Branding: How Remarkable Customer Service Can Turn Trust into Devotion

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The branding of cattle began in this country because cattle shared open grazing range throughout the West. Barbed wire fence would later alter the practice. When it came time to drive cows to market, the hot tattoo was a convenient way to identify a particular cow.

The golden arches today help us identify a particular fast-food restaurant; an apple with one bite removed identifies a particular computer company. Brands are powerful tools for customer trust. They spell “consistency” and “reliability.”

There is a very big difference between simply recognizing a McDonald’s and adoring it.

The word “brand” is typically associated with image—logo, signage, impression, promotion, etc. Companies protect brands with the same fervor they guard patents, trademarks, and company secrets. Let a new hamburger enterprise opt for silver arches as its emblem and even a clown named Ronald will have something to say about it. Try mass marketing your homemade lemonade that your creative daughter named Pepsi and see if you don’t get an unhappy lawyer knocking on your door.

But, there is another side of the meaning of brand. Branding in the Wild West was also a means to determine ownership. The “Circle J” brand was not just the moniker of the cattle associated with the ranch along the East side of the Brazos River. It also told everyone that the cows were the property of that particular ranch.

There is a very big difference between simply recognizing a McDonald’s and adoring it. What steps change “the Starbucks at the corner of First and Main” into “my Starbucks?” And, how can outstanding customer service be an effective tool for building the kind of trust in a brand that provokes customer devotion, not just confidence? Four principles characterize the organizations that elevate “trust in a brand” to “love for a brand”—inclusion, generosity, honesty, and faith.

Inclusion: Customers Care When They Share

Bose is brilliant! Buy a pricey set of their Quiet Comfort headphones and they come with a stack of courtesy cards for the new owner to pass along to potential buyers. On the back of the courtesy card is every conceivable way to contact Bose. And, the strategy works—at least according to the many users who continually request replacement courtesy cards. Bose turns its consumers into devoted partners. Politicians would be wise to learn the ways of Bose.

Great brands build brand devotion through fostering customer participation. Inclusion begins by being comfortable enough to ask customers for assistance. It also means being willing at times to sacrifice a bit on efficiency or effectiveness for the commitment gained by inclusion.

On Southwest Airlines Flight 22 from El Paso to Phoenix, the flight attendant accepted assistance from two adoring passengers to help pass out peanuts to fellow passengers. The most important part of the occurrence was not the obvious fun the two guys in Bermuda shorts and ball caps had. It was the noticeable positive effect the incident had on everyone on board. Even super serious passengers could not help but grin as they received the all-too-familiar snack from the flight attendant-wannabes!

Inclusion involves finding a way to appropriately invite customers to put skin in the game. The power lies more in the opportunity to participate than in actual involvement. Most passengers on the Southwest flight knew that had they volunteered, their services would have been equally welcomed. That means that they participated vicariously and had almost as much fun as the two guys with the peanuts.

The wise organization makes the path to customer contribution comfortable and obvious. Keep in mind that seeking customer participation can backfire if mishandled or used inappropriately. As you find opportunities for customer inclusion, remember: there are some customers who want to be pampered, not partnered. They would be insulted if you suggested they do more than give you their money and/or their time. Let them be as they are and put the extra effort into those customers who are willing to join in.

Create a convenient means to include customers. Ask for their feedback…a lot, and in a lot of ways. Before you roll out that next product or policy, get your customers’ input. Provide ways customers can tailor their use of the product or service. Mini Cooper sent car owners a microchip they could install that enabled Mini Cooper billboards to flash a personalized message to the owner as their Mini passed by. Customers will care when they share.

Generosity: Great Brands Give Back

Great brands have a captivating impact on customers through an obvious attitude of generosity. Generosity attracts and retains because it conveys to customers the kind of unconditional positive regard that characterizes relationships at their very best. Customers like the way they feel when dealing with service providers who have such an abundance orientation. They feel valued, not used. They believe they are the recipient of a sincere desire to serve, not just a ploy for payback. And, they enjoy relationships laced with substance and value far more than encounters that are functional, but hollow. “A cash and carry customer brought a small rug in to clean,” reports Ellen Amirkhan of Dallas-based Oriental Rug Cleaning. “All the parking spaces were taken so she parked on the sidewalk; when she came out she had gotten a parking ticket. She came in and told us and we wrote her a check for the ticket. When the rug was ready we delivered it to her and did not charge her for the cleaning! We have a customer for life.”

Bouquets is an award winning flower shop located in the heart of downtown Denver near many parking meters as well as a bus stop. Many businesses refuse to give change for meters and buses, except to customers, because it depletes their cash till and takes employee time to go back to the bank for more change. Bouquets replenishes a bag of quarters daily, specifically designed to make change for anyone who asks, says co-owner B.J. Dyer. “Coins are offered with a smile and a business card. Many people later become our customers when they need flowers.” Dyer adds, “We get a kick out of treating people different from the way others treat them.” Bouquets has won countless awards in their industry and continues to flourish, even as other flower shops are wilting in challenging economy.

Brand devotion is built when customers experience the organization as one that focuses not on the transaction costs, but on the relationship value. Transaction costs are not irrelevant, but they can, if we aren’t careful, become destructively dominant. Focus on the transaction, you get a satisfied customer; focus on the relationship and you get a devoted customer as well as a trusted brand.

Honesty: The Whole Truth and Nothing But

Great brands are fans of truth telling and truth-seeking. Take it from the City of Santa Clarita (California), selected by Money Magazine as one of the Top 25 places to live in the U.S. Santa Clarita’s mayor holds regular town hall meetings, which are promoted by his posing for a spoof “Got milk?” commercial. Four different communities are the settings for these events featuring his active listening to issues and then facilitating citizens’ involvement in finding solutions. The meetings are extremely well received, especially the milk and cookies served at each gathering. The city also shows its willingness to be frank and make information a two-way street with its citywide Citizen Participation program. For example, when a new parks and recreation facility is planned, the neighborhood impacted is involved in every aspect, from initial design to grand opening.

Wait. There’s more. Imagine how many people a hairdresser talks with every day. Now, picture a whole room full of local hairdressers. Santa Clarita’s municipal leadership holds an annual “Hairdresser’s Luncheon” to find out about the issues and concerns people express about their city government. And the hairdressers love it!

“One of the surest signs of a bad or declining relationship with a customer is the absence of complaints. Nobody is ever that satisfied, especially not over an extended period of time. The customer is either not being candid or not being contacted.” These are the words of marketing guru Ted Levitt in his classic Harvard Business Review article, “After the Sale is Over…”

The research is clear: customers who have a problem or issue and communicate the concern to someone in the organization who can influence change tend to spend twice as much with that organization as customers who have a problem and do not complain. Soliciting the truth, like telling the truth, is tantamount to fostering a vibrant, evergreen relationships laced with trust. Dr. Levitt continues: “The absence of candor reflects the decline of trust and the deterioration of the relationship.” Key to customers feeling like an advocate for a brand is the quality of their communication with the people who front that brand.

Faith: Keeping the “Us” in Trust

The word “brand” is a first cousin to the word “trust.” Keeping the “and” in brand and the “us” in trust implies a requirement for reciprocity. We think of great brands as being those of products or services we can count on to be as promised. But, great brands are more than simply stalwarts of reliability. They are organizations that show faith in their customers in subtle and obvious ways. They make trust a two-way street.

What is it about faith that makes customers feel so valued? In part, it communicates that one-half of a partnership is reaching out to the other half. And customers truly reward partnerships. The amazing power of faith is that it creates even more––show faith in customers, they’ll trust you right back.

Looking good might attract new customers but being good is what keeps them coming back.

Think about what you would do in this situation: A customer calls your trophy and engraving company seeking imprinted wine glasses for a fund raising event. You quote her a price of 144 glasses, 2 sided imprint at $2.16 each. She misinterprets the quote as $216 for the whole order and excitingly informs her board of directors. She learns of her error when she stops by to place the order. After a lengthy tirade, her director offers to put an ad for your company in the event’s program and would allow you to put your banner on the sponsor wall if you will honor the bargain basement price. Do you take the deal and save the relationship, or do you play hard ball and avoid taking a $100+ economic hit?

This was the dilemma faced by Richard Schaefer, CEO of Awards & More in Enfield, Connecticut. “We took the position that we knew the customer made a mistake,” says Schaefer, “but it was our job to help her save face to her peers. But, we also learned to avoid quoting final prices over the phone and always confirm our quotes in writing.” The customer may not always be right, but the customer is always the customer. And, when they find an organization that shows faith in them, they reward it with their loyalty.

Actions laced with faith can be as small as the cup of pennies next to the cash register with a sign that reads, “Got a penny, give a penny; need a penny, take a penny.” Or the dry cleaner’s poster on the wall that says, “We DO take personal checks.” Examine the signs around your organization that say “Don’t,” “No,” or other negatives. Can the same message be communicated in a way they connotes belief in customers? Would you like you for a service provider if you were the customer? What signals do your actions send to your customers? What if you shot a video of your customers’ experience; would you enjoy watching the movie?

The most famous cattle brand in the state of Texas is the “Flying W.” It is the symbol for the largest ranch in the U.S.—the 875,000 acre King Ranch in Southeast Texas. Established in 1860, the ranch has produced cattle and horses that have won top honors at competitions around the world. One King Ranch quarter horse won the Triple Crown in 1946. But, King Ranch is best known for their significant contributions to the cattle industry. Experimenting with breeds that could produce high quality beef in a setting of intense heat, King Ranch cross-bred Brahmans from India with Beef Shorthorns from England to create the Santa Gertrudis breed. The King Ranch example of going beyond image holds an important message for all brand-makers.

Which is more important—looking good or being good? If you ask a teenager, you’ll get the former; your mother will pick the later. But, wise people in charge of creating and sustaining customer loyalty will advocate a blend of the two. Looking good might attract new customers but being good is what keeps them coming back. Being good is all about the experience created for customers. We might hardwire quality into our products or services, but if customers do not judge them as “good,” all the QC and guarantees in the world are not likely to change their opinion.

What’s brand love got to do with? Enormous pay-off. Customers devoted to a brand are assertive advocates creating a dynamic buzz (like the owners of the Mini Cooper). Devoted customers are quick to forgive blunders (e.g., the rapid come-back of JetBlue). Brand lovers contribute ideas that help the brand innovate (e.g., the product creativity of Apple). Companies in the top 20 percent of the highly revered American Customer Satisfaction Index outperformed the Dow Jones industrial average by 90+ percent, the S&P 500 by 200+ percent and the NASDAQ by 350+ percent. These companies yielded an average return of over 40 percent.

And, wise brand leaders have learned that devotion comes through inclusion of customers, generosity toward customers, honesty with customers, and faith in customers.

Chip Bell
Chip R. Bell is the founder of the Chip Bell Group (chipbell.com) and a renowned keynote speaker and customer loyalty consultant. Dr. Bell has authored several best-selling books including The 9 1/2 Principles of Innovative Service and, with John Patterson, Take Their Breath Away. His newest book, Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences Through Innovative Service, will be released in February.

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