It was a cold, rainy day and I was sitting in a conference room with the marketing director and the president of an exterminating company. The president looked out the window and sighed. “On days like today,” he said, “my biggest worry is whether our techs are wiping their feet before they go in the door.” He wasn’t joking. He knew that his company’s success and brand perceptions depend as much on how his technicians conducted themselves inside the homes of their customers as whether they could kill spiders and ants. He was absolutely sure his employees could kill the bugs. He was less certain they would wipe their feet.
These are the trapdoors of branding: the missed details, the oversights, and the insensitivities that can tarnish a brand, lose a customer and even create the kind of negative brand equity that a disgruntled customer may spread to her friends.
And they come in many forms: the contractor who builds a beautiful addition on a home, but leaves roofing nails in the driveway causing the homeowner to get a flat tire. The employees who whine about the boss to each other within earshot of a customer. Or cell phones, which have created a dozen new ways to turn a brand experience into a negative one.
Many of these trapdoors are employee conduct related, where lapses in politeness, consideration or basic listening can be dramatically amplified by the customer’s perception. But certainly not all. Every airline that has chosen to impose bag fees, charge for blankets and other “add-ons” that used to be included in their fares has dinged their brand at least a little. The ever-innovative Southwest Airlines has even seized upon their competitors’ actions and gained ground by not joining in. (And having great fun at the expense of the airlines that are charging.) One brand’s loss becomes the other’s gain and the winner didn’t have to change anything.
These small mistakes, like a technician forgetting to wipe his feet on a rainy day, can carry big repercussions, so what can a company do to deal with branding trapdoors? Try these approaches:
Ask your customers
Take advantage of existing customer surveys and other market research to ask questions about pet peeves and other negatives that customers or prospects might not talk about otherwise. In a recent round of focus groups for a client, I heard repeatedly that leaving incoming or outgoing projects in the showroom was distracting and looked sloppy to the customer. They didn’t want to see the old item waiting to be worked on, or even the recently completed project waiting to be picked up. What they wanted was a pristine showroom where they could imagine their project at its best.
Ask your employees
By encouraging your employees to share negatives they may have caused or witnessed, you can bring a far greater self-awareness and attention to the kinds of details they all should be watching for and avoiding. While much of what you hear may seem like common sense, the extra focus will usually help. And, if a pattern emerges and let’s say your employees keep forgetting to wipe their feet when it rains, make a change, as my exterminator client did. Now their techs automatically put on disposable shoe covers as soon as they enter the home, rain or shine. Their customers appreciate the extra caution, and the president can breathe easier in bad weather.
Be prepared to repair
In many cases you may never know if you fell through a branding trapdoor. The customer may simply stop buying from you or never mention it. But when it’s clear there was a mistake, empower your employees to fix it. Offer a discount, pay for the flat tire or send a gift card as an apology. Many times, accepting the customer’s perceptions and responding to them will build your relationship. And there’s no doubt that failing to address it can only hurt your brand in the long run.
While the bulk of building a brand should be based on the core product or service and creating positive points of difference, try to find some time to look for the branding trapdoors that can cause customers to question your brand or worse. Learn to avoid them, find ways to eliminate them, and do your best to save your customer before he disappears forever.