The relationship between brand and customer experience

In a recent article I highlighted the failure of business leaders to respond to the message delivered by any valid research into customer experience. This ignorance is leading businesses down the same slippery slope to oblivion as their resistance to transformation. And it HAS to stop. Common to both of these issues is a general failure to understand brands – what they are and what they do – which is a shame because Brand Power holds the key to the success these organisations are seeking. So much was vividly illustrated by an experience I had last week in a local chain supermarket.

A spectacular customer experience failure

Every couple of weeks I take my aged Mother on a mission to her local big chain supermarket that involves me sitting in the café with the wi-fi and an all-day breakfast while she potters around getting her groceries.

The difference last week was that I had my teenage daughter in tow as well, which prompted a departure from the usual routine in that all three of us started in the café, having lunch before the other two headed off to the shelves and aisles. I wouldn’t have guessed I was about to experience such a catastrophic customer experience failure, nor such a convincing demonstration of the thing I call “brand power”.

Utilising technology isn’t digital revolution, but it’s a start.

I like the new screen ordering in this supermarket’s cafes. It smacks of a solution I created, also some years ago, well ahead of Burger King and the other automated ordering restaurants now adopt. We called our platform DinerMedia. It offered customers and operators a whole lot more than many offerings do today, and I sometimes wonder why today’s interpretations stop short of delivering the full range of potential benefits, but they say timing is everything and I guess I was a bit ahead of the beat on that one.

Anyway we used this version to order lunch for three – Sausage and Mash, a small breakfast and a sandwich all of which was delivered to our table in reasonable time. Then the fun started.

When process becomes an excuse for failure

My squeamish daughter squealed as she moved the toast on her plate to reveal the remains of the previous plate-users lunch beneath. Meanwhile I eyed the deep yellow, solid, congealed, lumps that were framing the slab of potato on my plate. Time to call a member of staff.

There was no arguing the state of my daughters plate, but the staff member had a go. “It’s the way they come out of the dishwasher” clearly seemed to be her idea of an answer. As for the potato. This was explained as the edges of the mash when it comes out of the tray. Again – “that’s the way it comes”. Time to ramp this up!

I asked for the manager. “It’s his day off”.  Finally when it became clear I wasn’t going to shut up and sit down until I had spoken to someone with a modicum of authority another member of kitchen staff turned up to announce she was the most senior person there unless I wanted to see a member of the store’s management team.  Meanwhile, did I want the food replaced? To be honest, by this stage I wasn’t sure about re-ordering, but I was increasingly keen to talk to someone who had some authority.

While I waited for a real manager and the replacement food, I decided to go and find some cutlery, which, as is often the case with café-type venues, was at a central counter. There sat a number of pots of knives, forks, spoons and what-nots. I went through maybe twenty knives and almost as many forks searching for clean ones before the kitchen staff-member re-emerged to announce the store manager was not in today and they were looking for another senior manager to talk to us.

I took this opportunity to present the cutlery and an explanation of my findings – pointing out that pretty well all the utensils were caked with congealed food baked-on, big time, like concrete. I offered the suggestion that all the cutlery should be removed and taken away for cleaning before someone developed food poisoning. The term “food poisoning” usually has a magical effect in these establishments, but the answer again was “That’s how they come out of the dishwasher”.

Why lose sleep caring when you can pretend? 

Eventually the “manger” turned up and turned out to be someone we knew is a department head rather than a manager. He was attentive – as you would hope when the words “food poisoning” are being bandied about. He noted the grubby state of the tables, watched when I pointed out a member of staff clearing tables without (thankfully I guess) using the oily rag he was carrying to wipe them down. He saw the state of the cutlery and listened as another customer complained that they had learned to bring their own cutlery when eating in this café (kind of raises the question, “Why were they still coming?”) and hear for himself other customers ask passing staff to wipe their tables or remove their predecessors’ detritus.

Shutting the door after the horse has bolted – well, not really even doing that!

Our orders were replaced and sparking cutlery delivered, yet I felt the need to underline the issue here and explained to the “manager” that this was not failure, but complete breakdown of their model.

The dishwasher may have failed and someone might need to look at preparation and in particular storage of things like the potato mash, but the real failure was demonstrated by the behaviour of the on-site staff. At least three employees had been involved in the preparation, and delivery of our orders, so even if the malfunction of the dishwasher had been ignored by someone earlier in the sequence, there was no way the ensuing shortcomings could have been missed by everyone. The point was, they all chose not to do anything. There was no ownership of either the service or the customer and an assumption that if the person before them had seen no reason to intervene in the process, it was OK to let these things pass.  “It’s the way it comes out of the machine”.

This is a challenge facing any retailer right now and they have to confront it. This week I visited my local Debenhams, who you might expect would be going the extra mile at the moment to make the best possible impression on the few people who wander into their stores between now and the new year. I found in their cafe, Xmas decorations that had clearly been put up by someone with a hatred of the season. The previous promotional material had been taken down leaving coloured marks and tape on the walls and Xmas baubles had been hung on hooks that were the remnants of past events, off-centre and lop-sided. The overall impression was of a store that was only half-heartedly painting a smile on a desperate situation. We all know where Debenhams are heading and judging from this demonstration it’s probably going to be sooner rather than later, but this is yet another example of a retailer being unable to leverage “Brand Power”.

Recognising failure for what it really is

It’s not just a matter of untrained staff. In fact training has little to do with it. This is a complete absence of pride, ownership or sense of duty to the brand. There is no way employees should be disenfranchised to this extent. So, what’s happening here?

At its most fundamental, this is acute brand failure. Brands are communities of people with shared values and beliefs whose focus is set firmly on a promise that brand makes to all its stakeholders. If internal marketing had been doing its job, every employee who had failed us on that day in the supermarket would be in no doubt of the promise they were there to deliver and would have a clear understanding of their role in that process. 

The first person to have spotted cracks in the process would have stepped in and addressed them. If they had not done so the next person in the chain definitely would have. The fact that nobody did – and, as I have said at least three people would have been involved in the chain from kitchen to table and more earlier in the process – points to systemic failure. If the company’s senior management aren’t aware of it in other branches it’s almost certainly because they aren’t really looking. The alternative – that senior managers are equally disenfranchised – would be too awful to contemplate.

Process fails when brands aren’t working as they should

This kind of failure doesn’t arise when you understand what a brand is and how it works. It will also not occur when you know how you leverage Brand Power to turn your organisation into the efficient machine that provides the experience customers are looking for. Every brand must do this to survive the digital economy.

The list of failings in this episode stretches well beyond the in-store experience to matters of management structure, KPIs, training and most inexorably to failure in brand development and management, which drives all of the above.

At first glance businesses like this often look the real deal, but failure to leverage brand power in today’s marketplace is commonplace and these days no business can afford such an Achilles heel. 

Only a very small corner of brand is directly concerned with the relationship with end-users. Real Brand Power is about building and managing the community that delivers your brand promise – and that community comprises a far wider range of internal stakeholders than just customers. I sill encounter organisations that don’t have an “internal marketing” item on their budget sheet, even though, like CX, which – as I pointed out at the beginning of this piece is a no-brainer – delivers many times the return of the superficial marketing communications they are prioritising. 

I guess it’s no surprise that none of the employees I spoke to that day thought to take my name and contact details. This alone left me with the feeling that, once I was out of the door, they would settled back into their routine. After all, how are they going to report to me on the action they have taken in the light of my complaint? I’m a stakeholder, I deserve to be kept in the loop on these things.

It’s clearly not within their understanding to follow up in this way, which means they don’t understand their role, nor the relationship the customer has with the brand. They feel no ownership of, or responsibility to their customers’ experience, which can only mean they lack a sense of belonging to the brand community. 

None of this happens when a brand is properly developed and well-managed, but this relies on understanding what a brand is. The questions are, which of our supermarket groups was this? Could it be you? Are you any better at harnessing BrandPower?

Phil Darby
November 11, 2019

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