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Brilliant Branders: 5 Companies That Know the Importance of the Customer Experience

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By Scott Deming

RISMEDIA, August 16, 2007—Ever had a customer experience that left you with a genuine sense of delight? On the other hand, have you ever had an encounter with a company that left you gnashing your teeth and griping about the event for weeks on end to anyone who’d listen? If you’re like most people, you can answer both questions (especially the second one!) with a resounding yes. But did you ever stop to wonder precisely what it was that went so right—or in the second case, so terribly, horribly wrong?

Scott Deming, author of “The Brand Who Cried Wolf: Deliver on Your Company’s Promise and Create Customers for Life,” has the surprisingly simple answer: great customer experiences happen when companies keep their word. Below, he’s provided examples from both ends of the spectrum: brilliant branders (who consistently create the ultimate customer experience) and wolf criers (who claim they do but actually don’t).

The Brilliant Branders: How They Got It Right

Businesses fail for any number of reasons, but there is only one foolproof way to build a truly successful one. Stumped? The key to business success is to consistently deliver—or better still, over deliver—on your brand promises. That’s exactly what the following five companies do, day in and day out.

“These companies know that even ahead of sales numbers and profits, the most important part of your business is the relationships you build with people—your customers and employees,” says Scott Deming. “It’s that simple. Deliver on your promises to your employees and they’ll be sure to deliver on your company’s promises to your customers. The resulting ultimate customer experience turns your customers into loyal, raving fans who will take your company to the promised land.”

1. Saturn

Saturn, the little car company that could, has built its business around a promise “to surprise and delight people in all aspects of the automotive experience.” The Saturn brand survives because it delivers on this promise by providing hassle-free sales, excellent service, and honest, down-to-earth transactions. It tells consumers that it’s “a different kind of car company,” and it is.

As evidence of that, one man shared his Saturn ultimate customer experience in a 2005 BusinessWeek Online article by Diego Rodriguez. The author reported that the man’s daughter was left stranded in Arizona after her Honda (yes, Honda) broke down. When it came time to ask for help, the man called a Saturn customer-service center.

According to the article, in order to give the man an excellent automotive experience as they promise in their brand purpose, the customer service rep arranged for the Honda to be towed and the young woman to be picked up. They then let her father know that she was okay. The reason Saturn succeeds is not because they make a better car than say, Honda, but because they over deliver on their brand promise. It’s not the car, it’s the car company.

2. Ben & Jerry’s

From its inception in 1978, Ben & Jerry’s set out to create a special customer experience and a socially conscious company. When their first store opened, the pair immediately went to work building a relationship with the Burlington, Vermont community where it was located. Their first summer there, they held a free movie festival by projecting movies onto the outside wall of the store.

Throughout its existence, the company has been dedicated to creating jobs for Vermonters. Ben & Jerry’s seems to be built around the idea that you can have a thriving business and still give back to your customers, community, and employees. As the now multi-million dollar company has grown, it has continued to strive to put out the highest quality products while still being good citizens:

·     Rather than throwing away excess materials, they began feeding a Stowe, VT, pig farm ice cream waste.
·     The founders spoke out against using Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH), refusing to use milk from cows that were given the hormone.
·     The company has created unique (and delicious!) flavors that have helped bring attention and funding to everything from rain forest preservation, to disadvantaged people, to Farm Aid.

These are only a few of the ways Ben & Jerry’s gives back. Their social and environmental identity is bound up with their product and their brand; in fact, there’s no distinction. This is what makes the Ben & Jerry’s experience unique.

3. Costco

Through their excellent employee retention plan, Costco shows that providing the ultimate customer experience starts with treating your employees well. Costco is a general merchandise company that sells high quality, low-cost items from mayonnaise, to automobile tires, to crystal chandeliers. A crucial component of its success is employee loyalty, which translates to employee evangelism. In fact, Costco has the lowest employee turnover rate in retail.

The average wage for a Costco employee is more than 40% higher than its closest competitor, Sam’s Club. And the company provides excellent benefits, contributing to employee 401(k) plans after two years and providing health insurance to part-time employees after six months of employment. Employees say they want to work at Costco until retirement—a rare expression of employee satisfaction. Naturally, the effects of the company’s approach to employees ripple outward as Costco shoppers appreciate the fact that the low prices they enjoy do not come at the expense of workers’ wages and benefits.

4. Wegmans Food Markets

Wegmans Food Markets is another great company that constantly over delivers on its brand promise of “Every Day You Get Our Best.” Wegmans is a 70-store, family-owned supermarket chain that focuses on giving its best to both customers and employees. Citing the time last year when CEO Danny Wegman flew new, full-time employees up to the company’s Rochester, NY headquarters so that he could meet them and welcome them to the company, Fortune named Wegmans one of its 100 Best Companies to Work For in 2006.

Furthermore, Wegmans doesn’t only make its employees happy. It also makes the communities where its stores are located happy. According to the to the company’s Web site in each of its store communities, Wegmans tries to do the following: provide food for the needy, give donations to neighborhood activities such as community festivals, help young people become healthy, productive, and independent adults, and support the United Way. All of these aspects combined ensure that customers, employees, and the communities truly do get Wegmans best everyday. 

“And perhaps the true sign of a great company, Wegmans knows a failed strategy when they see one,” says Deming. “The company closed its 14-store Chase-Pitkin Home and Garden Centers in 2006 after their efforts to mimic the big players, such as Home Depot and Lowe’s, failed. Leaders at the company realized they would have to invest a lot of money and resources to be competitive in the market, and simply bowed out of the home and garden arena. But they did it with class. Always concerned about its employees, Chase-Pitkin employees were offered jobs in Wegmans stores if they wanted them.”

5. Starbucks

Starbucks has grown to optimize the idea of creating a brand by generating so-called correct perceptions. The Starbucks brand is not entirely about coffee. The product only gets them in the game. What makes the brand and keeps the customers coming back are experiences and associations.

“The Starbucks brand is the reason we’re willing to stand in line way too long and gladly pay way too much for a cup of coffee,” says Deming. “We take our recyclable cup out of the store and into our workplace. We show, through our purchase, how sophisticated we are, how we know about the finer things in life. By associating with the Starbucks brand, we associate with success.”

The Wolf Criers: Why They’ve Missed the mark

It should come as no surprise that any company that neglects its customers is destined to be a consummate failure. That’s why it’s so astonishing that so many organizations (even multi-million dollar corporations!) are still trying to do business without making their customers their number one priority. The companies below were each failures in this department. Some misjudged the quality of their customer service, some wanted to cut costs and thought cutting customer service made the most sense, and some simply made mistakes during critical times. There is a lesson to be learned from each of them: failing to create the ultimate customer experience for your customers will mean failure for your company sooner or later.

1. Time Warner

In 2006, Time Warner bought out Comcast Cable. A series of commercials airing in Los Angeles, one of the cities affected by the change, assured customers that the transition would be seamless; Comcast customers wouldn’t even realize their cable or Internet service provider had changed. The implication was that service was terrific to begin with and would continue to be so under Time Warner’s ownership and management.

Unfortunately, this turned out to be not entirely true for at least one customer in Southern California. A simple wireless router issue turned into eight hours of phone calls, at least three technician visits, unfulfilled promises to return calls, and all around incompetence.

2. Red Cross

A glaring and shocking example of how trust can be instantaneously eroded comes from the American Red Cross. In the hours after terrorists attacked the United States on 9/11, record-breaking pledges poured in from around the world. The Red Cross set up The Liberty Fund as a direct response to the attacks and collected more than $564 million. However, by November 2001, CNN and other news agencies reported that only $154 million of that had been distributed. Dr. Bernadine Healy, who was the outgoing Red Cross president at the time, argued in defense of the charitable organization’s decision to set aside more than half of the money raised for future needs, including possible terrorist attacks. This news angered many donors. They felt like their money was not reaching the intended recipients.

“In other words, though donors were not critical of the charity having money for future disasters, the real question was whether the important agency misled donors into thinking donations were going immediately to 9/11 relief,” explains Deming. “I don’t think anyone really believes the Red Cross deceived people for some selfish, greedy end. But in a moment when individuals’ feelings were of raw helplessness and despair, and the only way they had to connect with and help others was through monetary donations, the Red Cross failed to keep its brand trust.”

3. Sears

Sears was at one time the preeminent department store. There wasn’t a product they didn’t carry, and all of them were backed by a guarantee of quality. When you heard the name Sears, you knew you could count on what you got. And, if something didn’t work the way it was supposed to, or stopped working altogether, Sears was ready with a replacement or quality repair. Unfortunately, that time seems to have passed, notes Deming.

“My personal experience is a testament to the new Sears brand,” he says. “Sears failed miserably as a brand. Not only did it fail to deliver on its promise—the same promise it’s made for decades—it also failed to exceed my expectations with a unique experience when I needed it most. The entire Sears brand, in my mind, failed because of a single experience I had with one young lady, a supposed customer service representative. She did everything in her power to do the minimum so she could get off the phone and go back to whatever she was doing. The experience soured me on Sears, and I no longer trusted the Sears brand.”

4. Song Airlines

Facing competition from low-cost carriers Jet Blue and Southwest, and still reeling from 9/11, Delta spun off Song Airlines in April 2003. The airline took its final flight in April 2006. Its demise came when it based its marketing efforts around reaching a well-researched core customer, the “discount diva,” an upwardly mobile, professional woman between the ages of thirty-five and fifty-four. The new airline boasted terrific in-flight entertainment systems, offered organic meals, and comfortable leather seats. The problem? Song’s core customer was not a real person; it was a marketing Frankenstein, an amalgamation of market research, so delivering on its brand promise was a challenge.

“The airline had built its brand around this core customer, and it just wasn’t sufficient to keep the airline aloft,” says Deming. “Since there was no reality to its “a core customer,” there could be no reality to the brand. The lesson to be learned from Song: Market research will never yield the elements of an excellent brand.

5. Dell

Recently in its bid to cut costs in a competitive market, Dell cut funding in an area that was once one of its biggest strengths, customer service. Naturally, it didn’t take long for complaints about poor service to start streaming in. In May, those customer complaints turned into more than just a customer service nightmare, when the New York Attorney General’s Office filed a lawsuit against Dell and Dell Financial Services for false advertising, failure to provide services, and deceptive business practices. Proving just how important meeting your brand promises are, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo released these scathing remarks: “At Dell, customer service means no service at all. 
Dell’s consumers were intentionally misled, and they had to pay for that privilege. I hope this lawsuit sends a message to companies large and small that delivering a product is simply not enough – the promises they make must be delivered as well.”

“Attorney General Cuomo is exactly right and if Dell wants to get its customers and good reputation back, they’ll have to return their focus to creating the ultimate customer experience, not saving money,” Deming declares.

6. Sprint Nextel

Most businesses want their customers to stay with them for the long haul and will do anything possible to make sure they stay happy. Sprint Nextel has a different approach. In late June, the company, which MSN Money “honored” in April by placing the company in its Customer Service Hall of Shame in April, sent a letter out to 1,000 of its customers telling them that “the number of  inquiries you have made to us…has led us to determine that we are unable to  meet your current wireless needs.” They gave the axed customers a month to find a new wireless provider before terminating their contracts. “It seems the company was upset with the number of calls these customers were making to customer service reps,” says Deming. “It should be obvious this isn’t the way to treat customers, no matter how high maintenance they are. My  suggestion would be that Sprint Nextel take a look at why their customer  service departments weren’t able to successfully handle customer issues and attack the problem at the source—not just throw their hands up and abandon their customers to the telecommunication wilds.”

Scott Deming is the author of “The Brand Who Cried Wolf: Deliver on Your Company’s Promise and Create Customers for Life” (Wiley, April 2007, ISBN-10: 0-4701271-2-0, ISBN-13: 978-0-4701271-2-4, $24.95).

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