The brand personified

Customer experience is a popular theme among marketers. The idea is to ensure that every interaction a consumer enjoys with a brand – apart from direct use of the product or service – should contribute towards building satisfaction. In practic

Scripted customer communications is proving limited in the multi-media environment. Training staff to absorb a brand’s values and project them in their own way is far more effective, says David Reed

Customer experience is a popular theme among marketers. The idea is to ensure that every interaction a consumer enjoys with a brand – apart from direct use of the product or service – should contribute towards building satisfaction. In practical terms, it means aligning face-to-face, voice and internet-based contacts with the overall brand strategy.

Far from an easy task, especially when marketers only rarely have control or influence over those operations. Yet as consumers increasingly relate to providers through multiple channels, it is becoming more evident that greater attention has to be paid to these interactions or the brand risks being damaged.

At the heart of resolving this problem is ensuring that employees act as brand ambassadors. Get the training and development right and frontline staff infect customers with their enthusiasm and commitment. Get it wrong, and they risk irritating shoppers with idle chatter or over-friendly approaches.

The human touch

According to Sue Wright, managing director of employee engagement consultancy NKD, a growing number of companies are understanding the importance of this. “Service brands have been getting to grips with it over the past five to ten years. In hotel chains, for example, it is not just food and board, the biggest part is the human element,” she says.

Even business-to-business brands are now considering how to ensure that distributors and retail partners present them to the end customer in the right way. But in many product categories, it is not possible just to present staff with a simple script to follow.

“Where the sell is more complex, such as retail financial services or mobile telephony, the interaction is less of a process. It can take up to 25 minutes, and it is impossible to script somebody to know how to manage that,” she says.

Instead, employees need to be provided with an understanding of the core elements of what the brand stands for and how the company expects staff to behave. She draws an analogy to story telling. Two people might both know the common elements of Jack and the Beanstalk, but each person tells the same story in a different way. “You what, in marketing’s eyes, the brand means. Then you work with them on how to bring that to life within the parameters of brand values but allowing for their individual expression,” she says.

For one retail bank NKD worked with, the brand values were to be human, intelligent, powerful, passionate and experienced. Employees needed to become the embodiment of that. The emphasis during training was to bring employees to the point where they not only understood those values, but could also behave as an expression of them. Unlike the “have a nice day” style of service in which there is a scripted response to every situation, it allows staff to choose their own response.

Customer contact centres have probably suffered most from being over-prescriptive about agent behaviour. The soft values built up by marketing all too often get crushed under the requirement to end calls within 150 seconds. But it does not have to be this way, especially if a company decides to align how calls are handled with the way face-to-face interactions are managed. Sainsbury’s return to strength has been one of the more notable turnarounds in the retail sector recently. Much of this is down to improvements in supply chain and store management. Alongside this, however, there has been an important cultural change around employee behaviour.

“Making Sainsbury’s Great Again is [chief executive] Justin King’s three-year re-organisation plan to make everyone in the business aware of changes in the culture, internal communications and the language used,” says Sainsbury’s call centre manager Andy Benzie.

Call to arms

In partnership with outsourced service provider MM Teleperformance, Sainsbury’s has applied the brand’s core values to the way calls are handled from customers of its online service. “We treat all our colleagues the same – call centre agents get the same management information as in-store colleagues, they have the same point-of-sale materials so they get a sense of what it is like to be in store,” says Benzie.

Agents now have the power toâ¢deal with customer problems by offering alternative products, refunds or Nectar points during a call, rather than having to consult with a supervisor and schedule a call-back. The goal is to resolve the call the first time, reflecting customer treatment in store.

Consistency of training and development is also reflected in the way the centre is measured. Customer services manager of online services at Sainsbury’s, Penny Forward, says/ “We have independent measurement of our quality of service, through mystery customer surveys across our call centres, stores and business centre.”

Evidence that the new approach is paying off emerged in the most recent FDS Comparisat study into the top companies as voted for by the public. For the first time in recent years, Sainsbury’s entered the top ten, just behind arch rival Tesco, which was placed ninth.

For the outsourced service provider, this improvement in service has required some important changes in selecting and training of agents. “From a recruitment point of view, the message from Sainsbury’s is that it wants our agents to mirror the people who use its stores,” says Joanne Regan Brown, recruitment and people development director at MM Teleperformance.

Customer as yardstick

By asking about candidates’ own shopping behaviour, then using role play to explore their attitude towards the brand, her company has broadened the age profile of agents working on the account, and managers are now recruited in a joint process with the retailer.

Outsourcing of elements of the customer experience is not confined to just call centres. Many product manufacturers have no customer-facing staff, yet still want to deliver an interaction with the brand to potential customers. The solution is to use field marketing and put brand representatives into the retail environment.

Daniel Todaro, managing director of event management company Gekko, says this makes the right recruitment, training and development critical. “The standard of these brand ambassadors should be at the forefront of agencies’ minds when recruiting. While a pretty face may support your efforts on a sampling campaign, can they do justice when demonstrating the latest HD flat-screen television?” he asks.

His agency looks for candidates with genuine enthusiasm and an interest in the product. “Enthusiasm cannot be taught. The potential ambassadors need to have a passion for the product and the retail and industry sector,” says Todaro.

As well as standard training in product demonstration techniques, the agency also trains representatives about the specific products. They are then taught sales techniques to close deals. The result is a direct and measurable return on investment from demonstration campaigns.

The limits of scripting in delivering a positive brand experience are clear from psychological research into the elements of communication. It suggests that only 7% of brand communication comes from the words used, 38% from the tone of voice and 55% from body language.

To project the right image in the right way, frontline staff need to be confident in their knowledge of the product or service and comfortable in how they communicate it.

For marketers, the challenge is working out how to translate brand values into effective communications. Nicky Owen, director of consumer service at brand agency Dragon, says: “The problem with many training scripts is that they focus on the process rather than the outcome. For example, you will say this, this and this, which assumes all customers will respond in a similar way in return.”

Scrap the script

This reflects a marketing-driven view of interactions, rather than a customer-led perspective. “People are not always rational and this can lead to conversations that start to seem false – the dialogue is not genuine,” warns Owen.

During a telephone call, the customer is able simply to hang up. In store, reactions may be more volatile. As Owen points out, retail union Usdaw has recorded 100,000 assaults on retail staff in the UK between 1995 and 2001, with signs that things are getting worse. Employees need to be used as brand representatives, not as punch bags.

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