Frontline ambassadors

No matter how successful an ad campaign may be, consumer goodwill risks being eroded unless frontline staff have the skills and commitment to become brand ambassadors at the point of sale

Every day, across the UK, customer-facing employees are helping either to build or destroy the brand reputations of their companies through the service they deliver to customers.

No matter how great the marketing campaign or how cutting-edge the design, if the messages being presented up front are not reinforced in the experience at point-of-sale, the damage to brand reputation and consumer buying behaviour is significant.

This is the message spelled out in new research that underlines the dangers of neglecting the vital human aspect of brand experience. The research, commissioned by employee engagement agency NKD Group, and outlined in the report Service or Sabotage?, provides strong evidence that people judge the quality of brands and products on the quality of the encounters they have with frontline employees and that these interactions directly affect sales and brand image.

Good customer service people are “brand champions”, who bring considerable benefit by influencing consumers’ attitudes to the brand and the organisation. At the other end of the scale are “brand saboteurs”, who can inflict considerable damage.

The research reveals that 84% of respondents think better of a company when they encounter helpful employees, and 59% say helpful employees lead them to expect the product or service to be good.

The damage inflicted by bad service is demonstrated by 73% thinking worse of an organisation or brand when they encounter unhelpful service, while 56% say poor customer service leads them to speculate whether this is reflected in a poor-quality product.

Consumers do not expect fivestar service from every brand or company, but they do bring with them certain expectations based on brand messaging and price. For 73% of respondents, helpful employees had prompted them to return to an organisation rather than a competitor. Bad service has a similar effect, with 74% of respondents saying they would not return following bad service, if they had a choice.

Customer service reputation is greatly influenced by word-of-mouth among customers – both good and bad. However, contrary to popular belief, it seems people are marginally more likely to share good experiences than bad ones – possibly a reflection of the rarity of excellent service. The majority of respondents recommend service or relay bad experiences: 77% of people say they have told someone about good customer service experiences, compared with 73% who have discussed bad experiences.

The research identified brands that were succeeding as well as those that were failing to match consumers’ expectations of the customer service promised by their marketing. Among the success stories were John Lewis and Virgin Atlantic Airways, most often matching or exceeding expectations. By contrast, and Ryanair were clearly failing to match, and often falling far short of, customers’ expectations.

So what are consumers’ biggest bugbears in customer service, and what can marketers do to help prevent them? A lack of basic care or concern at point-of-sale is key, with 73% of respondents citing “chatting to colleagues or on the telephone instead of concentrating on customers” as their biggest gripe. Meanwhile, 65% say they get annoyed by employees’ inattentiveness and lack of interest.

Revealingly, the research reveals that attitude is significantly more important than aptitude in the eyes of consumers. The most important factors in customer service, according to respondents, are courtesy (cited by 70%) and helpfulness (66%). Similarly, only 35% of people said they were annoyed when employees could not answer their questions, but 48% felt aggrieved when employees did not bother to find a colleague who could answer their question.

These findings strike at the heart of the challenge companies face if they want to improve brand perception through customer service – employees have a choice about how they behave. The best choose to go that extra step to keep the customer happy and “live the brand”.

Customer-facing employees are the embodiment of a brand. According to the research, it is the little extras that make all the difference in a great customer-facing experience. This includes employees going out of their way to please (cited by 47% of respondents), being interested (35%) and smiling (26%).

To achieve great service, companies must employ people who have not only the skills but also the will and commitment to embody their brand values. These are people who will engage emotionally with the marketing promises made externally. If a customer finds good service, 86% say they will demonstrate their appreciation to the employee, and 77% will share the experience with family and friends. Customer appreciation benefits the company and the employees, creating a service culture where happy employees and happy customers feed off each other.

Sue Stoneman, managing director of NKD Group, contributed to this week’s Trends Insight