By Louise Druce, staff writer
Brand is everything in business. Think how many times you’ve been looking to buy a new mobile phone, change your insurance company or book a holiday. Would you take a chance on a name you’ve never heard of and know nothing about, or would you choose a company that you know has a reputation for good customer service and reliable products?
It boils down to trust, reputation and word of mouth. Customers satisfied with the way they have been treated become the best ambassadors for a company, sharing their experience with friends, family and colleagues. Yet many firms are putting this in jeopardy by placing ‘brand saboteurs’ on the frontline.
These are the disengaged staff in roles such as sales or customer service who couldn’t care less that they are supposed to personify the company’s core values - let alone the fact that a customer has been on hold for the last 20 minutes.
Chatting on the phone or to colleagues when serving customers is the top bugbear for Britain’s consumers, according to research by employee engagement agency NKD Group. Inattentiveness, lack of interest and people who are obviously not listening leaves over half of us fuming, while pushy sales tactics were almost equally as annoying. What customers are looking for are the simple old-fashioned values of politeness and helpfulness.
“Companies need to stop assessing the cost of recruitment in terms of employee turnover and look at the wider picture – the impact of the right front line teams on overall business performance,” says Sue Stoneman, managing director of NKD. “Companies also need to pay more attention to basic customer service training alongside product training. When it comes to customer-facing employees, consumers want knowledgeable people who care.”
Another reason brand saboteurs make a customer think twice about using the company is the direct link between bad service and consumer perception of the company’s training programmes, monitoring and supervision of employees and recruitment policies. And if a firm can’t be bothered to employ good customer service staff, are they really going to pay enough attention to providing sound products?
One of the most effective ways for a company to get its message across to employees and out to customers is through brand coaching. But Kevin Keohane, head of engagement consulting at Enterprise IG and board member of the International Association of Business Communicators, remarks that most companies are “woefully behind” in this type of coaching.
“The penny has finally dropped for those who have squeezed all the costs out of their organisation and are scratching their heads wondering where the next battleground for growth is,” he says.
“A lot of marketing departments have put good brand training in place for their marketing people but it is only now becoming more widespread across other parts of the organisation. There is a huge opportunity to engage what I call ‘close stakeholders’ in the brand – that is, intermediaries, contractors and other non-employees who actually deliver key touch points along the customer journey.”
Kath Parrington, internal communications director at First Direct bank, also believes that brand should be embedded into all activities the organisation undertakes so that it is constantly reinforced. “A really strong brand will be consistent at every touch point – websites, letters, conversations, electronic messages, retail environments,” she emphasises.
“If people understand what the brand means to customers, they can ensure they represent the brand in all of their activities. Because the brand should be about how the customer feels, all activities should then focus on how the customer feels. A customer that feels recognised and valued is more likely to be a loyal customer who will purchase more and recommend the brand.”
Putting theory into practice
But how can this be successfully translated down to the frontline? Val Buckle is an operations manager with contact centre provider Merchants. In the last eight years she has worked on over 10 different brands including Royal & Sun Alliance, One2One, Unilever, Virgin and Capital One. She has undergone brand coaching to learn about the evolution of the brand, how it is developed and where it is going. The aim is to make contact agents feel more a part of it and understand and feel an affinity with the products they work on to match the expectations of consumers.
“It is important that, as agents, we all have great communications skills, are properly trained and have knowledge of the systems in place so they can deal effectively with customer enquiries,” she says. Although Buckle also cautions that the whole contact centre team must buy into the company and culture of the brand they work on.
“There can be a bit of a grey area when people are part of a large contact centre outsourcer where there are many different products and brands being worked on under one roof,” she adds.
“Without effective brand coaching, a contact centre would fail to deliver effectively for a customer. Employees need to live the brand through every level of the company. Brand coaching ensures that people feel they are working for the end company, not just the contact centre.”
At the end of the coaching process, agents were quizzed on their learning to gauge their understanding of the brand. Buckle estimates that up to 95 percent of the knowledge gained is being actively used when dealing with customers, which has led to more positive reactions on customer satisfaction surveys. Knowing about the product and understanding the problems that customers may encounter at the outset has also helped to resolves problems on the first call.
“This first time call resolution ultimately improves the bottom line as customers are happy and do not need to call the contact centre again,” remarks Buckle. “Our customers are sent out random customer satisfaction surveys and these show that we are consistently exceeding expectations. Agents all receive regularly updated coaching by the brand team and there is lots of branding in the contact centre itself (posters, products, etc.), so we all feel like we are part of the same organisation. This really comes across in the way we deal with customers.”
Preparing for brand take off
NKD was tasked with creating and implementing a customer service refresher programme for Virgin Atlantic’s 4,000 cabin crew members to build ‘collective pride’ in the brand and service experience. Rather than telling the employees what to do, the session aimed to motivate and engage them through a series of emotive films, a spoof radio show and a high-impact training event in a custom-built environment, involving discussion, self-evaluation exercises and challenges for the future.
One attendee comments: “Before joining Virgin Atlantic a few years ago, I only really knew abut Virgin Megastore. Being on the frontline, I learnt how critical I am to delivering what our brand stands for, why our customers love us and what I need to do to meet their expectations. Also, to remember that I had been recruited because Virgin thought I had the right skills to do the job.
“It has reinforced my perception of Virgin as an ambitious, forward-thinking company, but it has really helped me appreciate that Virgin’s brand is heavily dependent on the quality of us – its people – how well we work together, what service we give, our attitude towards customers and so on.
“I will definitely take this knowledge and skills to improve the service I give as crew. I have plenty of opportunity to do this (deliver brilliant basics and add more magic touches) as I deal with customers every day.”
Have a nice day
As Keohane points out, the jury is no longer out on the issue of whether or not better brand awareness and management can improve customer relations and, ultimately, the bottom line. It’s now a case of companies judging for themselves whether they can afford to put their reputation on the line by failing to set time aside from the day-to-day grind to keep this activity alive and employees constantly engaged.
He adds one final warning. “There is a line between brand reputation and common sense customer service that is becoming wider by the minute. While brands may aspire to having customers identify with that brand, it may be just as important to get the service basics right to close the gap between what the brand promises and what the customer actually experiences.
“I think a lot of brands are trying to run before they can walk and pay a high price. Don’t promise a garden of delights if you can’t be bothered to pick up the phone to answer customer service questions. And if you can’t do that, at least try to be nice!”
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