Last night I found myself asking, “What is this N’duja sausage?” Both Pizza Express and Zizzi’s have adopted it big time lately. The staff member in Zizzi’s couldn’t tell me how to say it, never mind what it is, so I ordered my pizza without it. Today I got an email from Zizzi’s giving me the answer to both. Genius joined-up marketing comms? Actually, the opposite. The person in the restaurant had no real answer for a question which she was probably not hearing for the first time. (She improvised with admirable brass neck but no insight. “It’s a sort of sausage and it’s pretty hot.”) Fortunately, the marketing people realise that people are asking, hence the timely email.

Why don’t the service staff have access to the same helpful information about this novel spicy paté-style sausage, so they can tell customers at the moment of truth, and not when we’ve just had breakfast? I suspect it’s not for want of trying by the marketers, or because they’ve not seen the need, but because of how the business is set up and managed. It’s simply that it can be hard for marketing people to influence the agenda and the activity of other functions, even when those functions clearly represent the best route to customer engagement available.

In service businesses like restaurants, managing front line staff is both critical and challenging. High staff turnover, typically 30-40% per annum, means that maintaining the essentials is a Forth Road Bridge-type task. Naturally, hygiene standards and regulatory compliance must be the top priority, together with making sure staff know the basics of the job, and that they turn up when needed. A marketer sees the front line staff as the most critical point of contact with customers, the face of the brand. But they’re part of the operations team, not the plaything of marketing.

This is what the third pillar of the Marketing Society’s manifesto refers to – marketers have to find ways to mobilise the organisation to deliver the proposition. It’s so much easier in fast moving consumer goods, where it’s all defined and controlled by what goes through the factory, manufactured to an agreed specification, with lasers and filters that spot and dump an off-colour crisp or a misshapen biscuit. Customer service usually takes the form of a centralised team who become expert in the category and who willingly engage with customers, and with brand managers.

What can you do? One rather daring approach is to overpromise, through marketing communications, to prompt the operations team to raise their game. This was supposedly the aim of the British Airways TV campaign post privatisation in the late 1980s and early 90s, and it seemed to work. Expensive, though, and risky, to blow the budget advertising to your own people, and to customers with a promise that probably won’t stack up with their experience.

“Living the brand” programmes are another widely-used approach, helping people understand the desired customer experience, and their role in it. These are expensive too, in that they take a lot of employee time, and of course staff turnover means the job is never done.

There could be another way, one that relies on the very thing that makes it hard to deliver a controlled brand promise through the people: their humanity. A recent academic experiment, reported in HBR November 2014, has shown that in restaurants when the chefs can see the customers, they deliver better food, faster. That’s a little counter-intuitive, isn’t it? When the customers can see the chefs doing their work, they think they are getting better food, sure, and that also was demonstrated in the study. But the best results were when both sides could see the other. It seems that seeing your customers is motivating. People feel more appreciated, more satisfied with their jobs, and are more willing to exert effort. It wasn’t just an effect of being watched, or the novelty of being part of an experiment. After the study was over, some chefs wanted to keep the two-way cameras in place. One said. “When the customers can see the work, they appreciate it, and it makes me want to improve.”

This is great news for marketers in service businesses. Finding ways to make the customer real for employees, wherever they are in the business and whatever part they play in delivering the proposition, is perhaps more important than trying to define and govern a consistent brand experience. It’s a whole new way for marketers to make a difference, one that is good for employees and for customers.


More posts on brand and customer experience:

The trouble with brand love

You trust your favourite brand – but does it trust you?

What gets measured gets done – make sure it’s what you really want

Chief customer officer? No thanks.

Thought leadership | December 2014