Making customer service part of your brand

Nov. 1, 2011

It would be a gross exaggeration to say I’m an avid reader of anything outside the sports pages on the Web. For me to pick up a book and read it from cover to cover says a lot about the book, not to mention my interest on the subject.

Normally, I have little interest or time for books that promote business and marketing, or self-help books that have the proven solutions to make me better at everything. Which means any business book that I have read more than once is a huge deal in my world.

About 10 years ago, I started taking an interest in branding and came across an excerpt in an airline magazine on the subject. It left me wanting more, so I wrote down the title and author and started looking for it at my local bookstores. I found it a short time later and couldn’t put it down once I started reading. Since then, I’ve bought copies to give to new employees.

When most people think of a brand, the image of a logo, name or symbol immediately comes to mind. You don’t need to see the silver letters “GM” on a field of blue to know what company it represents, nor do you need to explain the meaning of five interlocking, multi-colored circles with three on the top and two on the bottom. And while marketing experts spend millions of dollars creating brand identities that are easily recognizable by consumers, recognition is only half the battle.

This book goes beyond the old brand thinking of logos and tag lines to create a new definition that encompasses more than what you see and hear.

It taps into the feelings that are created by those identifiers so executives and managers can focus on the core values that matter to consumers.

The name of the book is “A New Brand World” by Scott Bedbury with Stephen Fenichell. Bedbury was the Nike marketing executive who guided the “Just Do It” campaign that catapulted the company from the number three athletic shoe manufacturer to the largest footwear and apparel company in the world. He also managed the marketing efforts for Starbucks in the late 1990s when the company expanded from the Seattle area to thousands of stores across the globe.

In his book, Bedbury chronicles his experience with both companies and uses it to teach valuable lessons regarding the evolution of the new brand world:

“A brand is the sum of the good, the bad, the ugly, and the off-strategy. It is defined by your best product as well as your worst. ...It is defined by the accomplishments of your best employee — the shining star in the company who can do no wrong — as well as by the mishaps of the worst hire you ever made. It is also defined by your receptionist and the music your customers are subjected to when placed on hold... The brand is defined by derisory consumer comments overheard in the hallway or in a chat room on the Internet. Brands are sponges for content, for images, for fleeting feelings. They become psychological concepts held in the minds of the public, where they may stay forever. As such, you can’t entirely control a brand. At best you can only guide and influence it.”

While the impact of “Just Do It” on the growth of Nike is impressive, I believe Bedbury’s discussion on Starbucks is the most relatable to the tire industry. Tires, like coffee, are more or less commodities in the eyes of many consumers, so the success of Starbucks is all that more amazing when you consider the coffee market just 10 years ago. What’s even more impressive is the fact that Starbucks does not run commercials or print ads as part of its marketing. Old-fashioned word-of-mouth advertising continues to be successful, in part because Bedbury helped Starbucks crack their brand’s genetic code:

“Cracking your brand’s genetic code is not strictly about product, about the past, or even about things — it is about tapping into an essence and an ethos that defines who you are to the folks who matter: your core customers, your potential customers, and your employees.”

Let’s start with the core customers because they are the ones who matter the most. For Starbucks, the members of this group will travel miles out of their way with total disregard for time and fuel economy to get a cup of coffee. They’ll use words like “consistency” and “quality” when rationalizing the extra effort it often takes to find a location. Of course, in order to maintain any level of excellence in thousands of stores, every employee must buy into the core values that their brand represents.

Starbucks took a commodity like a cup of coffee and its people turned it into an experience that includes high-quality, precision-brewed cups of coffee. It doesn’t matter where you go, the consistency of the product and the experience continues to result in extreme brand loyalty. This is exactly why Bedbury emphasizes the employees as part of the genetic code:

“Though it is important to demonstrate consistency to the outside world that you know what your brand is about, ultimately it is even more important to first demonstrate this internally and continue to do so at every opportunity.”

[PAGEBREAK]Tire retailers can learn a lot from Starbucks. Tires are a commodity just like coffee because many consumers see few differences between one brand and another or the company that installs it. Many of them are looking for the best price, just like it was in the old days of coffee. If the tire industry wants to charge a premium for installing the same tire as everyone else, then retailers must commit to a much higher level of customer service training in order for it to become part of the brand.

It begins with the person who answers the phone. Is the voice pleasant, one that shows genuine appreciation the customer called? Or is it laced with indifference, one that says “I just want to transfer you as quickly as possible so you are no longer my problem”? In some cases, a cheerful introduction and the name of the person who can help may be all that is required to put the customer at ease.

And if the counter person is busy, a promise to call back within a set time frame is a great way to get your customer to leave a message — as opposed to a voicemail that, at least in the consumer’s mind, may never get returned. Then when the salesperson follows through and schedules an appointment, the tire buyer already will have increased expectations about the brand because the first impression will have been notably unlike his or her previous experience with other companies.

As soon as a customer arrives at the location, another important message about the brand is communicated. Every impression influences customer loyalty, so housekeeping is a major factor in setting the tone that separates one retailer from another. When your store is clean the first time and every time after that, the repeat consumer sees that housekeeping is an important part of the culture. If the company has multiple stores and they all maintain the same level of cleanliness (especially rest rooms), then it truly becomes part of the brand, and customers will recognize that.

I believe once the smell of sanitized rest rooms, scented candles, fresh popcorn or cookies/coffee wears off, true customer service ultimately comes down to three key attributes: attitude, confidence and gratitude. They apply as much to your technicians as they do to your counter people, but we’ll start with how they can make a difference the minute the customer walks through the door.

1. Attitude: Once again, is it warm and welcoming or rushed and bothered? People need to feel that the people with whom they are talking are actually glad to see them. If the salesperson is busy, a simple acknowledgment that he is aware the customer is waiting is enough for most people. Positive employees who are generally in a good mood and happy to see customers can build the type of brand loyalty that Starbucks continues to enjoy.

2. Confidence: Listening is a skill upon which almost all of us could improve. Customers must believe salespeople are truly interested in what they have to say. Then they can respond confidently with the perfect solution because they have the training to explain the features and benefits of each option.

3. Gratitude: Genuinely show you appreciate your customers’ business by telling them so, and making sure they understand your procedures and services. The goal here is to make the customer want to return for another transaction. Finally, salespeople should ask their customers if they are happy with the level of service and explain the complaint resolution policy.

If there is no complaint resolution policy, then dissatisfied customers will just never come back. If I’m going to believe that customer service is part of someone’s brand, then the salesperson should ask me if I’m happy and let me know what I should do if I’m unhappy for any reason. When customers have the phone number of a manager or the owner, then they will believe that the company is serious about exceeding expectations (see sidebar on page 46).

But the customer service experience does not stop at the sales counter. Every technician in the shop must buy into the same concept of exceeding expectations no matter what rolls in the bay. Those attributes that must be inherent to the sales staff also need to be in place for the employees who have little to no contact with the customers. A good example of a company buying into an “exceeding expectations” philosophy is Mountain View Tire and Service Inc., which is known for providing the “WOW Experience.” (Read about Mountain View’s CEO and President Nick Mitsos — MTD’s 2011 Tire Dealer of the Year — in the September issue of MTD.)

     1. Focus on attitude: Do your technicians take the time to wipe off any excess oil under the car after an oil change, or just ignore it and let it drip on the customer’s garage floor? Do they take the time to make sure their hands and shoes are clean when they get in the vehicle? If he has a poor attitude, and fails to treat the customer’s vehicle like it’s his own, all the good will created by excellent phone skills and a clean, informative showroom can be undone in seconds.

I can tell you there is a quick-lube place around the corner from my house that will never get my business again because the technician didn’t wipe up the excess oil. It is convenient and the counter people are pleasant, but I will never go back because its technician didn’t care.

     2. Focus on confidence: Every technician must believe he knows exactly what needs to be done and have access to the tools and training to make sure the service is performed correctly. Guessing and rigging are not part of the customer service “brand,” so training and proper equipment are necessities. Scratching the rim flanges on alloy wheels should never happen with modern day machines if the employees know how to use them. If technicians don’t have the right equipment or training, they cannot be expected to have a lot of confidence in their work.

     3. Focus on gratitude: There has to been a genuine sense of appreciation when technicians get the opportunity to work on someone’s vehicle. They must be conscious of every detail so a customer immediately recognizes that someone took great care of her car. Technicians, like salespeople, have to make sure they do everything they can to make the driver want to come back for needed service or preventive maintenance. I’m not talking about mints on the dashboard or personal notes — or maybe I am.

[PAGEBREAK]My golden rule of training always has been “to change behavior in a positive manner.” It doesn’t matter what type of training takes place, the goal should be to improve the level of performance so things get better.

All commercial tire dealers are required by law to provide training for every employee who handles an inflated truck tire, so many of them use TIA’s training program for OSHA compliance. But the progressive companies also will provide the same training to the sales and office personnel so they are familiar with the terminology and different types of fitments. Those same employees would also receive extensive training on how to answer the phone, ask for the sale, and resolve a conflict. They become confident in their ability to handle just about any situation because every person in the building has been trained in several different areas.

In case you haven’t noticed, the new car dealers and national automotive repair companies are spending millions to market the fact that they are in the tire business. There has never been more competition for the independent tire dealer, so companies that want to stay in business must be more aggressive in their approach to training.

When you cannot compete on price, there has to be something else to differentiate you from the big boys. Starbucks did it by combining high quality coffee with highly trained baristas in comfortable settings that create an atmosphere and an experience. And even while other retail cup of coffee companies have stepped up, Starbucks remains the gold standard because the core values of the company are communicated to the employees on a regular basis.

While I seriously doubt that the Starbucks crowd will ever show the same level of passion for tire and vehicle service, I know the tire industry can learn a lot from its example. The formula appears to be so simple that it could be copied by anyone, but there have been plenty of failed entrepreneurs who thought it would be easy to charge more for a better quality cup o’ joe. It also takes highly motivated and trained employees who understand that every detail plays a vital role in defining the brand to the customers.

Each of the three key attributes of customer service must be in place in order for them to translate to the brand. Attitude is everything, which means most people can spot an order taker or commission hound in seconds. The same can be said for confidence. Employees who are well trained don’t have to struggle with the answers, look it up or check with the manager. They are sure of themselves and their recommendations because they truly understand what is best for that particular customer and vehicle. And since they regularly receive training on how to communicate with consumers, they have confidence in their ability to handle any potential objections.

I have to admit that gratitude training may be difficult to find. I’m not sure how you teach someone to be thankful that there is enough work to guarantee a regular paycheck. My guess is that some people are just born and raised in a way that makes them appreciative of everything they have. They understand how the world works, so it’s natural for them take pride in their work and their customers. I’ve always said that I can teach any employee to do just about any job, but I cannot teach them to care. And while complaint resolution policies and procedures are a great way to demonstrate a higher level of commitment to customer service, they are nothing more than signs on the walls if nobody follows through and resolves the dispute.

I follow Chicago sports teams religiously (except the White Sox). Walter Payton is the greatest running back I’ve ever seen, but he didn’t win the Super Bowl until they gave him a passing game, a defense and “da Coach.” Michael Jordan the player probably wouldn’t have become “Air Jordan the brand” without Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson.

Two young hockey players named Toews (Jonathan) and Kane (Patrick) do not lead the Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup unless the entire organization buys into the concept of “One Goal” (winning the championship). And while the Cubs are fortunate to have an iconic landmark like Wrigley Field, the organization has wasted millions of dollars on talented players because talent doesn’t guarantee team leadership and chemistry, which has made it impossible to create a brand that puts the focus on winning championships.

Successful sports teams are no different than tire retailers in that regard. There must be a leader at the top who sets the tone for the entire company and holds everyone accountable. Star employees must lead by example and inspire co-workers to raise the level of their games so the team can succeed.

Expectations must be clearly communicated and reinforced on a regular basis so all of the employees understand how they shape the genetic code for the brand with each work order. And finally, there must be constant training for every job description in order to create a culture where customer service is the top priority.

Kevin Rohlwing is senior vice president of training for the Tire Industry Association (TIA). He can be reached via email at [email protected].

About the Author

Bob Ulrich

Bob Ulrich was named Modern Tire Dealer editor in August 2000 and retired in January 2020. He joined the magazine in 1985 as assistant editor, and had been responsible for gathering statistical information for MTD's "Facts Issue" since 1993. He won numerous awards for editorial and feature writing, including five gold medals from the International Automotive Media Association. Bob earned a B.A. in English literature from Ohio Northern University and has a law degree from the University of Akron.