – your brand values, the way you want your customers to ‘feel’ when they enter your store - but be loose about the way your employees deliver that experience. Create a framework (which will ensure a level of consistency) that provides individuals with the freedom to personalise, build natural empathetic relationships with customers that are unique to their personalities and meet the individual needs of every customer. And yes, they do need to be great storytellers in the context of what the client wants to hear, not what the marketers dictate.
Appoint brand champions
Your brand champions will already be acting as your advocates and capturing the voice of the employees. These are people who can help you spread the word, influence its success and reinforce communications.
As such, it’s a good idea to make them part of the design team and get their buy in. Select them carefully: natural influencers, credible communicators, good people skills, respected and liked.
Create a training experience that impacts right from the start
One way is to create a launch event where you treat your participants as your guests, with managers acting as hosts. Think about how you can create the type of experience for your employees that you wish them to create for customers. What can you do to make them feel special and lift the training out of the usual background ‘noise’ of the organisation?
Brand your training
Create an inspiring look and feel that runs throughout all the communication about the training, and through the training materials themselves. Although you need to build on existing learning, think of new ways of differentiating the style and approach from everything that has been done before. You want to excite people about the initiative.
Measure it against key strategic objectives
Senior management commitment is achieved by a clear, compelling business case, which links the initiative to results and the means to track performance. For this reason, ensure that you include a measurement process so that the impact can be monitored.
A customer experience scorecard will enable you to combine customer experience measures with frontline performance so that your training is measured by something more meaningful than ‘happy sheets’ at the end of the workshop.
And finally ……
At the risk of being repetitive – remember there is no quick-fix. Branded customer experience training is a journey, one you need to plan and prepare for, one where you will in all likelihood experience bumps and challenges, but one that ultimately will reap great rewards.
About Sophie Langham
Previously Head of Retail Training at Sky. I have over 20 years of experience in retail sales training and design. During my time with Sky I was responsible for the retail launch and rollout of key products including Sky Digital, Sky+ and Sky HD. I headed up the rollout of Sky Stores across shopping centres in Ireland, consulting on store positioning, brand, design, training and on-going performance management. Improving performance through offering a great customer experience forms the foundation for all my design work. Since joining Smith+Co in 2016, I have worked with clients in the luxury cosmetic and fashion sectors, helping them first to define and then to deliver an exceptional customer experience for their clients.