The Brand-Service Connection

It is easy to tell companies apart. Just look at the physical signs they display: logos, slogans, street signage, employee uniforms, storefronts and all those other cues that are meant to differentiate brands and send messages to the market.
But what happens when customers start doing business with these companies? After a certain point the “customer experience” is defined not by the information sent through brand messaging, but by the service interactions that occur between customers and employees. And customer service, by and large, is interchangeable from one company to another.
If one were to take away all the outward branding signs of, say, an airline, would customers be able to tell which company they were doing business with? Service at Delta is pretty much the same as service at Northwest or American. In the airline industry, only one or two carriers offer a service style that is truly different from the competition and that seamlessly supports the brand.
The same situation exists in banks, stores, restaurants and telecommunications firms. When you contact one of these companies you will probably end up talking to an agent at an outsourced call center, where the connection between brand messaging and customer service is tenuous at best.
In a strategic sense, service should be viewed as a key component of the brand. Branding provides a set of mutually reinforcing cues and messages that work together to create a distinctive and appealing customer experience. The service interaction functions as an additional cue, another source of information and influence. To the extent that service is aligned with the brand identity and reinforces the brand message, it supports the strategic goals of the company. When there are conflicts or misalignments, customers are left feeling confused and misled.
It makes sense, then, for marketing professionals to become involved in customer service planning. Unfortunately, this seldom happens. Marketing and Operations executives rarely coordinate to craft a unified campaign that integrates brand messaging with a distinctive service style. As a result, there is frequently a disconnect between what customers expect and what they ultimately experience. This, in turn, leads to customer disappointment and turnover.
When launching new branding or marketing campaigns, some companies do include an “internal branding” component, but these efforts usually amount to little more than a sales job to employees. Melding the brand message with service delivery requires more than slogans and posters. It means aligning internal policies, training, measurement and rewards around the brand in order to deliver service that is distinctive, consistent and effective. This requires knowledge of service strategy and operational execution – knowledge that is generally outside of the expertise of the branding and marketing profession.
A handful of companies have been very successful at creating and sustaining distinctive service styles. These include Starbucks, Southwest Airlines, Nordstrom and Disney. In each of these companies, service quality goes beyond competence and friendliness; service and sales workers also understand what their employer stands for in the minds of customers. Their job is not merely to take orders and answer questions, but also to express their company’s personality.
Most organizations, however, have been unable to realize the full potential of either branding or customer service. The integration of these two disciplines offers a more complete, realistic and effective approach than either can deliver individually. To be successful, such a strategy requires that marketing and operations professionals sit at the same table and map out the entire customer lifecycle, from pre-acquisition through the various service touchpoints and branding messages that customers are likely to encounter. This process generates the blueprint for creating a truly distinctive brand experience for customers – one in which the promises of the company are consistently reinforced through service interactions, and in which the style of service is as attractive to customers as the company’s ads, signs and logos.

By Peter Gurney

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