Brand values and the customer experience – a perfect match?

There is value in marketing, advertising and brand values

Unlike many, I totally get the value of great marketing and advertising: it activates the Elephant (emotions) bypasses/speaks to the Rider (reason) and shapes behaviour.

I can see the value of brand values.  They can be used to guide and, where necessary, constrain the actions of the people developing products and conducting marketing activities.  They also help to give put clothes on ordinary products and services and thus give them personality and appeal.  I can also see the value of going further and having all the front line people live those values so that they are not simply marketing slogans.

Yet most organisations struggle to live the brand values

Anyone who has an interest in organisational behaviour will understand the distinction between espoused values and lived values.  If you look into the mirror you will probably see that our company and most companies struggle to live their brand values in their day to day behaviour.  It does not help if the brand values have been cooked up in the marketing dept.  My experience is that many in the organisation listen to marketers in a certain way; I have heard the marketing folks described as “the department of coloured pencils” or “the spend spend spend folks” or “the folks that lie for a living” or the “party people” and so forth.   So is it a surprise that few people in the organisation actually live brand values cooked up the marketing folks?

So the first challenge is coming up with values that speak to the hearts and minds of the people that work in your organisation.  The second challenge is translating those brand values into specific behaviours that everyone in the organisation is expected to embody.  The third challenge?  Getting the Tops to model these behaviours on a daily basis so that the Middles model these behaviours and onwards to the Bottoms.  Fourth, to implement the values within the organisation whilst honouring those values!  If one of your values is “innovation” then living your values means coming up with an innovative way of infecting hearts and minds with that value.  If one of your values is collaboration then taking a ‘command and control’ approach and telling people they have to collaborate is probably not the right way to foster collaboration.

If you want to use brand values in designing the customer experience then you have to translate them

I, the customer don’t care about your brand values – honestly I don’t.  I do care about what others  (the journalists, influential bodies, my social circle) say about you.  I care about how you treat me, my family, my friends, my social network.  And I have a strong interest on what to expect from you?  Put differently, what can I count on from you?

So if you accept the line that goes something like “design the customer experience” around your brand values then you have some work to do.  You have to take values (that are general) and translate them into specifics – what can your customer expect and count on from you when she is interacting with you and using your products and services?   And you have a potential problem – your brand values may not reflect the totality of customer needs.  Lets make this real by briefly looking at Virgin’s brand values: Fun, Value for Money, Quality, Innovation, Competitive Challenge, Brilliant Customer Service.

  • As a Virgin customer what can I expect from your online presence?  What does fun, value for money, quality, innovation, competitive challenge and brilliant customer service mean to me?
  • Brilliant customer service – does that mean I can quickly, easily contact you at any time, any day, through any channel and get an instant, insightful, relevant and quick response?  Does that mean that you assure me of 100% satisfaction?
  • How about your ‘product’ – what can I count on here?  By the way, I like products that are simple to understand and easy to use.  Oops it looks like your brand values don’t cater for all my needs and expectations – there is no mention of simplicity in your stated brand values.  What are you going to do about that?  Are you going to change your brand values or simply factor in my need/expectation and design the customer experience to take that into account?

I hope you get the point that I am making:  a lot of work has to go into designing the customer experience and you cannot automatically assume that you can use your brand values as a shortcut.  Brand values have to be translated into specifics: specific customers, specific customer scenarios, specific customer touchpoints…….

How about converting brand values into specific promises to customers?

Too much of business is littered with buzzwords and abstract concepts and this is a problem as the devil is in the detail.  One way I have found of translating brand values into customer terms is to start with promises. Lets imagine that you are creating a customer charter.  What will you put in this customer charter?  What are the truths that should be self-evident to you, your organisation and your customers?  What are the promises that you are making to your customers?  And what specifically do you expect from your customers?   This is hard work primarily because buzzwords and brand values lose their appeal when they have to be translated into publicly visible commitments to customers.  Yet there are organisations that go beyond the fear and make meaningful promises to customers.

Take John Lewis as an example.  John Lewis has made a commitment to customers – the John Lewis Price Pledge – and recently that has hurt profits.  This is what the chief executive says “Absolutely it’s costing us money, but it is really important we stick to it.”  Is it any surprise that John Lewis regularly comes towards the top for customer satisfaction and loyalty?

If you don’t answer this question correctly then your customer efforts are simply putting lipstick on the pig

Yesterday British Banks Gave Up The Fight Against Compensating Their Customers
Yesterday the British Banks (HSBC, Barclays, Lloyds, RBOS…) that ‘own’ the retail banking market gave up, reluctantly, their legal fight against compensating the millions of customers who were ‘mis-sold’ payment protection insurance (PPI): ‘Millions in line for PPI redress’.

The British banks are notorious for delays especially when it comes to handling complaints and refunds.   Today the FSA has instructed these banks to accelerate compensation payments: ‘Financial Services Authority wants banks to speed up PPI payouts’.

Was it ‘mis-selling ‘ or deliberately ‘ripping-off’ customers?
Whilst the newspapers use the term ‘mis-selling’ consumer groups and others describe PPI as a ‘rip-off’ or ‘racket’.  ‘How the PPI scandal unfolded‘  makes it clear that “Britain’s banks have been aggressively selling ‘ineffective and inefficient’ – but highly profitable – payment protection insurance for more than a decade.”

This is what the Citizens Advice Bureau said about PPI:  “Payment protection insurance (PPI) is sold to borrowers with the promise of peace of mind and reassurance that credit or mortgage payments will be covered if their personal and financial circumstances change for the worse.  However, many CAB clients find that they cannot make a successful claim on their policy because of exclusion clauses and administrative barriers to making a claim.  Premiums for PPI policies can add 20 per cent or more to the total amount to be repaid on a loan agreement, thus increasing people’s indebtedness rather than preventing it.”

The one key question that lies at the heart of the customer-centric orientation
If you read widely you will see there are all kinds of views on what it means to be customer-centric and no shared agreement.  As such all kinds of people and companies are claiming to be customer-centric.  If you believe you are customer-centric then I put this question to you:

  • Is it ok for you to make money by taking advantage of your customers trust, ignorance, biases and other cognitive weaknesses?

If it is ok for your and your organisation to take advantage of your customer then you are not and will never be customer-centric.  Why? There are two ways to answer this question.

The blunt answer is that you are self-centred and selfish. Given that, it is simply not possible for you to be other-centred including customer-centred.

The polite answer is that long term relationships are central to a customer-centric orientation and these relationships rest on trust.   Trust, in turn, rests on the three key pillars: honesty, fairness and competence.   As Peppers & Rogers say in Rules to Break & Laws to Follow:

Customers may forgive honest mistakes but will never forgive dishonesty.

This point is articulated rather well by Nils Pratley in the following piece: ‘The moral of this PPI tale: don’t rip off your customers’.

Incidentally, dishonesty literally sucks the heart out of many of your employees: how many people genuinely want to exert the best of themselves in dishonest activities?

If you wish you can stop reading right here.  However, if you have the interest then follow me and lots explore/probe the customer-centric paradigm a little further using the Be-Do-Have framework.

Have: what you want to get out of your ‘relationship’ with the customer
What does top management (‘Tops’) really care about? They care about what they are measured and rewarded on. And what is that? Ultimately it comes down to exceeding analyst expectations on revenue, margins and profits. This and the behaviour that it generates are discussed in this HBR interview with Roger Martin.

Do: the actions that you take to get what you want
Things get a little trickier when we get to the Do part. What do you have to do to get the results that you want? You can make the numbers through a whole array of actions. For example:

  • locking customers into longer contracts for example by moving from 12 to 18 month contracts for mobile phones (e.g. telecoms);
  • take advantage of your customers ignorance and sell them products (e.g. PPI) that are not fit for purpose (e.g. banks);
  • deliberately making it difficult for your customers to work out which product is the best fit for their needs so that they buy the more expensive product (e.g. telecoms);
  • making it difficult for them to stop doing business with you and switch to another supplier (utilities, broadband, financial services, hi-tech..);
  • cutting the investment in customer service by making it more difficult for customers to contact you and if they do then having the call handled by someone in a distant country;
  • ensuring that your products do what they are supposed to do, that they are easy to use and have high resale value (e.g. Honda);
  • making it easy for your customers to do business with you (e.g. Amazon, eBay); and
  • standing for a set of values, practices and products that connect with a specific segment of the population (e.g. Virgin, Apple); and
  • viewing yourself as being in the business of ‘delivering happiness’ (Zappos).

Given the breadth of choice that you have,  limited only by your imagination, how do you decide what is the right course of action?   You may be thinking that brand values might help here. They can if they are lived in values. They are useless if they have been dreamt up for marketing (influence / propaganda) purposes.

The BE domain is the source of all guidance on what courses of action are ruled in and ruled out.  So let’s take a look at that.

BE: existence, stance, character and values
The BE domain is NOT concerned with the personality you put on for show – to seduce the people that you wish to seduce.  Nor is it concerned with what you say or your intentions.

The BE domain IS concerned with your authentic self.  Specifically it deals with the issues of purpose, stance, character and values as an integrated whole.  A different way of looking at this is to examine how you behave when you are under pressure: what are you willing to do or not to do no matter what the personal cost?

At the organisation level you face a fundamental choice.  To BE the kind of organisation that prospers through honest dealing and creating superior value for customers.  Or to BE the kind of organisation that does whatever it takes to make the numbers – treating people (customers, employees, suppliers..) as objects to be manipulated for one’s own benefit.

The default setting, as illustrated by the British banks in relation to PPI,  is that customers are seen as objects to be manipulated for the benefit of the organisation. Where concessions are made to customers it is because of regulatory pressure or because competitors force that move.  In Martin Buber’s view this is the ‘I- It’ orientation.

Are your customer efforts simply an exercise in putting lipstick on a pig?
You and your organization become customer-centric when you refuse to make money by taking advantage of your customers.   That means practicing and living honesty and fairness.  Until you do that all of your Customer experience, customer engagement and loyalty initiatives are simply an exercise on putting lipstick on the pig.  You might reap the rewards now yet sooner or later the pig will show through and you will pay the price.  Let me end by quoting from Peppers & Rogers once more:

If being fair to customers conflicts with your company’s financial goals, then fix your business model or get a new one.