Winning on the Front Lines (Jim Karrh On Marketing)

by Jim Karrh  on Monday, Jun. 23, 2014 12:00 am  

Jim Karrh

Although social conversations are increasingly important to marketing organizations of all types, many companies have unfortunately lost sight of the impact of real-time customer interactions. It might be time to refocus on the front lines.

We know from experience — in business and as customers ourselves — what it’s like when pitches, presentations, phone calls, retail shopping encounters, service calls and the like go poorly. Good companies lose reputation, loyalty and revenue.

Because these front-line interactions are so numerous and common, it’s also easy to take for granted how vital they are to business growth. In the business-to-business (B2B) marketing and sales world, for example, Professor Jonah Berger of the Wharton School reports that 93 percent of customer interactions are offline — face-to-face or over the phone. There’s also mounting evidence that the skill with which your colleagues interact with customers during all of those encounters has substantial impact on the brand.

Recently, a research group led by Professor Nancy Sirianni tested several scenarios involving frontline service employees. (The results, “Branded Service Encounters: Strategically Aligning Employee Behavior With the Brand Positioning,” were published in the Journal of Marketing.) The group created audio recordings, purportedly from a call center, involving both routine service calls and responses to service problems. They manipulated whether the employees’ words, tone and direction were consistent with the companies’ overall brand personality.

The results revealed that when employees’ customer interactions were consistent with company positioning, brand strength and consumers’ willingness to pay more rose significantly. When the phone-center interactions were inconsistent those same measures went south. The impact was even stronger for companies and brands that were not very well-known.

The researchers say the key factor for companies putting this to practical use is whether employees can “internalize elements of the brand positioning.” In other words, do customer-facing employees believe in the company’s value proposition and are they equipped to convey it to customers?

In my experience, companies that want to win on the front lines need to build three areas within their teams of employees:

• Literacy. What should employees know prior to their customer conversations? I often see client employees so deeply into their organizational silos that they don’t know some basic stuff — the company’s competitive position, its full product/service line, success stories or even the characteristics of their ideal customers and prospects. If they don’t know the full story in the first place, then they certainly can’t “internalize” it for sharing with the outside world.

• Fluency. This is the level of skills that employees must have in order to listen, speak and express ideas effectively. I see this component not as public-speaking skill or media training, but rather the ability to use simple, conversational language and convey understanding of the customer’s situation. Many employees who are great at fixing specific customer problems lack the listening skills that would allow them to recognize new opportunities for helping customers.

• Confidence. Managers are often surprised and frustrated when colleagues who know their stuff (literacy) and have an ear for the customer (fluency) still shy away from fully engaging with customers. These employees typically need a push out of their comfort zones, training with their peers and adequate practice in an environment where they won’t fear looking foolish.

The payoff from equipping teams with adequate levels of literacy, fluency and confidence can be substantial. If you’re well established in the marketplace, then customer interactions are irreplaceable for retention and loyalty in the presence of snappy competitors. If you’re more of a challenger, then as the research group reports “unfamiliar brands have the power to match — or even surpass — market leaders in terms of overall brand evaluations.”

Jim Karrh of Little Rock is a marketing consultant, trainer and speaker. See, email him at and follow him on Twitter @JimKarrh.



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