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What would it take to convince people that your business delivers a great customer experience? For tech giant Microsoft, the answer was more than $1 billion.

Executive Summary

P/C insurers can take a cue from companies like Amazon.com, Trader Joe’s and Patagonia when it comes to brand management by working to bring their brand messages to life during routine interactions with customers rather than spending more money on advertising, Watermark’s Jon Picoult advises.

That’s how much the company reportedly spent on its Windows 8 marketing campaign when the new operating system was launched in 2012. (See, for example, “Microsoft Betting BIG On Cloud With Windows 8 And Tablets,” Forbes, Oct. 11, 2012.)

And how’d that work for them? Not so well. Windows 8 sales were underwhelming at launch, garnering far less market share than Windows 7 at the same point in its release cycle. So, what went wrong?

In a word, it was the experience of using Windows 8. The software was designed to support both touchscreen tablets and traditional desktop PCs, but it handled neither particularly well. Many software reviewers and design gurus found the Windows 8 interface just plain confusing. One even declared that it “smothers usability” (Jakob Nielson of Nielsen Norman Group, Nov. 19, 2012 article titled “Windows 8—Disappointing Usability for Both Novice and Power Users,” available at www.nngroup.com).

But this isn’t a story about the usability of a new software program. It’s a sobering reminder that great, loyalty-enhancing customer experiences—the kind that get people talking and buying—can’t be created with Super Bowl ads, stadium naming rights, public relations blitzes or any type of advertising campaign.

Those marketing instruments may help pique people’s interest in what you have to offer, but it’s the actual interactions they have with your company—the customer experience itself—that will ultimately drive long-term engagement.

Microsoft isn’t the only organization that’s erred in this regard. Many companies, across many sectors, try to use their marketing muscle to win the hearts and minds of consumers. The property/casualty industry spent over $6 billion on advertising in 2013, according to research firm SNL Financial. And that’s just the carriers. It doesn’t include marketing expenditures by agents and brokers that, albeit smaller in absolute terms, are nonetheless material expenses for many field offices.

Some in the industry would argue that these are necessary expenditures, required elements for raising brand awareness and consideration among one’s target market.

That’s a fair statement, but in reality what often happens is that the marketing of a company’s brand promise gets far more attention than the fulfillment of that brand promise. And it’s that disconnect for customers that will undermine even the most carefully orchestrated branding campaigns, as Microsoft learned.

How can you help your organization avoid this kind of misstep?

Use the three tips below to reconsider what it really means to manage your company’s brand experience:

1. Think about brand in a brand new way.

If the term “brand management” conjures up images of your chief marketing officer or advertising agency, then it’s time to think more broadly. People’s impressions of a company’s brand will be shaped by the totality of interactions they have with the firm.

Granted, some of those interactions will be more influential than others, but they all serve to shape customer perceptions in some fashion.

Companies that cultivate intense customer loyalty recognize the broad array of touch points that comprise their brand experience. And they actively manage those touch points to create great, even legendary, brand impressions.

The marketing of a company’s brand promise often gets far more attention than the fulfillment of that promise.

For them, brand is about much more than a billboard, radio spot or TV advertisement. It’s about the end-to-end experience, from pre-sale to post-sale. It’s about their website, their call center, their retail outlets, their customer correspondence, even their billing statements. Every live, electronic or print interaction you can imagine.

Case in point: Amazon.com’s obsession with packaging. The online retailer, perennially rated among the most loved brands in any industry, obsesses over every detail of their brand experience, right through and including the act of opening up the box they send you.

Amazon recognizes that, even if subconsciously, the mere act of opening up a package will necessarily influence customers’ perceptions about the purchase process. And so they’ve tried to make even that as easy as possible by introducing “frustration-free” packaging that eliminates metal twist ties, razor-sharp plastic clamshells and other annoying wonders of modern packaging.

As a result, it isn’t just buying from Amazon that’s effortless (thanks to their patented one-click purchase button), so too is opening the package they send you. That’s what end-to-end management of the brand experience looks like in practice.

Think of all the customer interactions that will either reinforce your company’s brand promise or undermine it: coverage quotes, sales proposals, insurance applications, policy contracts, loss control programs, renewal communications, premium audits. The list goes on and on.

No matter what you choose to have your brand stand for—simplicity, expertise, helpfulness, sophistication, expediency or some other attribute—ask yourself if that theme truly permeates your company’s brand experience, and not just its advertising. If it doesn’t, remedy that by better balancing investments in promoting your brand promise with investments in actually fulfilling it.

2. Don’t just say it, prove it.

Talk is cheap when it comes to brand promises.

Any company can claim through its marketing to be something that it isn’t: fast, friendly, knowledgeable, client-focused, easy to do business with. What ultimately matters to customers isn’t what you say but what you do.

The most compelling brand promises are those that are backed up with tangible proof points—things that demonstrate very clearly to customers (or prospects) that your business really walks the talk.

Take Southwest Airlines, for example, a company that aims to make air travel a bit friendlier, fun and hassle-free. Among their proof points: warm, personable staff and no baggage fees.

Or Trader Joe’s, a company that’s sought to make the grocery-shopping experience less overwhelming. (How many varieties of ketchup does the world really need?) Proof point: They stock their shelves with just a fraction of the number of SKUs carried by competitors, each carefully selected based on their target consumer tastes.

Patagonia, a maker of outdoor clothing and gear, has marketed itself as an environmentally responsible company. Proof points: They use organic cotton—and even recycled soda bottles—to make clothing and also donate 1 percent of revenue (sales, not profit) to environmental organizations.

All three companies are beloved by their customers, in part because people know what these organizations stand for and see them delivering on their brand promise in very demonstrable ways.

Does your company’s brand promise pass the “proof point” test?

Consider what your firm has chosen to be famous for, what brand attributes you’ve claimed, and then ask yourself: What could you point to that proves it?

If you’re at a loss to identify some tangible proof points, start creating some. Look at your customer touch points through the lens of your brand promise—coverage quotes, applications, policy documents, correspondence, premium audits, etc. Think about how those touch points could be reshaped (or new ones added) to help bring your brand message to life during routine interactions with customers.

And even if you are able to identify some existing proof points, it’s worth asking: Are you adequately highlighting them in your marketing campaigns? You might be aware they exist, but your customers and prospects might not. Don’t keep them a secret. Follow the lead of companies like Southwest, Trader Joe’s and Patagonia and show the marketplace that your organization’s claim to fame is anything but hollow.

3. Don’t sabotage your sales.

While you can’t advertise your way to a great customer experience, you can at least hope to fill your sales pipeline via those marketing efforts.

But even that marketing investment is pointless if it’s not easy for people to comprehend and buy your products. The purchase experience is an integral part of the customer experience. Sales interactions are as important to shaping your brand as service interactions.

Yet companies often sabotage their sales (and undermine their marketing efforts) by making it difficult for people to buy their products. From poorly staffed retail stores to ill-equipped telephone sales reps to unnavigable websites, businesses erect obstacles that exhaust even the most interested prospects.

Companies that cultivate intense customer loyalty recognize the broad array of touch points that comprise their brand experience.

BlackBerry, a company that dominated the mobile handset business for years, learned this the hard way as their product portfolio burgeoned and their sales process became increasingly complex.

The inflection point came around 2011, when consumers who visited BlackBerry’s website were met with a wall of over 20 device images—all with confusingly similar names (Bold 9780, Bold 9700, Bold 9650, etc.)—presented on a black screen that made it difficult to even see the devices. Plus, the site offered no “electronic wizard” to help prospective purchasers narrow down the handset selection based on how they intended to use the device.

Contrast that with what visitors to Apple’s iPhone website saw: just three smartphones, presented on a beautiful, bright and transparent background, making it easy to not just discern the devices but to choose the one that best met their needs.

Comparing these two product purchase experiences, is it any wonder that Apple’s handset business thrived while BlackBerry’s stumbled?

Oftentimes, it’s not the best product that wins in the marketplace but rather the one that’s most easily accessible and understandable to the customer. Our brains are wired for the path of least resistance. The more thought and energy required to navigate the purchase process, the more likely it is that people will just abandon the effort—and buy something that’s less taxing on their minds.

Maximize the effectiveness of marketing programs by carefully shaping the customer experience—long before they’re a customer. How easily can prospects navigate your product portfolio? Comprehend product features? Interpret a sales proposal? Get purchase guidance when they need it?

These are the questions you should be asking in order to create a purchase experience that not only burnishes your brand but also turns more prospects into customers.

No matter what you’re selling, the real battle for people’s hearts and minds isn’t waged on billboards and airwaves. Marketing campaigns may provide air cover, but the hand-to-hand combat of each customer interaction is where true loyalty is forged—the simplicity of your sales process, the usability of your products, the clarity of your communications, the helpfulness of your staff, etc.

So, before you hang your hat on an expensive marketing campaign to convince people how wonderful your product or service is, ask yourself why they need convincing at all.

Contributor

Jon Picoult , Watermark Consulting

Jon Picoult is Founder & Principal of Watermark Consulting, a customer experience advisory firm that helps companies impress their customers and build brand loyalty. As a consultant and keynote speaker, he has advised thousands of executives across some of the world’s foremost brands. Contact Picoult at www.watermarkconsult.net or follow him on Twitter @JonPicoult.