Brand and Culture Need Your Support!

Kathleen Peterson Rants & Raves by Kathleen Peterson

Brand is about “meaning not marketing,” says Tom Peters. What does brand mean in your company? Is it about quality products, speedy delivery, and accurate orders? Or does it mean slogans, spin, packaging, and advertising? Brand may mean any or all of these things. These elements of brand represent the external view of a company. When brand begins to involve the customer, the brand deepens. But when it begins to involve all elements of the enterprise – from employees to processes, procedures, collaboration, and even the environment – then it is culture.

Many organizations have abandoned the term culture. I have had some recent experiences that remind me that culture is a player in fueling that internal furnace of Brand Energy™. I had a conversation with a retired executive (“persuaded” to leave his position … been there too long … earned too much … and “this is the last time we will make this kind of retirement plan offer”) from a major corporation. We were discussing the evolution of brand as an element of employee experience, cross-functional collaboration, leadership, and overall enthusiasm for the job and the company. He paused, with a sort of nostalgic sigh said, “Yup … we used to call that culture.”

And so it was. How strong can the brand be in the market without aligning it to your culture? I believe that the brand weakens – even though the product may be strong – if the customer’s interactions with the company are with people that are dissatisfied, poorly managed, minimally trained, underappreciated, and apt to leave the company. The experience will not match the brand. You risk customer defection – loss of market share and lower revenue. Nice move.

Today in the lust to cut costs, we see leaders focusing on a culture of budget. These people are not real leaders; they are what one woman called “evil financial overlords.” This leads to what borders on employee and customer neglect and abuse in some organizations. I received a phone call recently from a woman asking what opportunities I might know of for an experienced Call Center manager; her company was taking actions that were damaging to the employees, the customers, and the brand. The woman’s explanation was that the executives and the board had not “left their offices for six months.” They had no clue that their isolated, budget-only decisions impacted both their people and their customers. This woman’s personal brand is at risk and she is looking to take her talent elsewhere. The risk here is defection of talent that leads to loss of experience, higher costs to replace and develop, potential poaching of other talent by the departed, and discomfort for those left behind. Nice move.

The featured article in the April 2016 edition of the Harvard Business Review is entitled, “You Can’t Fix Culture … Just Focus on Your Business and the Rest Will Follow.” The article discusses the value of fixing business processes and problems as a key means to changing culture. “Cultural change is what you get after you’ve put new processes or structures in place to tackle tough business challenges.” Of course, actual output depends on the types of changes being made. If business challenges are met by increasing rules, restricting empowerment, limiting input to decision making, or a passion to “search for the guilty” and “punish” people … your culture will be in crash mode.

The article presents case studies containing activities described to be effective at contributing to a positive cultural change; they have lot in common. Each case study highlights leaders that use approaches such as pushing decisions down to the front lines to strengthen customer relationships, breaking down the barrier between business units to streamline processes, “carefully training employees who are closest to customers,” and utilizing reward rather than punishment. The companies profiled understand that culture is an outcome which fuels the branded experience.

Think about companies like Zappos.com, long touted as a great place to work with a great culture. Zappo’s culture has emerged from carefully crafted business practices that empower its people and provide an outstanding experience for their customers. The entire operational structure is based on a shared understanding of the Zappos Customer Experience and that experience drives the brand. The front line is empowered to provide resolution to customer issues … there is no “hold for my supervisor” when you have the rare issue with this company. The company invests in hiring, training, and fair compensation for a job well done.

Keep in mind that a challenging culture has its indicators. Low morale, lots of errors, and high absent/tardy rates usually exist; each challenge is an indicator of an operational issue that must be addressed. Leaders must identify those issues and move toward resolution – whether it is training, empowerment, proper staffing , or cross-functional alignment. It is when the core issue is resolved that members of a team will build positive, powerful momentum toward an outcome of  cultural excellence.

You must also be prepared to transform your budget request to an “investment opportunity” and master the ability to make a compelling case for the value your Contact Center brings to the enterprise – when properly funded, managed, and supported at the executive level.

Understand that you can improve the culture and offer richer experiences for your customers and for your people by focusing on operational activities. The challenge is change which scares people; so just start small. Begin by engaging the front line via questions. Far too often leaders want to TELL, TELL, and TELL some more. Try ASKING instead. Put some real questions to the front line. What gets in the way of doing a good job? What can we improve? Ask relatively simple questions; just by asking you will notice the benefits. The key here is to listen and DO something.

Look at all your call escalations and ask yourself why they happen. Reductions in escalations indicate an empowered and trained workforce. It all begins with an understanding that culture and brand work hand in hand. If you want to improve the experience your customers have with your brand, then do a culture check!

And for those who focus on the financials, consider this … the Great Place to Work Institute (manages Fortune’s Top 100 Places to Work Annual Edition) has found that financial performance of the “Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For” surpasses that of the average public company by a landslide.

So take some time to explore the relationship between your brand, your culture, and your operations. Culture is the internal furnace that energizes the brand. Brand Energy Power™ is everyone’s job. Try building a culture around that!

My Best,

Kathleen