posted by Brian J. Curran
I have been lucky enough and privileged to have worked with some fantastically customer centric leaders throughout my career. One that always pops up in my mind is Mike Linton, who was the CMO and my boss back in my Best Buy days and currently the CMO at Farmers Insurance. While Mike was loaded to the gills with skills and strengths, there was one lasting impression on me that is at the root of how I operate and that is that Mike cared passionately about the brand.
I am not just talking just about the colors that we used or the logo or some other typical academic usage of the word. Mike cared about how customers felt about their experiences and how that translated into how they cared about the brand. I came to know this intimately under the forward thinking wisdom of my then boss John Walden, President of Internet and Direct Channels currently the CEO of Home Retail Group in the UK and their joint decision to move the newly built Enterprise Customer Care organization which I created and led under Mike.
We all of course want to impress our new boss with our command of the function that has been placed in our care and like any good manager, I plied Mike with all the details about how we were managing AHT, increasing occupancy and lowering the overall cost per contact. I might as well have been Charlie Brown’s teacher as he really didn’t care about those things. What he wanted to know was how the customer felt. Not just about how they felt about interacting with Customer Care and my CSAT and Quality scores. He wanted to know about how they felt about engaging with the brand across the entire buying and using cycle and across all the functions that interacted and all the channels. It was more important to Mike that I have real data that could be enacted upon by the retail store leaders and that I met with them on a weekly basis to share what we were learning.
What Mike knew as a fact was this. Your brand is driven by the experiences that you deliver. Period. Sure Mike had responsibility for marketing and advertising and a slew of other functions that drove traffic to our stores and websites. He knew he had to tee up the opportunity but he knew it that if you wanted to drive a sustainable business, you had to deliver the promise that was made through all the campaigns, inserts and commercials.
When I look up the word brand, I am always astounded by the origin of the word from Old Norse which is “to burn”. We of course know this from the old cattle stories of branding a mark of your ranch on the cattle to differentiate yours from someone else’s cow. I don’t know about you but I don’t want a brand "applied" to me like a mark for cattle. I want to be treated like an individual. The differentiation today is driven by “burning a mark” or driving a memory about your brand through the usage of your products and/or services you sell and the moments of engagement through each touch-point of the customer lifecycle. We all know what the byproduct of this experience is. Some call it loyalty, some call it stickiness, some call it NPS but we all know it is crucial to success.
Way before the our hypersensitivity to viral advocacy via social channels and our concern about Digital Disruption etc., Mike had the foresight to care about how our brand met the expectations of the customer while they were fulfilling their needs. He described words that he felt best fit the experiences and attitudinal results that came from those experiences. I remember how he would use the word authority to describe one of those brand attributes. Mike felt that if our associates on the floor, the blue shirts, could become experts in the products and their value, then customers would perceive us as having the authority to be the place to come for that expertise therefore differentiating ourselves in a much commoditized product environment with the likes of Amazon and Wal-Mart. Now we can argue whether we were able to create that experience back in early 2001 or not but Mike knew that it was crucial and in hindsight foretold about the rise in things such as show-rooming where the only value is that I can see and touch the product before buying from someone else online. Mike knew that is the absence of price parity, experiences especially focused around knowledge were the key differentiators.
With today’s tools and strategy at the disposal of many of us, there are really no good excuses left on why we can’t deliver the appropriate experiences to differentiate our brands and deliver compelling experiences to the sub set of general consumers we are targeting. It really is about being clear about what you want your brand to stand for in the market at a useful (functional), useable (effortless) and meaningful (emotional) level and aligning everyone around the organization to deliver this day in and day out. Now the only question left is when you are going to start.
Thanks Mike and John for your patience teaching me to become a customer centered leader. I hope everyone finds mentors like the two of you early in their careers and have the passion to transform their brand!