Mind the gap

Do you really put customers at the heart of everything you do?

I was watching an old edition of Undercover Boss yesterday. Earnest and hard-working CEO of a large manufacturing company is shocked to discover his positive messages aren’t being well received by his staff and customers, for whom things are much tougher and more difficult than he realised. Who would have thought?

Creating effective communications is often seen as the easy bit. Living up to them in reality is tougher.

Here’s a quick exercise for you. Go to your preferred search engine and type in “putting our customers at the heart of everything we do”. You will find this claim is made by a very, very large number of organisations (maybe even your own). It’s a fine ideal, no doubt, but how many of them achieve it or even really try?

Not enough, if public opinion is to be believed. A recent study found that two-thirds of the public didn’t feel companies’ marketing and communications were backed up by the way they behaved.

It’s not difficult to think of times when corporate aspiration and actual delivery fail to connect.

For example, energy company npower says it is “absolutely committed to putting you – our customers – at the heart of everything we do”. That line again… As npower came bottom of the 2013 Which? energy satisfaction survey, it’s a claim that is difficult to reconcile with their customers’ experiences.

What’s true of business is also true of politics. The narrative of our age is one where politicians’ pledges fail to be put into practice and what follows is the growth of distrust, disappointment and disengagement.

No surprise, perhaps, that many companies are now advocating almost the opposite position: ignore the communications, just focus on fixing the problem. Business guru Stephen R. Covey put it powerfully: “You can’t talk yourself out of a problem you’ve behaved yourself into.” Fixing the behaviour needs to come first, communications second.

This view has been reflected by other global business leaders too. In the Harvard Business Review this month, Leslie Dach, Walmart’s former corporate affairs head, summed up his advice after seven years at the firm as: “Don’t spin a better story. Be a better company”.

There’s no doubting the need for substantive evidence on which to base effective communications. However there is also a risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. For the CEOs who argue that changes in experience must precede any communications seem to underestimate the role of comms in providing context for, engagement with and validation of that very experience.

If you really want to know how a company works, you definitely need to experience it first-hand. But to understand that experience fully, you also need to know what the business is trying to achieve, the purpose behind the brand and where it wants to go. This provides you with the context with which to judge them, helping you to understand and confirm your experience.

When you fly Virgin Atlantic, for example, you may get great service and a relaxed and enjoyable flight, but what makes it even better is that the brand experience matches exactly what the brand promised you. It isn’t simple good fortune that your experience was great, it is what the company strives for.

It’s the same reason why low-cost supermarkets Aldi and Lidl often score higher on customer satisfaction than upmarket retailers. They do well not because they provide a model of perfect customer service but because they deliver exactly what they said they would. Experience matches expectations and these expectations have been set, in part, by communications.

Delivering improvement in business reputation or customer satisfaction can’t be done by communications alone, but it shouldn’t be a communications-free zone either. Success should be seen as business and communications leaders working together to close the gap between the brand message and the brand experience.

If you really want to put the customer at the heart of everything you do, your business will almost certainly need to change how it acts. But my guess is that it will also need to change how it