There is a question I ask every client at the start of our relationship that often puzzles people. The usual response includes a slight sideways turn of the head, while eyes tend to squint. Then I hear a, “Huh? What do you mean by that?”
The question: How do you guard your brand reputation?
Have you ever asked yourself that? Guarding one’s reputation is harder than people think. It really depends quite a lot on the temperament of you and your employees, as well as your understanding of corporate philosophy as it relates to your brand. It relates to your mission statement and your goals.
How do you want to be perceived? How do you want your customers to feel after an interaction with you?
As brand development specialists and ambassadors, we can guide consumer perception to such a degree that we can accurately predict and to a large extent control their experience with your brand. Once the brand identity is developed, and the marketing campaign is launched, it is largely up to the company to cement the relationship with their prospective customers and ultimately to make the sale. But what happens after the sale is just as important to your bottom line as the sale itself.
How do you follow up with your customers? Do you contact them only in ways for which you have received permission, or do you make yourself an annoyance and lose their attention by blitzing them with unwanted emails, phone calls and non-targeted offers? Honoring an opt-out request may be the key to retaining a customer. Making sure that your marketing communications accurately portray your brand, and that they are precisely targeted, are good first steps. Personal and honorable follow-up helps ensure that the brand experience is pleasing throughout.
Most companies skip a significant portion of the brand development process, focusing only on the before, and failing to address the after until it has already passed. This is a squandered golden opportunity, and it has inevitably dire consequences. If you fail to define and guide customer perception and experience, the customer will do it for you.
Mining the Low Road
Let’s look at a couple of examples to illustrate the concept of brand reputation. Take Best Buy, who receives more complaints than most companies. In fact, Best Buy’s customer complaint department is larger than most corporate marketing departments. They abuse customer information (they call it capturing), discrimination is part of their customer service policy, and they regularly send email spam to their entire customer database. On pissedconsumer.com (no explanation needed for explaining this site), a search for Best Buy will reveal over thirty pages full of complaints from [now former] customers espousing on everything from failure to honor extended warranties, to discrimination for medical conditions, to relentless spamming, to ‘Geek Squad’ technical incompetency.
It seems that Best Buy has resigned themselves to having high customer turnover because they are unable and/or unwilling to provide good customer service. Their less than poor service damages their brand reputation at just about every turn. It would perhaps be easy for Best Buy to reverse the trend by providing thorough pre-sales information, honoring their extended warranties, closing their Geek Squad department or providing comprehensive training to their employees, and simply choosing the honorable path of not discriminating against people with medical conditions. But that is not what they do. It’s a choice, and Best Buy consistently chooses to dishonor the privilege of their customers’ attention.
What does that choice do to their brand? It defines it. How do people identify with Best Buy? They do it through their experience as a customer. My experience with them has been both good and bad. They carry a lot of products, and usually have a decent inventory. I can often find exactly what I want. If they think I might buy the more expensive model, they will aggressively try to upsell me. If I manage to find the right employee, they know enough about a few of their products to answer some questions, but their answers are not always accurate. I often have to wait 10-20 minutes for customer service. Sometimes, they tell what in hindsight appear to be outright lies just to make the sale. They aggressively push their extended warranties, but they will fight tooth and nail to not honor them.
They once told me that since I was shaking (I have an essential tremor, so I shake a little all the time), they would not hold a conversation about my extended warranty on a computer, which they did not want to honor. Without my permission, they added my email address to a mailing list that sends out spam once every day or two. I have requested removal from that list on five separate occasions only to be told that permanent removal is not possible. As a result, I have requested removal of my information from their databases, but they have refused the request, stating that it is their right to capture my data. How do you think Best Buy rates when I am considering an electronics purchase? How does their service effect their brand reputation? Why would a company ever tell a customer that it is their right to “Capture” them? Why? Because they do not understand how to protect their brand reputation, nor the importance of doing so.
Choosing the High Road
Now, contrast that brand experience with that of Apple. I bought an iPod in 2002, and it is still working great. It has had only one problem, for which Apple FedEx’d a box, checked it, and returned it to me in two days flat. I’ve had issues with their computers on numerous occasions, but they always do the right thing, either by replacing the unit, or by swiftly fixing it and returning it. Sometimes it takes a little more phone time than I would like, but I think they are just making sure that replacement is the right solution. Out of the twelve or so Apple computers I have owned, Apple has provided four replacements. Their store employees know their products — even non-Apple products — inside out. Their in-store service is fast and accurate, and they take care of their customers. Apple is very clear on their email policy. They ask for permission, and if you unsubscribe, they honor your choice.
As a fair comparison, I did a search for Apple on pissedconsumer.com, and found less than one page of complaints. They have had a few stumbles over the years, but they usually make a good effort to make it right and ultimately give a good customer experience. Apple seems to understand the importance of brand experience, and it is clear that a good experience is a high priority, as a matter of policy. Apple’s brand identity is consistent with their customer service. How do you think Apple rates when I am considering a computer purchase? I wish they sold everything Best Buy sells. Apple’s brand reputation is stellar.
Really, it’s a choice of short-term or long-term sales. Where Best Buy short-sightedly chooses short-term sales at all costs, Apple chooses to get the sale in the short-term and retain the customer for the long-term by providing outstanding customer service. This choice can be boiled down to something even simpler, but not without insulting the sensibilities of their individual target markets, a practice to which I do not subscribe.
How About Your Brand Reputation?
These are two mega-corps, but the same principles of brand reputation apply to small to mid-size businesses. How are you treating your customers before, during and after the sale? How do you shape their perception and experience? Is your brand identity consistent with your customer service?
It is a good practice to periodically ask yourself how you can shape a more positive experience for your customers. When you carefully consider every aspect of customer experience, it is clear to see that brand reputation plays a large part in both connecting with and retaining customers.