The argument for a memorable customer experience is everywhere today...and rightfully so. But your AR mirrors, in-store coffee bars, and other bids at experiential retail are nothing without attentive, knowledgeable, on-brand customer service. It is still the core of any positive retail experience. We're excited to welcome Honor Code Creative founder Rachel Solomon to the blog today, sharing her insight on creating lifetime evangelism through customer care.
A Creative Confession
I care … about customer care
So, I'm a creative leader and I'm going to tell you a secret that no creative leader will tell you. Here goes: The sexiest, most creative stuff we make isn't what will most impact sales. And it's not the only thing that will shape brand perception, either. Customer service most definitely will though. And if you make it your forgotten child, you do so at your peril.
A is for Armani; R is for Real Relationships
The impact of customer service is a realization I came to in two ways. First, as a fanatical consumer myself. I've been a passionate shopper since I learned the alphabet with my dad by looking at the backs of ties in Filene's Basement. "A is for Armani, honey. Z is for Zegna." My father had his "guy" at Filene's Basement, a salesman who would call him when certain things came in, put things away for him, give him styling advice, and more. In return, my father was unerringly loyal to him and to "the Basement." It was the foundation of a lifetime relationship and endless referrals. In short, the dream of any brand in today's world of fickle, click-away consumers.
Nowadays, so much of customer service is remote. And it feels remote. I learned how this happens firsthand when I went to work at smartbargains.com, and then again as the first full-time creative at Rue La La. Customer service was a linchpin of the Rue business, not an afterthought. In fact, perhaps the most impactful person there was EVP of Customer Experience (her name is Cheryl Kaplan, and today she's the president of M.Gemi). What I thought at the time was an off-the-charts level of perfectionism, I quickly grew to appreciate was in fact an incredibly impactful way to differentiate the brand from competitors and create lifetime evangelism through the customer experience.
Business as Unusual
As the owner of the brand's voice, I was charged not just with co-creating memorable holiday concepts, naming new initiatives like the Sunday Night Styleathon, and owning the voice of our social channels. In a unique move for a brand (I learned this only later), I was charged with stewarding the voice of customer service along with my customer service counterparts. One of the earliest decisions I made was to install a writer on the Customer Service team who understood the brand voice. She had actually applied for an editorial position, but her effervescent personality and understanding of the written word made her perfect for this role.
Cheryl and the head of customer service empowered her to lead corporate customer service and make in-the-moment decisions that created lifelong customers. Where most creatives wouldn't have a point of view on this, as such a longtime consumer myself and as an advocate of our brand, I did. I too was empowered by Cheryl to make suggestions that delved into the voice in its most obvious form but also beyond. For example, when a customer had placed a sought after accessory in her shopping bag and gotten it "taken" from her (these were the earliest days of flash sale), we made a decision to order that accessory from somewhere else and surprise and delight her with it. A little humor, a lot of honesty and ownership, and a friend-to-friend way of communicating it all, along with in-the-moment decisions like this made us a favorite across social media where people love to tell their stories.
Us Versus Them? Try We.
As a creative who cared about the customer experience just as much as I care about making beautiful creative, I also made pretty frequent trips to our out-of-state customer service outposts. Seeing how different these customer service environments were from our own corporate one helped me understand what disconnects could arise in the customer service voice.
Out in these far flung flatlands, I was first introduced to the source of so many of the off-brand communications I fretted. Where our on-site team had an inspiring office, access to leadership, a cosmopolitan city surrounding them, photo bays, makeup artists, and cool-company status, the customer service reps had none of that, punched a clock, worked long hours, rarely saw the merchandise, and sometimes switched over to selling, say, hammers or phone service on the same day.
We all try so hard to focus on brand voice. We can go around and around on a headline for a digital ad. Forget the astronomical hours and dollars spent on a billboard. But the often alone and unguided, often writing or speaking for multiple brands at a time, the bulk of customer service messaging is unchecked and unemotional. And not in a good way. Ever written a furious email about something wrong a business has done, only to get a form response: "We're sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused"? It creates a lifelong impression. And it's easy enough to find what you're looking for elsewhere next time.
These small customer service moments can be the undoing or making of a brand, and they're often happening with no awareness whatsoever.
Truth Is A Power Tool
Over time I started to have a whole range of tools in my arsenal to address voice in customer service. They often amounted to some strategy and a lot of "doing the right thing":
- Sitting side-by-side with reps and drafting communications or sitting on calls with them
- Asking the reps about the most frequently asked questions or problems and creating on-brand responses that they could customize and use
- Surveying members and sharing "in their own words" feedback
- Developing a voice guide with concrete, contextual examples and presenting it to the customer service reps (live), as well as the corporate team
- Walkthroughs of the overarching brand for new reps and refreshes through its evolutions
- Sharing "best of" customer service responses from other brands and success stories from our own
- Teaching empathy practices, so a rep could understand how to genuinely put themselves in the customer's position, even if it felt far away and unrelatable
- Training the art of the apology
These are tools that I refined over time and continue to apply for brands today as the Creative Director of Honor Code. I can't put them on our Instagram the way I can some killer signage or the slickest bottle label. But they give me as much pleasure, if not more, because I know the impact they have. With the proliferation of more and more direct-to-consumer brands and the growing number of seamless, where-you-are sales channels like Instagram, warm, attentive, on-brand customer service is an increasingly important weapon in our arsenal as branders that can't be ignored. It's that X factor that creates evangelism and keeps people coming back, one that's more powerful than the lowest price. More powerful than convenience. People across the board demographically recognize authenticity and value it in the brands they bring into their lives.
We know the value of good relationships.
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Topics: Customer Service