How to fix your brand experience from the outside in

Johann Wrede: To bring real consistency to the brand experience, leaders should stop slicing the problem into pieces that they try to solve independently.
Written by Paul Greenberg, Contributor

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In this guest post, Johann Wrede, the global vice president of strategic marketing at SAP Hybris, explains how companies can succeed at tackling differentiation if they consider what he calls "outside in brand experience" as the means to that end.

Johann know from whence he comes. He is a very smart and, not coincidentally, a very nice human being. Additionally, his chops get extended by his experience in the industry. He's been there, done that, and thus has an idea of what to do. I like this guy.

So, Johann, the floor is yours.

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Lately, the conversations I've had with sales and marketing executives across industries have made it clear that everyone is struggling with the same challenge: Differentiation.

Crowded markets and increasing commoditization make it harder to compete on attributes and qualities. This is driving a movement toward "experience" as the new competitive frontier -- not just the experience of the product or service, but the entire experience the customer has with the brand.

This brand experience was once the exclusive concern of consumer industries, but it is quickly becoming a topic of conversation in boardrooms of even the most traditional B2B companies.

The problem I've noticed is that this new way of thinking often begins with a misunderstanding of what brand and brand experience actually are now.

In many boardrooms, brand conversations become endless debates about color, logo, tagline, vision statement, or some other experiential detail of the identity of the business. What's often left behind is the reality that the brand exists in the mind of the customer (or potential customer), and that their view of the brand is formed by their personal experiences with the business and the experiences they hear from others.

If those experiences are uncoordinated, inconsistent, or inconsiderate of their time and needs, no amount of debate on the colors in the logo or the words in the vision statement will actually change their feelings.

The numbers bear this out: Research from the CMO Council found that nearly half of North American and European consumers will abandon a brand and take their money elsewhere if they repeatedly encounter "a poor, impersonal, or frustrating customer experience across channels of engagement."

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So, the fix is obvious, right? Deliver great experiences, and you'll win the hearts and minds (and wallets) of your customers. The catch is that while the solution might be easy to articulate, most companies get the execution totally wrong.

There's a trap hidden in your organization -- and your budget

Many brand experience initiatives are doomed to fail before they even start because they respect the traditional organizational structure of the business. Marketing does the marketing, sales does the selling, customer service does the fixing, and so on. Each department looks at the experiences that only it delivers, and with the best of intentions, it sets about trying to make those experiences as good as possible using its own resources.

In my opinion, this approach is majorly flawed. It doesn't acknowledge the fact that the customer doesn't care, or even know, which department they're interacting with at any given time. They don't see experiences with these departments in isolation, but rather as elements of one continuous journey. And no matter how great each separate element might be, if the piece-parts don't converge, the journey breaks as the customer crosses the border into the next adjacent department in the process.

An example we all know too well to illustrate this: A CMO invests in delivering a great click-through experience by implementing personalization and a common style between marketing emails and the web landing-page. However, when a potential customer who clicked on the email requests a sales follow-up, things break down. At best, the sales person has an incomplete view of the marketing materials and messages the customer has seen. At worst, they not only don't know what the customer has seen, but they approach them with messages and materials that bear no resemblance to the website or email.

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I believe that to really engage customers, companies must take an outside-in view of their customers' experiences. Leaders should see their company through their customers' point of view and understand the entirety of their experiences. Only then can they invest resources in a way that doesn't merely address the challenges within their part of the organization, but rather creates a cohesive and consistent experience.

Digital is a red herring

Unfortunately, taking this sort of a coordinated approach is harder than it seems. Companies in some industries have recognized the dysfunction inherent in trying to fix siloed experiences and have responded by creating roles that cut across departments. For instance, newly minted chief digital officers (CDOs) tackle the challenge of harmonizing the experiences customers have across marketing, commerce, and service on the web, social, and mobile. And while this seems like a great start to addressing the problem, I would argue that it's actually a dead-end.

Just as customers don't think in terms of departments, they also don't think in terms of channels. Modern human communication is about convenience. We have a broad array of tools that we can use to communicate, and we don't consciously think about switching between them.

The issue with roles like the CDO is that rather than slicing the experience by department, they slice the experience by channel. And unless the business is purely digital, it means that someone else (or perhaps no one at all) is responsible for non-digital customer experiences. For example, who is responsible for the experience when a customer executive visits their supplier's headquarters for a sales meeting? Certainly not the CDO. In the end, if the website is beautiful and personalized, but the lobby is lackluster and no one offers the visiting executive coffee, their experience will be inconsistent and the whole brand will suffer.

To bring real consistency to the experience, leaders should stop trying to slice the problem into pieces that they try to solve independently. If they cannot appoint a customer or brand experience czar, they need to consider an executive council that coordinates the analysis and improvement of experience across the entire customer journey.

This shouldn't be mistaken for a boil-the-ocean approach, as it's not prescribing wholesale changes. Instead, it's a master-plan and governance approach to the implementation of improvements for the customer experience. The ideal result: Coordinated elements that can be implemented quickly, measured easily, and integrated seamlessly.

The real solution requires everyone's participation

Strategy and governance are good, but implementation of processes and tools in a coordinated manner is even better. From what I have seen, real success only comes when every single employee in the enterprise identifies as being customer-centric.

To get there, employees should follow these mandates:

  1. Know the Customer: Has every employee met a customer recently? Too often, the people who work behind the scenes in a business lose sight of who they serve. They get caught up in the thinking that they have an "internal customer" and forget that the work they do actually services the paying customer. Help them reconnect with that feeling by introducing them to real customers.
  2. Know the Customer's Journey: Plaster the walls of the office with journey maps so that everyone can see how customers discover, buy, use, and advocate for the products or services you sell. Ask employees to make the time to understand, empathize, and find ways to improve and simplify the journey. You'll not only get great ideas -- you'll get engaged employees.
  3. Know Your Role: Everyone is in customer service because anyone can make or break the customer's experience. If accounting repeatedly sends the wrong invoice, if shipping keeps using the wrong address, if the warehouse continually gets the picklist wrong, the customer is going to leave -- no matter how great your customer care representatives seem. Get every employee to understand their role in creating great customer experiences, get them to adopt a customer-first mindset, and encourage collaboration across boundaries to solve problems. Your brand experience will come to life.
  4. Know the KPIs (and make them about the customer): Encouragement is good, but financial reward is better. Once employees understand how their position directly impacts the customer experience, they should be measured on that impact. Every department, role, and employee should have KPIs that are aligned to the customer success strategy and the outcomes that the business wants to achieve. This is the proverbial "put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is" step that will transform your brand experience initiative from a good idea into an imperative.

When you put it all together, you end up with a customer-centric brand experience strategy that is broken down into manageable pieces, coordinated across the entire business, and involves every employee. As an outcome, you have meaningful connections between employees and customers, ultimately driving differentiation and revenue growth.

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What kind of growth? According to Forrester, the revenue growth of customer experience leaders is 5.1x that of laggards. That's a pretty compelling incentive to get your brand experience right -- from the outside in.

Thank you, Johann.

Just a reminder to everyone: Registration for the CRM Watchlist 2019 and the 2019 EMI Awards are open now. If you are interested, see what it takes here and here and send me an email requesting the appropriate registration form at paul-greenberg3@the56group.com.

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