The Single Thing That Can Sink or Save Your Brand Reputation

You can have the most amazing product in the world, provide an incredibly valuable, useful, important service…but it can be tarnished in an instant by a single thing.

Conversely, a difficult situation or a disappointed customer can be remarkably helped – even completely turned around - by that very same thing.

What is this magical mystery element of which we speak?

The attitude and demeanor of your front-line employees.

Companies invest hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars each year in things like product training, marketing campaigns, and customer service training. But so much of the first impression or lingering taste that people have of your brand is in the hands of the people that they’ll interact with on a daily basis. The folks at the front counter, on the phones, manning your social media channels.

They’re the ones holding the reputation of your brand in the palm of their hands.

The smart @PeterMoorhouse perhaps said it best on Twitter during a discussion on the topic:

So here are the questions at hand:

How careful are we about who we put in those roles? Do we put enough emphasis on them? Do we treat these people and positions as though they’re pivotal to the brand perception we’re trying to build?

Traditionally, front-line jobs aren’t the ones that pay the most. They’re usually lower on the corporate ladder. They might not have visibility into important discussions about company vision, culture, or innovation.

Some of these roles might be downright thankless. Or, we might have absolutely the wrong people in those positions, and we’re not doing enough to evaluate that or correct problems or issues when they arise.

So what do you think? What are the ways that businesses can embrace this critical truth (or is it a truth)? What sorts of ideas, solutions, or innovations do YOU have in mind that can help us rethink the importance of the first touchpoints our customers have with our companies?

Rather than positing my own solutions, I want to hear from you.

How should we be thinking about the front-line roles that impact our brands?

Sound off. The comments are yours.

  • Bgoranson

    Absolutely agree. Employees need to understand the brand they represent and what they need to do in their daily tasks to best deliver the brand to their customers. Brand perception research is one way to better comprehend where a brand fits in its marketplace. It helps us understand what our brand is known for, what competitors are know for and where there are openings for our brand on important, differentiating brand decision criteria.

    • http://efanpage.com Sebastian

      I think your insight on brand perception is incredible, but also think the author is offering so much more: the brand is in part controlled by those on the front lines. I think having clear goals from the top-down to what the mission and vision of marketing strategies is essential and that those who are directly making the posts should align their values with the values of the organization’s marketing plan

      Sebastian

  • http://www.levispires.com Levi Spires

    Good point.

    While living in Japan I noticed how professional employees were. Most notable was the difference between McDonald’s servers there and in the USA. Don’t get me wrong, I bleed red-white-blue, but I just wish many American workers took the same pride in their job.

    My recommendation is to hire people based on passion not skills; you can teach skills to perform. Whereas desire to perform, to do your best is something you can’t grow, at least right away. Someone who has a passion for anything: business, sports, life, whatever, can easily redirect that passion into their job.

    Your thoughts?

    • http://twitter.com/SpaMedique Spa Medique

      I agree with you, you can’t “make” somebody passionate about what they do. But skills can certainly be taught. If a not-so-perfect candidate has passion for what they do, they will be more willing to learn the skills to complete the tasks at hand.

    • http://ryanstephensmarketing.com/blog/ ryanstephens

      @levispires:disqus I think passion should be a pre-requisite for any job, particularly in this economy, but I whole-heartily agree with the sentiment of your comment. Skills are important, and certainly it’s on a case-by-example. You’d save a lot of money hiring a good engineer rather than teaching a super-passionate person engineering; however, for a large percentage of jobs (especially front-line jobs) emotional IQ definitely comes into play.

      Interpersonal skills are often significantly more important than other skills, and it starts with hiring the right people and clearly communicating the goal of your institution.

      • Cysiphist

        That’s all well and good, and passion is important to performing a job well, but I don’t think that standard can be applied throughout. As the article mentioned, these tend to be the lower-ranked, lower-paid employees; there simply aren’t enough people passionate about working for minimum wage at McDonald’s a priori. The question becomes how a corporation can nurture and grow the attitude desired.

        • OtherDave

          There aren’t enough passionate people willing to work at minimum wage to staff every fast food restaurant and retail store, that’s true. But you don’t have to staff every business, you just have to staff yours, and I guarantee there are enough for that.

          And…are you ready to go meta? … whether or not an employer is willing to work to find and hire those passionate people is probably an indicator of how passionate the employer is. :)

  • ella

    I totally agree. Some companies that do this well are Trader Joe’s and Starbucks. Their employees always seem to genuinely want to help, or at the very least will say ‘hi, how are you?’ or ‘did you find everything you wanted today?’… it’s the little things. I get the feeling that they are either trained and/or are treated as valuable by the management. That makes a BIG difference in whether or not they, in turn, care about the success of the company.

  • http://twitter.com/eggboxrobin Robin Houghton

    Great post. I was reading about just this issue at the weekend – Peter Beaumont in the Observer on how a ‘call centre economy’ treats customers as commodities (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/may/08/call-centres-utilities ).

    Brands may talk proudly about their customer service but in reality they put pressure on front-line staff to spend as little time as possible with customers and to follow scripts that merely serve to annoy people further (For example, the inevitable ‘is there anything else I can help you with today?’ even when the main issue remains unresolved.)

    I blogged recently about how some ecommerce businesses squeeze their couriers so hard on price that they end up shooting themselves in the foot when the delivery service is then unsatisfactory (
    http://www.eggblogg.co.uk/2011/01/delivery-is-the-thorn-in-the-side-of-ecommerce-sites.html

    Certainly here in the UK great service is rarely rewarded or valued. It’s most frustrating that so many brands talk the talk but fail to deliver, over and over.

  • http://twitter.com/eggboxrobin Robin Houghton

    Great post. I was reading about just this issue at the weekend – Peter Beaumont in the Observer on how a ‘call centre economy’ treats customers as commodities (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/may/08/call-centres-utilities ).

    Brands may talk proudly about their customer service but in reality they put pressure on front-line staff to spend as little time as possible with customers and to follow scripts that merely serve to annoy people further (For example, the inevitable ‘is there anything else I can help you with today?’ even when the main issue remains unresolved.)

    I blogged recently about how some ecommerce businesses squeeze their couriers so hard on price that they end up shooting themselves in the foot when the delivery service is then unsatisfactory (
    http://www.eggblogg.co.uk/2011/01/delivery-is-the-thorn-in-the-side-of-ecommerce-sites.html

    Certainly here in the UK great service is rarely rewarded or valued. It’s most frustrating that so many brands talk the talk but fail to deliver, over and over.

  • Dave

    There is a book called “moments of truth” by Jan Carlzon that highlights this philosophy during his tenure as CEO of SAS ( scandanavian airlines). His key point is that front-line employees can do much better in their interaction if they have the uathority and encouragement to act on thier own without fear of following “the Process”.

  • Christine Larade

    Super great read!

  • http://tsukiyomi.ca Tanith Perry-Mills

    Front line employees may be the most important, but as you say, they’re also the ones earning minimum wage (for many places). They’re also usually high school and university students, working until they graduate and can get a better job. It’s difficult to attract great front-line staff when you’re only offering minimum wage.

  • http://www.gamesweplayed.com Tom O’Leary

    Too often, front line employees aren’t given permission to resolve issues on the front line. They are stifled in tight boxes designed by their employers to control them. It’s a catch 22 really, isn’t it? How much power are you willing to give to your front line to make audible decisions for the sake of better customer service?

    Also, the morale (and subsequent desire to be an enthusiastic advocate for your brand) of an employee is often directly related to the environment created by the leaders of the organization. Are your employees treated like the superstars you want them to be? If not, they might just meet your expectations.

  • http://www.CarissaO.com CarissaO

    It’s so true. I recently met with a company and was greeted nicely by the woman at the front desk. I quickly noticed she had business cards out and I instinctively reached for one. Emblazoned on the card was her name, followed by “Director of First Impressions.” I instantly smiled. A cute gimmick, perhaps, but I liked it, especially because it seemed to ring true. She quickly put me at ease and helped make me feel at home while I waited for the CEO to wrap up another meeting. I was so impressed with this interaction that I used that same card to grab her email address and sent a thank you note the following day. Unfortunately, that’s where the story falters. I never received a response. Perhaps the role was too specifically defined so that *second* impressions weren’t so important. But ultimately, the behavior didn’t match the expectation, and as a result, my attitude toward their brand was negatively impacted. The first impression, no matter if created by the most junior support staff or more senior executive, is critical, and we must recognize the critical roles every team member plays.

    • http://twitter.com/FLIRT_creative FLIRT Communications

      Love this idea. The title is not only a reminder but also instills a sense of accountability. Very cute!

  • http://twitter.com/FLIRT_creative FLIRT Communications

    I am not sure companies do a good enough job rewarding and recognizing those employees who do successfully hold and handle the reputation of their brands. Sharing success stories gives those front line employees who aren’t doing it well an opportunity to learn from their peers, while allowing the company to showcase those circumstances they believe have been handled well. We have to remember that recognition comes in many forms, showcasing and employee/customer interaction on your company intranet is relatively easy and can do the trick!

    Overall, organizations are reassessing how they engage their employees. To generate positive results from front line employees, we’ve got to get them involved in shaping what those results should and could look like from the start.

  • Bruce

    Great comments here Amber. If the company receptionist answers my query with a can-do attitude, s/he will strengthen the brand in my mind and increase the chance of my re-engaging with their products or services.

  • http://stanfaryna.wordpress.com Stan Faryna

    Amber,

    The prevailing culture of the employee can be a considerable factor when deciding how far you have to go to build caring and compassion into the front line. Or if it’s even possible or affordable.

    Of course, I want excellent service where-ever I go. Just like you. Don’t we all?

    On the other hand, do I want to pay extra for it? My honest answer is sometimes. And, sometimes, I pay for great service directly via 20% gratuities and/or holiday gifts directly to the front line.

    You?

    Stan

    Recently on my blog: Backyard Monsters Cheats, Shiny and Strategy http://wp.me/pbg0R-dl

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OYBKWHS6O4PM4BTIATJ2CQXLK4 Rosella flagel

    5 star sir. I even saved this. I may need? your services soon.?

  • http://investinsocial.com Jason Keath

    The most underrated job in many companies is hiring talent. Understanding how that talent can impact the actual end product experience is so rarely considered to the extent that it needs to be.

    Zappos could change the world if they consulted on this topic with more companies.

  • Lori Denny

    Our company has chosen to share the points that are important and a part of our company culture with our technicians and reinforce the importance of these actions for excellent customer service:

    1. We will always be on time for appointments; if for some reason we are delayed, we will let the customer know at or before the time of the appointment.
    2. We will always meet deadlines promised to the customer.
    3. We will return telephone calls, e-mail and text messages in a timely and courteous manner.
    4. We will stand, shake the customer’s hand, and give them our full attention while conversing.
    5. We will make effective use of time, both the customer’s and our own.
    6. We will thank the customer, during every conversation, for their business.

    * Becoming the best at whatever is important to you is not about how smart you are, where you came from, or what natural gifts you possess. Rather, it’s about doing the little things that are both easy to do and easy not to do.

  • Anonymous

    As someone who has worked for years in the “service” industry, I have always found it peculiar that the people who are the face of the company receive the least compensation and status. This goes for teachers as well as hotel concierges. Seems we reward people by the number of doors between them and the client.
    Unfortunately, this undervaluing of front line people seems to carry over to companies who go “social”. Many just add social media as another line on the staff’s to-do list without providing extra resources in time or money – because social media is free, don’t you know?I’m hoping that once the novelty wears off and the myopic focus on ROI and followers gives way to the true value of engaging with clients online, that more attention will be paid to those gate keepers and ambassadors that provide the “service” in customer service.

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  • http://www.gamesweplayed.com Tom O’Leary

    When front line employees are treated/paid like brand managers, perhaps they will start behaving like them. Historically, capitalist/corporatist culture in America expects so very much from the least of its brothers. Profit is built on the backs of the most willing and, often, least paid.

    Rather than thinking about how much more we can get from our front line — or, how much more our front line people can do for us to improve our brand; perhaps we should be thinking, “what more can we do for our front line people?” This shift in approach will more likely create naturally willing and enthusiastic brand advocates on the front line.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=163100108 Justin Fisk

      I agree to a great degree, Tom.

  • http://twitter.com/teriguill Teri Guill

    I don’t think “high school and university
    students” or other folk that might working for minimum wage can’t be great
    staff. Even within the low-wage worker pool, you can find talent and work
    ethic.

    The good front-line staff members are those that genuinely care about helping
    customers, and genuinely want to do a good job — even if it’s a
    “thankless” one. It’s not even about passion — because who is
    passionate about flipping burgers? – but a desire to do well.

    I think there are two issues to address: one is the difficulty of hiring
    talent. For front-line employees, too often the company criteria aren’t much
    more than requiring that the position is filled by a warm body with a clean-ish
    record. But just because you’re not filling a plum position doesn’t mean you
    can’t find people with drive and good attitudes. Seeking out good people even
    for crummy positions is a greater investment of time and resources, though.

    The second is the company culture with regard to the front-line. The best way
    to encourage a culture of people who genuinely care about your brand and your
    customers is to demonstrate that your company genuinely cares about them, the
    employees. Unfortunately, while this is oft-spoken of, I think putting it into
    practice is a different story. Front-liners are paid the least, many of them
    don’t get benefits, and many of them lack autonomy or creativity within their
    role; it’s all about following the rules and sticking to the process (because
    you’re just a grunt worker; what do you know?)

    People have mentioned companies like Starbucks, Zappos as
    exceptions to the rule. I worked as a Starbucks barista for three years in
    college, and even though I didn’t agree with everything that the Green Mermaid
    handed down to the baristas, for the most part, I still felt like I mattered,
    and I felt like the company took care of me. I had benefits, vacation time. I
    had flexibility. I had a voice. And while I worked there, I did my best to take
    care of the company and its customers, as did most of my coworkers.

  • http://www.mynotetakingnerd.com/blog Lewis LaLanne aka Nerd #2

    I wish I had some awesome first hand wisdom to throw into the conversation here but all I’ve got are 7 consecutive years of being a 2-3 man show who’s had to be the front line the back line and the middle line in my businesses.

    If I were going to direct people to a pro with answers to this question of how to attract front liners who absolutely excel at connecting with people, it’d be Tony Hsieh over at Zappos.com. The culture he’s cultivated there by having a strict criteria for selecting the right people for those front line positions allows those people to feel like they’re making a difference instead of feeling like they’re being used. His company has actually become famous not for the stuff they sell but for the service they deliver.

    If I were serious about creating a workforce that made a A+ impression on my customers, I wouldn’t hesitate to pay him whatever his consulting fees were to make sure I knew his exact process for building a kick butt team.

  • http://www.microsourcing.com/disciplines/csr.asp MicroSourcing

    “Front-line employees” also covers customer support, and customer support specialists who put consumers on hold or keep redirecting them without answering their questions can really hurt your brand.

  • http://www.thefourthrevolution.org Jeremie Averous

    Hi Amber
    absolutely agree – and I don’t understand how companies continue to outsource their call centers as cheap as possible as far as possible from their customer centers – when there are so many proofs of the contrary!

  • http://twitter.com/nicolelynnott Nicole Lynn Ott

    This SHOULD be common sense to anyone who has ever bought something or been served at a restaraunt!  Unfortunately, it seems to go by the way-side constantly.  Treat your employees well and hire people passionate about what you are selling and they will be the best promoters of your business!

  • Kaitlin Maud

    Your employees are your #1 brand ambassadors. Period.

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  • http://twitter.com/RyanCritchett Ryan Critchett

    I’ve been thinking about this more and more and it’s great that you bring it up. Great tweet @petermoorhouse:disqus Peter. 

    I recently called a salon, to ask a couple of questions around appointments, hours and products and the person that answered the phone was very.. conversationally inept and actually quite rude. Every time I drive by that place, I think of her. Yep, we should be thinking about this. It brings to mind a possible solution: That we understand how much the gatekeepers, receptionists and touchpoint people affect the minds of customers who call or inquire, so much so that we reconsider their importance, train them with more care and maybe even, pay them more. 

    The world of social media has opened up a very clear reality of more than one currency. I’d definitely agree that creating a great first impression, is a very awesome currency.

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  • http://beliefandaction.com/ Robert Pinto-Fernandes

    Hey Amber, awesome post! Ryan Critchett referred to you on his blog so I jumped over, and I’m impressed!

    I completely agree with this post – I’m glad that you raised this point. I think the most important thing to do is to look after these employees and not just treat them as meaningless members of staff, but make them feel valued and appreciated, and part of the company. Giving them some sort of incentive to perform well, maybe by giving them a bonus dependent on Revenue or Profits will also help and give them a reason to be passionate. First point of contact is essential. It doesn’t matter how passionate the CEO is if none of their front-line employees are enthusiastic.

    Some people commenting on this seem a bit pessimistic to me. I don’t think that it’s the actual menial tasks or low wages that are the only contributors to poor employee performance, it is the lack of recognition within the company that really causes these problems. Your employees are not just going to be naturally passionate about their business, as the employer you must give them a reason to feel this way, and I don’t think there’s any better way than by making them feel important and valued within the company, and making them feel central to your company’s success. I don’t think that is something that money can buy, and if a business owner and/or manager can do this successfully, and the other critical mass for a thriving business is in place, the business can do nothing but grow. 

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  • http://twitter.com/jennwhinnem Jenn Whinnem

    I worked in a health insurance call center, as a call rep, right out of college.  This sucked. Everyday we were told we were the brand ambassadors, but we were abused by both management and customers. Wow, what incentive.

    The company was constantly refining their “algorithm” for hiring call center reps to try to find people who would be decent at doing it. The last time I checked in (before they were acquired & shut down) they had a lengthy personality screening to weed out the liars. They also did the hair test for drug testing. All this for a $14/hr job.

    I noticed a few comments about “they need to be passionate about the brand!” Okay, how passionate am I going to get about HEALTH INSURANCE. What I did care about was THE PEOPLE. I worked on medicaid (that’s state aid) products, and those people really needed my help – so I went all out to help them. I also had a great team who I liked working with (for the most part). THAT motivated me (also I had one great boss).

    Upper management & their once-a-month ice cream for the call center or whatever? Who cared. It was hypocritical. The “command” center who monitored our stats from on high would never let us off the phones for meetings, and they were continually cracking down on the codes we would use to go to the bathroom. They could have kept their ice cream; what I wanted was the ability to take more of a break from callers!

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