Friday, October 22, 2010

Customer service makes (or breaks) your brand

I just spoke to a group of high school students this morning about branding. I told them, as I've told many other audiences, that marketers control only one thing when it comes to influencing their brands: consistency. You've got to be consistent in everything that affects perceptions: communication, product quality, appearance of everything from packaging to what your building looks like, and especially your service to customers.

Read this excerpt from an article by Josh Bernoff (Marketing News, "Viewpoint: Customer Service is Marketing," Oct. 30, 2010), who co-authored the book, Groundswell. Bernoff makes this point solidly and convincingly:

"Heather Armstrong is just a mom. In 2009 she was due to have her second child and she knew, as all second-time moms do, what was coming: laundry. Lots and lots of laundry. So she bought a new $1,300 Maytag washing machine. You know, Maytag, the dependability people.

"Unfortunately, her Maytag let her down and so did her Maytag repairman. Three attempts to repair the machine did not remedy the problem. Desperate, sleep-deprived and surrounded by milk- and poop-stained onesies, Armstrong called the service department at Maytag central, which is part of Whirlpool. After reaching what she calls 'the snootiest customer service person I have ever talked to in my life,' she finally reached the breaking point.

"Here’s where you find out that I haven’t told you the whole truth. Heather Armstrong is a mom, alright, but she’s not just a mom. She has this blog called Dooce that has a readership of around 350,000 unique visitors a month. Her following is incredibly devoted, so she has resources that many consumers don’t. Here’s how she describes the end of her encounter with Maytag:

"And here's where I say, do you know what Twitter is? Because I have over a million followers on Twitter. If I say something about my terrible experience on Twitter, do you think someone will help me? And she [the customer service representative] says in the most condescending tone and hiss ever uttered: 'Yes, I know what Twitter is. And no, that will not matter.'

"Armstrong’s million Twitter followers then see this tweet: So that you may not have to suffer like we have: DO NOT EVER BUY A MAYTAG. I repeat: OUR MAYTAG EXPERIENCE HAS BEEN A NIGHTMARE.

"In that moment, years of Maytag branding begin to vaporize in the heat of a mother scorned.

"You may think you are doing branding. You may advertise, build websites and generate leads, but what are you doing with customers after you’ve sold them? Are you trying to keep the cost of service low? Or are you recognizing their potential to either help you or trash you?

"You think this doesn’t matter? Let’s look at some numbers. Based on our estimates at Forrester Research, people generate approximately 500 billion online impressions on one another about products and services every year. This includes Facebook, Twitter and other social networks; it also includes blogs, discussion forums and online ratings. For perspective, Nielsen Online estimates the total number of online advertising impressions in a 12-month period (ending in September 2009) at a hair under 2 trillion, so people are generating one-fourth as many impressions on each other as the entire marketing industry is generating. Guess which impressions they’re actually likely to believe. Who’s the influential one here, Maytag or Dooce?

"If you think carefully about this, you realize that nearly everything companies think about customer service is backward. If word of mouth is this important, why are you trying to save every last customer service dollar, putting people through interactive voice response phone trees and sending them to support reps in the Philippines or India? The only difference between you and Maytag is luck. The more you economize on customer service, the more likely you’ll get hit with your own Dooce moment sometime soon.

"There is a way out, and that is to do everything possible to find unhappy people and turn them around. People notice this sort of thing. It turns the power of that word of mouth to your advantage because now customer service is marketing...."

"The next time you are trying to decide where to put that next marketing dollar, consider ways that you can turn your customer service into marketing because customers believe other customers much more than they believe you."

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Really, really risky market testing

I just can't pass up two recent branding blunders that exemplify the "ready-fire-aim" mentality of some marketers.

Example 1: Drake University
I hate picking on another institution in our own Missouri Valley Conference, but for crying out loud, they deserve it. Several weeks ago Drake University announced it had cooked up this really clever admissions positioning effort called "D+." University officials were busy explaining to the world that D+ doesn't mean what YOU think it means, it means what THEY think it means -- in other words, the advantages of a Drake education. Then they took this new campaign to their faculty. The faculty (and most others in their market and beyond it) thought that the Drake marketing team was either nuts, or drunk, or both. After suffering through their momentous roll-out of this dud, Drake revamped the concept and has discontinued using "D+."

Example 2: GAP
By now you've heard about the big GAP debacle. GAP, the national clothing retailer, announced plans to change its logo and product packaging from the familiar blue square to a revamped version of "Gap." No sooner was this announced than customers -- the people they should have talked to first about this idea -- went berserk. They hated, no, they despised the change and in a matter of hours of online social networking forced GAP executives to scuttle their plans for the new logo.

I'm not sure when marketers will ever learn this about their brands, but let me restate: You don't control your brands. Your customers do. If you mess with their brands before consulting with them first, you are destined to ridicule and failure.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Boeing learns that brands are built on little things

In presentations about branding, I continually tell audiences that solid brands are built through activities that have nothing to do with slogans and logos and billboards. What really counts are interactions with customers, the look of a lobby, the response to a complaint, employees saying the right things in social settings, and so forth. I use the analogy of an iceberg in which most of the ice -- the part the keeps everything floating -- is below the water line. (See my blog post from April 5, 2008.)

Boeing recently learned how this works when an 8-year-old boy sent the giant corporation a drawing of an airplane he had designed. You can read about it here. Fortunately, it has a happy ending -- for the kid and for Boeing.

Don't ever forget that brands are NOT built on fancy slogans and slick collateral material. Brands are built on a long series of little interactions with people. Period. End of lecture.

(Still in doubt? Reread The Nordstrom Way by Patrick McCarthy.)

Monday, October 4, 2010

Marketing's yin and yang

As hard as it is to admit sometimes, Scott Adams generally has the marketing profession figured out. His strip on Oct. 1 hit the nail on the head when it comes to one of marketing's greatest challenges: It's both an art and a science.

Sure, these days there's a lot of science that goes into marketing. The recent focus on marketing ROI has decreased the level of risk marketers can afford, meaning that a lot more science and a lot less subjective judgment goes into marketing strategy. As it should.

But marketing is about people, and people are fickle. No matter how technical we become with our science, marketing will always embrace a good dose of art -- or "mostly guessing" as Adams puts it.

Bottom line: Marketers need to be seasoned pros at what they do. They need to be well invested in their craft, in understanding people and in understanding the world around them. Our guesswork, while still subjective to some degree, can be informed and expert. The challenge to marketers is to always be in learning mode and committed to ongoing self improvement.

Beware the marketers who come at their work only from a scientific perspective because they only have half the skill set required to do their work. The best marketing strategies are a dynamic blend of the best of science and the best of art.