I spent a good portion of a weekend a few weeks ago with a customer that was having a quality problem. There’s no point in going in to the nature of the customer or the problem, but suffice it to say it was a bad problem, and by far and away the most expensive kind: one that put the customer’s brand at risk. For those that deliver service via the network (or free software), brand is all you’ve got. It’s not an asset, it becomes the asset.
The quality problem I mentioned was customer specific, and had a very real impact on tens of thousands of consumers. And lest it go unsaid, I was really proud of our Services team. They managed the unmanageable, they guided everyone through the unexpected (me, even). They understood what Service meant, they understood the customer’s brand, and they understood the role Sun played in fulfilling it.
The saying goes, “a brand is a promise.” On a personal level, I’ve always felt that statement was incomplete. A promise is the lowest common denominator of a brand – it’s what people expect. Think of your favorite brand, whether search engine or sneaker or coffee shop or free software, and you’ll know what I mean – a brand is an expectation. If you experience anything less, you’re disappointed. A promise seems like table stakes.
But a brand must go beyond a promise. To me, a brand is a cause – a guiding light. For fulfilling expectations, certainly, as well as dealing with the ill-defined and unexpected. It’s what tells your employees how to act when circumstances (and customers) go awry, or well beyond a training course. My first real experience with that was a personal one.
I was married in 1999. It was a small wedding, presided over by family, in a house in San Francisco. It was the best party my wife and I have ever thrown for ourselves. I heartily recommend throwing a good wedding.
After the ceremony, we gathered up our friends, and drove over to the hotel where we’d booked a suite. We had it all planned out, an evening with our friends, a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, a night in the city before leaving town. They even had a package deal for honeymooners.
We arrived at the hotel, mingled with our friends for a while (I in a tux, my wife still holding the bouquet she forgot to toss), and walked up to the reservation desk after a half hour or so. I said “Hi, we’re here to check in, last name is Schwartz.” Bear in mind, this is long before my name had any value in San Francisco (unless you were a total geek).
The guy at the front desk crinkled his nose, looked at his computer, then looked back at me – “sorry, we’re full up.” I didn’t know what to say, I figured it was a friend playing a prank. So I said, “You’re hilarious. But I have a reservation. We have your honeymoon suite, we just got married.” He said, “Nope, sorry, no more rooms, looks like we over booked, really apologize.” And after taking a few minutes to gather my sanity (and lower my blood pressure), I asked if he could help us find another room or other accomodations. He said, “Nope, but good luck, if you come back in a week or so we’ll definitely have space.”
So we went to another hotel. Just down the road, we ended up marching in at 10:30 at night, in full wedding garb, still. The restaurant was closed, as was the bar. Everything was. And I went up to the clerk at the front desk and asked if they had any room. He was kind enough to notice the wedding dress, and asked if we’d been at a wedding – I explained yes, I’d just gotten married, and he said he’d take care of everything.
He opened the lobby, turned on all the lights, and recruited a couple employees to reopen the bar, and make us feel at home. They served us until the wee hours of the morning, put up with our noisy reunion, then put my wife and me in a beautiful room, and found other rooms for our friends. They managed to put a handwritten note in our room, “Congratulations,” it said, next to a bottle of champagne. I don’t remember what they charged us – I remember feeling like it was nowhere near their going rate. The following morning, fresh faces at the checkout desk somehow knew to offer their best wishes.
Needless to say, I will now go out of my way to stay in their hotels. I recommend them to my friends. I am a huge fan. Even when their brand breaks their promise, I dutifully fill out my room survey to help them improve. I want them to win, I’m an evangelist. It’s not a promise, it’s a cause. They are the white hats, I’m on a mission to see them succeed.
The other guys? The other hotel? I never think of them. I don’t bad mouth them, life’s too short for that. I just don’t care. I simply reciprocate the attitude of that clerk seven years ago. Careless indifference.
What’s a brand?
It’s not a logo, an ad campaign or a money back guarantee. At minimum, it’s a promise that helps to define those items. Beyond that, it’s a cause that gives definition to the ill-defined, that tells you how to deal with the unexpected or the uncomfortable. It’s what motivates you to hire that fellow at the front desk, and to foster his instinct to feel, “Eureka, I found an opportunity to build an evangelist!”
That’s not about money or resources or training or contracts. It’s a cause. One your employees – and more critically, your customers – willingly join.