Creating Advocacy and Building Relationships Throughout the Customer Journey: Branding the Experience

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Many b2b and b2c companies offer undistinguished, commoditized, vanilla experiences or customers. These are almost guaranteed not to be memorable, not to be talked about (unless neutrally or negatively), and they will not succeed at creating customer advocacy behavior. Some, through customer-focused culture, discipline, purpose, and a powerful value proposition have succeeded in delivering consistent, positive experiences which are appealing to customers and which customers consider worthy of passing along through informal communication channels.

Beyond simply selling a product or service, these ‘experiential brands’ connect with their customers. They understand that delivering on the tangible and functional elements of value are just table stakes, and that connecting, and having an emotionally-based relationship with customers is the key to leveraging loyalty and advocacy behavior.

These companies are also invariably quite knowledgeable about what drives customer advocacy behavior. Every aspect of their offerings – customer service, advertising, packaging, billing, products, etc. – are all thought out for consistency. They market, and create experiences, within the branded vision. Every function involved in delivering a positive, consistent, and hopefully memorable experience is ‘closed-loop’, maintaining balance between customer expectations and what is actually executed.

Exemplars of branded customer experience also understand that there is a ‘journey’ for customers in relationships with preferred companies. It begins with awareness, how the brand is introduced, i.e. the promise. At that point, the suspect or prospect becomes a potential customer. Then, beginning with the first transaction, promise and created expectations must at least equal real-world touchpoint results (such as through service).

And, these expectations must be met over time, with a minimum of disappointment. Finally, it requires that the brand’s image, its personality if you will, is sustained and reinforced. Advanced companies map the customer journey and plan this out, recognizing that experiences are actually a form of branding architecture, brought to life through excellent engineering.

Some branded customer experience-centric companies, like Zappos, IKEA, Disney, Target, REI, Nike, American Girl, Starbucks, Southwest Airlines, Trader Joe’s, Baptist Health Care, Whole Foods Markets, The Container Store, Wegman’s, Apple Stores, and Harley-Davidson are well-known. Others, such as Wawa, Umpqua Bank and Zane’s Cycles deserve mention because they are customer-centric, original and distinctive, and because they represent excellent examples of bringing employees, process, customers and culture together in highly effective ways.

In her interestingly-titled book, “I Love You More Than My Dog” (actually a metaphor for how closely consumers can bond with companies which create trust and authenticity), author and loyalty consultant Jeanne Bliss identifies several of these companies, as well as what makes them exceptional. In the book, she stated: “When customers love you, they’ll turn to you first, regardless of the competition. They will tell your story, forming an army of cheerleaders and publicists urging friends, neighbors, colleagues, even strangers to experience your company.” This is an almost perfect definition of the inside-out advocacy which creates outside-in advocacy.

As Jeanne describes, these companies exhibit five decision traits which separate them from the pack:

– They decide to BELIEVE: They believe their employees and they believe their customers, i.e. they trust them
– They decide with CLARITY OF PURPOSE: They are clear and straightforward about their value proposition
– They decide to BE REAL: They are transparent and ‘real’, making relationships between people, not between company and customer
– They decide to BE THERE: They are ‘in the moment’ with customers, when and as needed
– They decide to SAY SORRY: They have humility and grace, and are willing to apologize when there are experience delivery shortfalls

Today, we are witnessing customer-driven marketing through empowerment, self-management, and consumer generated media; and many companies have found themselves in the back-seat of the new age vehicles used in customer-supplier relationships. Companies are being compelled to modify existing communication techniques, or create new ones, and re-think interactions between employees and customers, and how they hire and train employees, and the experience processes they utilize, so that they can be positioned to generate advocates among their customer bases.

In a customer-driven world, the reality is that frequency programs are not enough. Great product is not enough. Exceptional service and customer-sensitive staff, though incredibly important, are not enough. Use of new and innovative communication technologies and multiple channels is not enough. Tight, efficient operational processes, also necessary for consistent experiences, are not enough. Reputation, though also extremely important, is not enough. How companies use, or misuse, these experience-creating techniques, and how they assess the return-on-customer effectiveness, and level of monetization, of their communication and experience initiatives will change how well customer relationships are built by both small and large enterprises.

Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC
Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC, specializes in customer and employee experience research/strategy consulting, and brand, customer, and employee commitment and advocacy behavior research, consulting, and training. He has authored seven stakeholder-centric strategy books and 400+ articles, white papers and blogs. In 2018, he was named to CustomerThink's Hall of Fame.

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