Branding: service is not a commodity

January 21, 2007

In contrast with their One World partners BA, Qantas were a model of service between London and Sydney over the weekend. Failures of the entertainment system were treated with good humour and an obvious concern to fix the problem. This morning (its early Monday in Sydney) the hotel managed to miss by wake up call resulting in my missing a flight to Canberra. Despite it being a fixed price ticket I was booked onto another flight without a fuss, and no one mentioned the cricket. All of this reminded me of one key aspect of what is sometimes called the service economy, namely your people are your brand and getting that right is a bottom up not a top down process: naturalising not idealistic to return to an earlier theme.

I used to have this argument in IBM days but without much success, due I think to a manufacturing mind set. What would happen is that meetings would take place with O&M following detailed market research into customer needs. An image would then be created using some brilliant creatives which would result in a sophisticated advertising campaign. Staff would then be informed of the new image, there might be some powerpoint briefings and a communication campaign, but it was always an after thought. I also found it interesting that very senior managers would get wrapped up in the vision of the ideal and none of their direct, or indirect reports were prepared to say that the emperor has no clothes. The more senior you get, the more you are distanced from the coal face and the more you are only presented with what you want to hear.

A naturalising alternative

Now there is a better way. It starts by understanding what brand image is present between your staff and your customers. It is fairly easy to discover this if you avoid traditional consultancy and survey techniques. Gathering stories from customer facing staff and customers can be done cheaply and effectively (we have pulled in tens of thousands for less than $50K US in direct costs) and those stories are then mined for consistent patterns of customer interaction, both good and bad. A technique such as multiple-perspective archetype extraction can also be used. Once you have this pattern then there are various things that you should and should not do which I summarise below. This list is not exhaustive by the way, it represents an hour;s free time in the Qantas Lounge at Sydney Airport.

  1. DO NOT find examples of ideal behaviour and promulgate them as best practice. people will either thing you set them up, have not told the full story or will just say I couldn’t do that
  2. DO make the anecdotes you have discovered available to all your staff and ask them to identify examples that they think they can copy or learn from
  3. DO NOTseek out the negative stories, find those responsible and parade their failure before their colleagues or create new rules an regulations to prevent future such failure
  4. DO get all staff to identify examples of failure that reflect their own experience or near miss experiences (that is safer) and get them to produce plans as to how they will avoid such mistakes in future.
  5. DO NOT identify the three main obstacles to customer satisfaction and institute an organisational wide campaign to overcome them
  6. DO identify those stories which represent a shift away from the negative. It is a lot easier to create an alternative attractor for behaviour than to try and tackle directly a negative one. If something is going wrong, most of the time focusing on it will make things worse or at least result in blame and reduce risk taking. It is better to find a positive alternative focus and see if you can orientate around that.
  7. DO NOT create a list of values and behaviours that you want staff to adopt and institute a training programme to install those routines in your employees. It will produce camouflage behaviour at best.
  8. DO start programmes to modify existing values and behaviours in a more positive direction. It is a lot easier and more sustainable to start from where people are and change it, than define a future ideal and enforce it. One of the powers of narrative approaches is that people can assimilate the meaning of stories, particularly if they discover them (and the associated learning) for themselves, see the first four points above.

Now you can start to think about advertising, internally and externally, to reflect the reality of where you are and the direction of your travel, not some ideal future devised in a brainstorming session with your advertising agency.

Examples of how not to do it

I had two experiences of top down thinking while in IBM which to me summarise the issue. I want to make it very clear that had I worked for any other large company I would have similar experiences. IBM is no better, and no worse than most other such entities. However it was seven years of my life, the only time I have worked in a large international bueaucracy, so it has generated a lot of my experience based stories.

  1. Shortly after I left IBM I was asked to keynote at a series of IBM conferences in Asia Pacific. I willingly accepted, they were going to pay a fee and I wanted (as they did) to demonstrate that while I had left we would still work together, there was no bad feeling. However we spent several man days and a not inconsiderable amount of email trying to find a way for three countries in the same region to procure speaker services. All this despite my already having gone through several days of work (more for the IBM staff) to be registered as a supplier in New Zealand. I estimate that I did about six days work for two days of revenue, just to handle the bureaucracy. As I stood up to speak I discovered myself in front of a massive advert. I can’t remember the exact words, but in essence it said Excessive bureaucracy damaging your business, come to IBM for the solution. It took considerable self-restraint not to say and they will make you realise how much worse it could be. The advert reflected the idea, but it was not supported by practice.
  2. when I was selected as an on demand thinker and spent a day on a photo shoot in a flat full of modern art in New York. The original text was entitled Little Green Men and related to some of my work using metaphorical environments, in this case science fiction, to gain insight into cultural issues. The text was changed without my agreement to behaviorist text of the final advert (picture and text below). A political move by a senior manager in consulting who knew that I despised behavioral approaches. I got my apologies in first, but the really interesting thing happened later. I got several congratulatory emails in from senior (in one case very senior) supports in IBM when the advert appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times etc., as a full page ad by the way. The essence of the emails was to say great to see the advert as it means your ideas are being accepted. I had in each case to reply to say, well no as our funding has been withdrawn and even though we can self fund on client revenue we can’t find a home because we do research and consultancy, and the system says we have to do one thing or the other, we cannot do both. That is a manufacturing mindset in operation; in a services business the two are co-evolutionary processes they cannot be separated. The real issue however was that while marketing and the advertising people (not to mention the customers but they had no real say) loved what we did, no linkage was made or supported between the brand proposition and the reality of what the business was prepared to support and present to the clients.

Service branding needs to stop presenting an unsustainable ideal, and move to presenting an aspiration, but achievable development of where we are. Something that narrative or pre-hypothesis techniques were designed for. That requires an evolutionary safe-fail approach to brand development that gradually permeates market awareness. Staff are not a commodity in the services business, they your brand, they can evolve but they cannot be designed top down or programmed overnight to conform with an ideal.

The text which went with the advert is:
David Snowden,IBMcross-industry human behaviorist

What Bartleby the Scrivener can teach you about Bob the sales guy.
You may remember the1853 Herman Melville story about a clerk named
Bartleby. Oneday he simply refused to do what was asked of him.
“I would prefer not to,”he replied,to that request and all subsequent
ones—thereby confounding his boss and alienating his coworkers.
It’s the human factor.And it’s critical to your success.All the mission
statements and whiz-bang new processes in the world won’t fly if you don’t
get Bob the sales guy,Doris in Accounting and everyone else to buy in.
Being on demand is about empowering your people.It’s about integrating.
Rethinking.Decentralizing.Flattening your organization so the people
on the front lines can make decisions on the spot.Without doing the
corporate square dance.
Win them over. Don’t let your Bobs turn into Bartlebys.
We have over 3,500 specialists in change management.Surprised? IBM’s
capabilities are unique: we provide real insight into corporate transformation,
coupled with deep experience in every industry and the ability to implement
change on the ground. Making sure your ideas and your people work
together — that’s on demand business.Get there with on demand people.
Call 800 IBM 7080 (askfor thinking) or
Can you see it? On demand business starts with on demand thinking.

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About the Cynefin Company

The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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