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May I help you? When branding meets customer service

10th Aug 2009
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A well-managed brand platform should guide both the language and behaviour of your employees. Larry Oakner looks at the firms who have got it right when it comes to championing a good customer experience and what we can learn from them.

“Next!” It's a line you often hear shouted by the counter person in a franchise fast food restaurant. If you’re the customer, the impersonal language of the server says that you are nothing more than the next ‘cheeseburger-do-you-want-fries-with-that?” order. But go down the block to another fast food establishment and you’ll find employees who have been trained to ask, “May I help the next guest, please?”
The art and science of customer service has been around for decades. Companies that deal directly with customers employ legions of consultants whose customer service training workshops, books and methods promise to improve the effectiveness with customers. Many of the positive interactions we have all experienced with companies within the past 10 years through the words and actions of employees are the product of well-trained, motivated people.
For the thousands of companies whose business depends on the instant impressions created during these 'moments of truth' between employee and customer, the words that employees use is more than just language. How your employees speak and interact with your customers is, quite simply, your brand brought to life.
A well-managed brand platform should guide both the language and behaviour of your employees. Certainly, the fundamentals of good customer service - courtesy, speed, listening, understanding and delighting - are true for every company. But every brand has its own unique brand personality characteristics and these should colour the language employees use with customers to help differentiate the company from its competition. The hamburger chain that considers its patrons as guests rather than simply food orders is likely to have a more appreciative and loyal clientele.
Here are some examples, both good and bad, that show how some companies have used their brand tone of voice with their customers.
On the right track
The Long Island Railroad serves nearly 300,000 riders a day between Long Island suburban towns and Manhattan. Over its 175-year history, the LIRR has been regularly cursed and praised by millions of riders who depend on it as their only transportation for their daily commute. From time-to-time, weather-related events, labour strikes and mechanical problems can disrupt service. When trains are delayed, thousands of people are inconvenienced.
Recently, when the LIRR had a significant system-wide two-hour plus delay caused by a minor train accident, the Railroad issued one of their many new explanatory leaflets. “We apologise to our customers…” the flyer begins and continues to explain in clear, honest, logical detail why the accident occurred as well as what the LIRR did during the problem and what they’re doing to prevent potential accidents in future.
The language is profusely apologetic: “We promise to do everything possible to provide a safe, reliable service to our nearly 300,000 daily customers. Again, “we apologise and will redouble our effort to avoid disruptions to your daily commute. And we thank you for choosing to ride the LIRR.” This is an example of an indirect interaction between the company and its customers, using the printed word as a way of serving customers and communicating the brand.
The rule of customer service
The Nordstrom brand is legendary for its commitment to customer service. Founded in Seattle, the well-trained employees of this high-end group of department stores live their brand promise of outstanding customer service through every interaction. Nordstrom’s corporate culture of outstanding service is humbly taught to their employees from their first day on the job. While many companies offer extensive training for their employees who are directly involved with customers, Nordstrom empowers their employees with only one rule for customer service. The complete guide to their rules for customer service reads as follows:
'Welcome to Nordstrom. We’re glad to have you with our company. Our number one goal is to provide outstanding customer service. Set both your personal and professional goals high. We have great confidence in your ability to achieve them. Nordstrom Rule #1: Use good judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.'
Allowing the Nordstrom employee who has been carefully chosen, interviewed and vetted by management to make their own personal judgment demonstrates Nordstrom’s commitment to serving its employees, as well as its customers. Their customer service brand is an example of direct interaction between employee and customer.
The heart of the matter
Abbott Vascular, a division of Abbott, is one of the world’s leading vascular care businesses. The company focuses on advancing vascular disease with some of the most advanced and innovative devices, such as drug-coated stents. When Abbott Vascular recently received final US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval, employees were poised at the ready to do whatever it took - stay up all night and work at record time - to custom wrap sterile packages and label and ship the life-saving device to doctors and hospitals for the first patients slated to receive one. 
While Abbott Vascular employees rarely interact with their ultimate customer, the patient, the impact of their commitment to customers is evident in one of their five operating principles: We keep customers first. Written into their action-oriented behavioural principles, it reads: Our ability to significantly impact our patients’ lives requires that we always keep their needs in mind…we have a responsibility to be responsive, and a commitment to care about our customers…” This is an example of an internal indirect action between employees and then to customer.
However a company’s employees interact with customers, the words they use - directly or indirectly - do more than communicate information about service policies, take orders or direct actions. The language of customer service is the brand incarnate.
Larry Oakner, brand director at CoreBrand, has spent more than 25 years building brands, positioning companies and managing strategic marketing projects. He has worked with Fortune 1500 companies including Bayer, Caterpillar, Lockheed Martin, Microsoft, and Dunn & Bradstreet.

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