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Channel tuning

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10th Apr 2007
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By Neil Davey, editor

It’s not only the vast conglomerates of the world that have multiple channels and outsourced functions in today’s market. You can go right the way down the corporate food chain and find firms with remote workers and outsourced operations. These can add efficiencies and competitiveness to an organisation - but it’s no wonder that companies can be so concerned about the implications for their brand.

“Imagine your impression of a restaurant if you went into one outlet and it was clean and the staff all smiled and were efficient and in another it was dirty and the staff looked miserable and were inefficient,” highlights Peter Hutton, managing director of BrandEnergy and a member of the Independent Consultants Group. “Confidence in the brand is very important. If one channel promises one thing but another channel contradicts this, it does nothing to instil confidence in the consumer.”

With a slew of factors shaping the service experience, retail/service brands have a particular challenge in this capacity. “Staff are your customer face – they have to look the part, sound the part and act the part,” says Nikki Brun, a training consultant at a major retailer. “And where the brand comes in is that they have to know what the customers think ‘the part’ actually is! That clearly needs to be identified and then followed through so that it is not just something that people hear about secondhand, but is continuously communicated. The business has to live the brand - the merchandise can be amazing, but if you don’t get the brand ‘follow through’ from the people then it will never be that great.”

Recently voted the most trusted brand on the High Street, Boots has had enormous success communicating its set of brand values. In addition to a marketing campaign with a tagline of “Trust Boots”, even its brand values are a mnemonic of trust – Trust, Respect, Understanding, Simplicity and Togetherness.

“The Boots strategy is to gain long-term customer loyalty through the expertise that we provide in customer care,” says Stuart Branch, director of organisation development at Boots. “That is absolutely explicit and implicit within the business. We are a health and beauty retailer and core to the business is healthcare. That healthcare is based on trust and respect that our customers have in us and we have in them.”

Product knowledge training

With a recruitment process that includes a competency-based element in addition to time spent in-store going through exercises, the company focuses on behaviour from the outset. It also conducts an induction programme that introduces employees into “the Boots mission, purpose and values as well as the task and process knowledge” that they are expected to learn according to Branch.

This is also followed by a fairly extensive product knowledge training. “Product knowledge is a real core part of our expertise that we have in our store colleague training which allows us to get to that real customer care that we have,” Branch adds.

But Boots’ strategy also encompasses recognition and reward schemes that are aligned to Boots brand values, including local incentive schemes whereby team managers and store managers are encouraged and enabled to reward on service and brand values being delivered through the business. “One of the ways that we've tried to ensure people live our values is through recognition schemes,” agrees Gary Thomas, Boots’ reward manager.

“We've implemented schemes aimed at celebrating people across the business that truly deliver in line with our brand and what it stands for. This included a gala dinner recently to celebrate our heroes. This type of recognition scheme, we believe, can act as a powerful lever for cultural change as it shows everyone what behaviours we want from our people.”

And the initiatives don’t stop there. A strategy greenlit earlier this year will see the company align performance management with brand values. “The performance management process will review both what employees have achieved and how they have done it,” says Branch. “How they have done it will be measured by behaviours that are derived from the brand values of trust, respect, understanding, simplicity and togetherness. This process isn’t in-store yet, but it is in the senior management population of the business and will cascade through the company over the next year or so.”

Keeping in-house employees managed and ‘incentivised’ to project consistent brand values is one challenge. But what if a function is outsourced? In 2005 Gartner highlighted the potential damage that outsourcing could do to the brand, suggesting that the outsourcing of customer service functions in particular could present significant risk of ‘diluting’ the brand. Nonetheless, firms have demonstrated that, approached strategically, even outsourced functions can personify the same brand values.

Outsourced but managed

Vodafone is a case in point. The company presents a strong brand image - what Andy Hill, Vodafone’s head of executive resourcing and development, describes as “red, rock and restless – red passionate, rock solid and restless to achieve.” Keen to engage more in the marketplace and have closer and deeper communication with its customers, Vodafone has been working to encompass every customer contact point. This has included the recruitment process, where Vodafone can project the brand and values whilst seeking new talent.

However, with Vodafone having outsourced some of its recruitment processes for the past four years, there is the issue of keeping the function aligned with the brand as if it were in-house. Hill admits that in the past there were concerns about ensuring that recruitment as a whole would project the right values - “one of our biggest problems was getting a brand-aligning candidate experience,” he suggests – but the company has strategically approached the challenge to keep the message consistent.

It takes its time in its choice of outsource company, and takes weeks to select the company it wishes to use. There is also then a six week handover period in which they are inducted to the other employees at Vodafone. But the process also involves not only keeping the outsourced functions within its sphere of influence – “they work on site with us and are managed by Vodafone managers,” Hill explains – but also working to ensure that all employees, including those that are outsourced, feel associated and connected to the organisation, “to protect that we outsource our recruitment, but still manage it.” Employees of the companies that Vodafone outsources to are therefore involved in all social events, management exercises and regular group meetings.

Outsource companies are assessed from time to time and to emphasise the importance of the candidate experience in the recruitment process, the outsourced organisation is rewarded on not only the quality of candidates selected and the efficiency of the process but also the experience of the applicants. With around 60 percent of available jobs in Vodafone filled by existing staff, company loyalty is high – perhaps in part due to the successful communication of brand values from the grass roots of the recruitment process.

Hutton agrees that even outsourced functions needn’t be an impediment to a consistent delivery of brand values across an organisation. “There is no reason why properly briefed and well managed outsourcing partners should not communicate consistent brand values and, indeed, this would be part of their remit,” he stresses.

“Many businesses are based on an outsourced franchising model. Fast food outlets like McDonald’s, KFC plus chains like Kwik-Fit, petrol stations, pub chains and so on. Here consistent brand values are absolutely at the core of the whole business model. Other businesses outsource certain functions such as call centres or IT. In the former case, language and culture or even regional accents have been issues, but the key to their success is generally effective IT that enables staff to access customer information quickly and efficiently - and, of course, well trained staff.”

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