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SME Branding Lesson #8 – Be Great and Stay Great Especially When You Are Wrong

It takes a long time to establish a brand and to become publicly known to the extend of some of our high street retailers, such as Marks & Spencer, John Lewis or Habitat.
It’s also a known fact that it is hard to ‘stay on top’. But what amazes me is the amount and magnitude of schoolboy errors such incredible brands make on a branch level.

M&S Logo Reflection
Diffused Brand Perception. Photograph: Christopher Thomond

We went suit shopping for my husband a while back in one of the largest Birmingham M&S stores. Anticipating the quality and service the brand promises, we were disappointed to find a badly organised suit section without any mirrors and with badly displayed garments that did not look in any way cared for.
We went to the changing rooms and frankly, by that time we were so frustrated with the experience that we thought it may help to talk to a floor manager to point out a few things and to ask for some assistance. Behold, we did find someone – but the lady was chatting to her colleagues that she just rushed past us explaining she was too busy to talk to us.
We thought it was a glitch in the brand matrix… We did not get a suit.
A few days ago we went shirt shopping (slightly less sophisticated) and it was a repeat just in a different town. The shirts on display were no longer clean, fresh and pristine looking but instead covered in a sprinkle on dust (and it wasn’t sparkly star dust) which made them appear dirty and old. They were laid out like a thrown together pile and the shop floor appeared uninviting, abandoned and unloved. When my husband made a member of staff aware of the dust bunnies and the fact that you could not find any system in the display of sizes, they just pretty much shrugged their shoulders and left him to it.
He didn’t get a shirt. But this time, he lost something else – the trust and positivity about the brand. Next time he needs either a shirt or a suit, M&S will be very low on the list of shops to invest his time in.
Costa coffee cup
I had a similar experience in Costa at a service station. (Nothing to do with shirts.) It was the weekend and we were driving down to Devon on a Friday night. It was cold and rainy. We sprinted into the service station with toddler needing the toilet and baby not wanting to stay alone in the car. I ordered a takeaway decaf coffee and the lady took my payment with my card and only realised when she came around to fulfill the order that they had run out of decaf coffee. She then asked me to wait and looked around the shop for a while to see if she could spot any more hidden away somewhere. After an uncomfortable long wait she asked someone else to check. They confirmed that unless I had a caffeinated coffee they could only refund the money.
Fine – I can’t take caffeine – so I expected my refund swiftly and was looking forward to putting baby back in his seat. But no – a refund to a card can only be issued by the manager. Someone went to find out where he was and returned after another long wait saying he had some stock to look at (no kidding, start with decaf coffee powder) and would be around 15 mins. It is then that my acquired English politeness went out the window and in came the German resolute warrior baby held fiercely as a weapon. A short exchange of ‘this is unacceptable…’ and I was about to march myself to the manager.
What saved the day was a quick-thinking – well, he did have quite some time to anticipate this and figure it out  but nonetheless – colleague who had overheard the discussion and concluded the lady give me back my money in cash and they could sort out the paper work later without me hanging around.
This may seem a bit of a long-winded way of making a simple point but I hope it illustrates a difference in approaching customer complaints. M&S were clearly not trained or authorised. The guy at Costa might not have been either, but he did have the guts and the compassion to do something to help me out.
Especially if you are a small business, it is super important to try to react to a ‘crisis’ or mishap in a professional manner that will re-instate any damaged trust in your brand. It is often the case that only in a crisis or when something unexpected happened a brand has the opportunity to show its true colours, the brand values that matter to consumers and clients. And in a lot of cases, if the company reacts in a forthcoming, professional and just manner, they will find an increased sense of loyalty and appreciation from the customer.
It can of course go the other way.
Here are just a few thoughts to consider when dealing with a brand crisis – be it a simple error or a major PR disaster:
1) Be Fast
It’s no good starting to respond weeks later when you get around to a customer’s complaint or concern. Be quick and you stand a much better chance to be in their good books again.
2) Be Compassionate
We are all humans, despite being hidden behind technology at times. Put yourself into their shoes and see how you would feel if something went wrong for you. Even if you can’t offer an outright easy solution – and even if the fault may not at all be yours but ‘user error’, showing compassion gives your brand a human voice and helps the conversation.
3) Be Genuinely Honest
If it was your fault, own up to it and work on a solution quickly. It is usually much better to own up when an issue is still resolvable then to put up the defenses and turn it into a much bigger thing. Trust relies on honesty and trust is one of the cornerstones of a successful brand. Being honest about an error is as important as being genuine in  your response so be careful how you react especially if tempers start flying high.
4) Be the Solution Provider
You thought this may happen, so you’ve written a plan (a long time ago…). It’s no good having strategies written out about how to deal with customer complaints if nobody bothers to adapt them – or has the ability to act on them with confidence. Train your staff to deal with different situations. Think of ‘what if’ and of potential answers. Try to ensure your client feels his issue matters to you and you are working on a solution.
5) Be a Fast Learner
You’ve resolved the issue and all is well, your client or customer has stuck with your brand and the future looks great. Repeat the mistake and you may not find yourself in such a good position. Bad news travels fast – even faster with social media tools – and when something appears to be happening time and time again, your brand risks creating a mental divide between what it appears to stand for and what it actually does. Prevention is the best medicine. After that, it’s vigilance once a problem has been identified.
Hope this helps!

brand management, SME

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