Getting staff to live the brand: work in process

A company can drum brand values into staff all it likes, but unless it looks at the processes behind customer service, nothing will change. By Alan Mitchell

How many companies have initiated “Live the Brand” programmes over the past few years? And how many would you say have really succeeded?

Unlike customer relationship management, where alarmingly high failure rates are reported regularly and with seeming glee, there’s little data on the success of Live the Brand internal communications programmes.

However, assuming that success would show through in, say, better customer satisfaction rates, the signs aren’t good. In the US, customer satisfaction rates are below those of ten years ago. The UK is no better. And anecdotal evidence suggests that internal branding/culture change failure rates are as high, if not higher, than those for CRM.

Failure has many causes. As Ruan McGloughlin, Irish marketing director of human resources consultancy DBM, notes, often the brand promise is just another message in the spaghetti of visions, values and strategies people have to cope with day to day. Many Live the Brand programmes founder after resistance from other parts of the business, which fear a “takeover bid” by the marketers. Often, the organisation’s leaders simply fail to walk the talk.

So, many programmes aren’t executed with the skill, discipline and commitment required. But is that all? Perhaps not. Perhaps there’s a deeper problem.

Most Live the Brand programmes contain a mixture of three elements: exhortation, indoctrination and a good dollop of carrot-and-stick. The relative emphases may differ, but that’s basically what it boils down to.

As Harvard University organisational psychologist Edgar H Schein has observed, such attempts to win “buy in” from people are hardly new. The Chinese Communists used pretty similar methods in their attempts to brainwash American prisoners during the Korean war, for instance. And the overall results weren’t that different either.

A few people convert, but their effect is pretty much cancelled out by an equally small number of fanatical resistors. This leaves the vast majority with their heads firmly below the parapet, going through only those motions that are necessary for them to survive until the storm has passed. So the net result of all those carefully crafted, expensive events, away-days, workshops, story-telling sessions, dramatisations, cascading programmes, internal videos and newsletters? Once the initial excitement has died down, it’s a big round number: zero.

Why? Because the real challenge is not so much to change staff attitudes and behaviours, but processes.

But what have processes to do with brand values? Simple. To be meaningful, even the vaguest of brand values such as “helpful”, “friendly” or “fun” must be translated into real-life experiences. And these experiences must be created and delivered by the organisation: its infrastructure and its people. So how people do their jobs – and what their “real” job is – is crucial.

People’s real jobs reflect the company’s business models: how it sees itself making money. Take the simple example of retail returns policies. Is customer service and satisfaction the real priority, the aim being repeat visits and store loyalty? Or is it maximising basket value and minimising shrinkage? Many years ago, Marks & Spencer introduced a highly popular “no questions asked” returns policy, which demonstrated M&S’s brand values very practically. This was more of a process change than an attitude change: the process helped to change attitudes, not the other way round.

Right now, a similar debate is raging in the financial services industry. Knowing they are unpopular, banks and financial services companies are desperate to build reputations for service, helpfulness, friendliness and so on, deploying huge communication exercises to inculcate such values into their staff. Yet, at the same time, sales targets, commission systems and other imperatives remain largely in place. So most employees know very well what their real job is, never mind all the propaganda coming from personnel or marketing.

So whether the company’s claimed brand values truly reflect its underlying business model is a crucial question. Even assuming there is genuine alignment, however, it’s all meaningless unless it translates into how people do their jobs day to day. What does “real” customer service look like, for instance?

In one company recently, the call centre manager found himself under increasing pressure to increase productivity as call volumes and costs rose, while service levels fell. Staff and customers were increasingly dissatisfied. At the same time, in another part of the company, the warehouse manager was celebrating a bonus earned by exceeding his targets. It was only later that the connection between the two became apparent, when the company stopped to ask why call volumes were rising. By simply dividing call content into two categories – those seeking the value the company offered and those seeking to rectify a problem created by the company’s failure to deliver – it discovered that more than half of calls were in the latter category.

One factor behind the upsurge in calls was the number of products damaged on delivery: a direct result of the warehouse manager reducing the quality of his packaging materials in order to meet financial targets. Improving call centre efficiency and productivity wasn’t the real issue at all, but because the two managers were focused on internal operational and financial targets, such as calls answered per minute, the customer’s experience of dealing with the company had gone unnoticed.

For this company, real customer service required far-reaching changes to its day-to-day operations and measurements: changes which slashed the number of calls coming in, which in turn freed staff to offer much more helpful service.

Once again, the real issue was processes, not attitudes. Only by improving underlying processes can companies simultaneously improve customer experiences and employee job satisfaction, while cutting costs. Tesco sums this insight up with its neat slogan “simpler, better, cheaper”. Will this action make employees’ work simpler and customers’ experience of the brand better, while being cheaper for the company?

Just how much potential there is here is indicated by Robert Thomson of Enzyme International, a consultancy which helps companies identify customers’ interaction needs, in order of priority (is access to knowledgeable staff more or less important than long opening hours, for instance?). On a scale of -100 to +100, from execrable to perfect, most companies’ performance ranks below zero, says Thomson. In other words, customers perceive that companies are “bringing negative value to their lives”.

Smart companies, it seems, know that superior brand experiences are not only delivered by staff who want to help: they are delivered by a company that does everything it can to help its staff help its customers. “Less communication and more process improvement” may be taking it too far. But if, as McGloughlin argues, the missing ingredient of most Live the Brand programmes is how effectively “leaders focus their own and their people’s ‘day jobs’ on the brand promise”, tweaking the balance may be no bad thing.

Alan Mitchell, asmitchell@aol.com

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