Have you ever experienced crushing disappointment caused by a poor customer service experience? What about exasperation at the seeming unintelligible tendencies some brands have to make poor marketing decisions, or skepticism that there are in fact brands out there that value customers over profits?
Those common experiences are what I liken to brand-induced ailments. In our heavily consumerist culture, it seems like every now and then, a business afflicts us with a common commercial cold: a mild case of discontent that comes with receiving a low-quality product, or maybe something more serious like a crippling headache caused by being giving the run around by store employees when trying to return something past 60 days.
The good news: such ailments aren’t like fevers you have to sweat out.
What follows is a list of common brand-induced ailments and corresponding prescriptions. These prescriptions might not be a panacea, but I think they’re uplifting enough to restore some faith in the state of our contemporary commercial culture —at least temporarily.
Ailment: Frustration prompted by the lost, fruitless, and futile cause of seeking out good customer service.
I’ve written about Zappos before, but the shoe/clothing online retailer is simply so excellent that it deserves another mention. Zappos’ main mission is not to sell the best shoes or the best clothes (though some might say the company does in fact do that), but rather the entire brand is built around one aim: to provide people the best customer service possible. It sounds like a simple aim, but executing this idea is far from it. Everyone who has ever bought anything (online or at a brick-and-mortar store), returned something, sought support or help from a business, etc. knows that most businesses are devoid of good, reliable customer service. Zappos customer service is flawless in and of itself, but the abysmal state of contemporary service makes the brand a shining example in a contorted swirl of rude reps, waiting games, and buck passing in which the majority of businesses are entangled. In fact, nine in ten Americans (93%) say that companies fail to exceed their service expectations.
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How does Zappos manage to impress its customers to the extent that every several hours, a Facebook user posts a mini panegyric praising the company’s friendly, helpful, and rock star reps on its wall?
Free shipping, free returns, and unannounced upgrades to priority shipping for all customers have something to do with it.
Zappos also builds itself around a unique company culture and fosters core values in all employees, values that make the brand seem like an endearingly eccentric, loveably personable company comprised of idiosyncratic, real people, rather than an aloof, distant, impersonal corporate entity.
In fact, after Zappos trains its new employees, it offers them a one-time, one-day offer: quit now and receive $4,000 or stick around and forego the cash. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh says that only about 2-3% of employees accept the offer and take the money and run. Why pay people to quit? According to Hsieh, Zappos doesn’t want employees that are there solely for the paycheck. It wants dedicated, authentic ones that will work towards the company mission rather than cash.
More evidence that Zappos is effectively living its mission: customer-service-rating site Stella Service conducted a study in which it sent out tweets with customer service questions to the top 25 online retailers over a 45-day period. The only company to respond to inquiries in under an hour was Zappos.
Ailment: Downright dejection spurred by brand indifference.
Along the same lines as the utter dearth of responsive companies, sometimes it seems that brands have a certain apathy about them, disregarding or dismissing the concerns, needs, or desires of their target audience. A charming anecdote from one Ritz-Carlton guest proves that the hotel chain extends its hospitality and cordiality even after its visitors have departed.
Chris Hurn’s family stayed at a Ritz-Carlton in Florida and upon arrival home, discovered that his son’s cherished stuffed giraffe, Joshie, was missing. Hurn consoled his distressed son with a little fib: he told his son that Joshie was just taking an extra-long vacation at the Ritz.
When the hotel called Hurn to tell him that they found Joshie, Hurn asked the staff if they would mind taking a picture of Joshie on a lounge chair by the pool to corroborate his tale. They agreed.
When Hurn received a package in the mail from the hotel, he found Joshie but also a pleasant surprise: a binder filled with photos that documented Joshie’s stay at the Ritz. What do you get when you combine adorableness and anthropomorphism? Pictures like the following:
Joshie lounging poolside:
Joshie getting a massage:
Joshie cruising in a golf cart on the beach:
All images from Chris Hurn via Huffington Post.
The chronicles of one plush toy’s romps on the Ritz resort gained widespread attention. Who knew a business would go to such amazing lengths to allay a child’s concerns about his most beloved stuffed animal?
Ailment: A sudden onset of Ebenezer-Scrooge-like Christmas contempt brought on by the much-too-early store seasonal displays.
Most retail stores have a knack for pushing out seasonal displays with an irritating level of hastiness. Summer clothes in February, Christmas displays for the arrival of Halloween, etc. Seasonal decorations are ironically quite unseasonal. They can cause even those of us with a Buddy-the-Elf-like infatuation with Christmas to resent the way in which stores spoil the occasion and transform into Mr. Scrooge himself.
Retailers are notorious for rushing in holidays and then swiftly discounting them as soon as they’re over, only to move onto engaging in a marketing blitzkriegfor the next overly commercialized event. They also tend to run all of the fall and winter holidays together: Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas seem to swirl together into one giant seasonally-confused mashup. So much so that RetailMeNot.com created a Pumpkin-Headed Turkey Claus mascot to mock this penchant retail stores have for maladroitly merging holidays.
(Legend has it he was born when a turkey dropped a feather in Santa’s pumpkin patch.)
Nordstrom, an upscale department store, has a firm policy devoted to not celebrating each holiday in its own, distinctive right. It’s called the “One Holiday at a Time” rule, in which stores refrain from decking the halls until after the Thanksgiving holiday. The Nordstrom Facebook wall is filled with positive words and gratitude from customers, who appreciate Nordstrom’s unwavering steadfastness in resisting the allure of the Christmas creep.
Ailment: Cold, hard cynicism stemming from the seemingly impossible coexistence of business and altruism.
After Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast, a Budweiser plant in Georgia decided to lend a hand to those individuals who lost their belongings and access to basic necessities in the wake of the storm.
A Budweiser plant in Georgia halted production of beer and instead began producing thousands of cases of water for victims of Hurricane Sandy. They plan to package over one million cans of water over the course of a week. They’re also attempting to coordinate with the American Red Cross to determine the best means of distributing the water.
The Georgia Budweiser plant’s decision to swap out beer production for water production is a small altruistic gesture that sends a big message: it’s a brand that is truly in touch with and cares about everyday Americans, and a brand willing to halt business as usual and forego profits in order to offer much-needed assistance.
Ailment: Fatigue prompted by the monotony of business as usual.
Prescription: Warby Parker and TOMS Shoes
Warby Parker, a company that sells discounted prescription eyeglasses, and TOMS Shoes, are vastly different from most businesses, because they were both founded upon the one-for-one business model. Whenever someone buys a pair of eyeglasses from Warby Parker, the company provides a pair of eyeglasses to someone in need. It provides funding and glasses to non-profits, which in turn train low-income entrepreneurs in developing countries to start their own businesses selling glasses to their community. A transaction that begins online enters a funnel of social good, during each stage of which people receive potentially life-altering help. What commences as a $95-glasses purchase results in something much greater: opportunity, economic incentive, and the power of decision-making for individuals across the globe.
TOMS Shoes operates on a similar business model: when people buy a pair of TOMS, the company gives a pair of shoes to a child in need. It establishes shoe-giving partnerships with humanitarian organizations around the world. Together, TOMS and these organizations identify communities that will benefit most from TOMS shoes.
Because of this buy-a-pair, give-a-pair business model, both Warby Parker and TOMS are deeply rooted in social responsibility. A commitment to giving is a fundamental part of their business models, and the concept of helping people is not just an abstract idea. These companies set this action into motion, and the most noteworthy part is that they allow everyday consumers to be a part of this socially responsible movement through simple purchases.
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