employees working in a group

What builds a brand? Your brand is shaped by every interaction that your customers have with your company. If your company is a person, its brand is its personality. We learn about who people are by interacting with them, and the same can be said of a company. Especially for businesses in the service and retail industry, customer service has a major role in shaping brand perception.

A mission statement and company vision will only get you so far. It’s easy to create standards for your brand that emphasize putting customers first, but you have to execute on the claims you make to show you mean it. Brands that are focused on people, not products, are the ones we come to remember. What happens when your brand standards aren’t being supported by the customer service you offer?

Great customer service comes from great staff. To follow through with a people-first vision and build a brand identity that customers recognize as valuable to them, you have to hire the right employees. Staffing issues impact companies large and small, and can degrade even well-established brands if not addressed properly. Let’s discuss three types of staffing issues that can hurt your brand image.

Understaffed and Overworked

One staffing issue that will have major influence of customer perception of your brand is understaffing. Recently, Starbucks came under criticism from employees unhappy with understaffed stores that they say makes it impossible to uphold the company’s standard of “legendary customer service” — quite the pivot for a company that was long considered the standard for employee satisfaction in it’s industry. Understaffing is an issue that contributes to poor customer service in many ways, but there are a couple of problems that customers will perceive when your storefronts don’t have the employees they need to properly run.

If production occurs in-store or you’re a service provider, the major issue that arises from understaffing is a drop in product or service quality. Employees might not have the time or resources to provide products or services that meet quality standards if they’re overworked or understaffed. Employees might not be able to follow through with best practices if they are juggling production, customer service, and basic operations and maintenance. Customers may face long wait times only to receive a sub-par product in the end.

A secondary issue of understaffing is resulting employee stress, which affects employees long after they clock out. According to Honor Whiteman, writer for Medical News Today, “The results of [a study by Harvard Business School and Stanford University] revealed that workers with high job demands are 50% more likely to be diagnosed with a medical condition than those without this stressor.” Not only do employers have an ethical obligation to ensure they aren’t exploiting their employees, overwork reflects badly on your brand.

Customers are observant and will be quick to note if your employees are struggling to meet the demands of their position, even employees who work well under stress. This can give customers the impression that your business is not well managed, that your employees do not have the resources they need, and that your business does not value or prioritize its employees — and it might not be an inaccurate impression.

Employee stress also feeds into the next staffing issue that influences brand perception: turnover.

The Turnover Churn

It’s well accepted that turnover rates are high in industries like hospitality and tech by customers and employers alike — but should they be? High turnover impacts many aspects of a company’s success, ranging from financials to productivity, but it has a particularly noticeable impact on customer service.

This is primarily because training takes time — both yours, your employees’, and your customers’. Consider the average turnover in the service and accommodations industry: nearly 73 percent in 2016. Adding to those losses in productivity, many companies don’t consider an employee to be fully trained until after a three-month period. Further, according to data from Training Industry Quarterly, despite the common training period lasting 90 days for new employees, it takes an employee one to two years to become fully productive. In high-turnover industries, it’s not unlikely that most employees never reach their full productivity potential.

Cutting training short and placing employees on the floor early might seem to be a less-expensive route, but often has negative consequences in terms of employee performance and customer satisfaction. Customers don’t appreciate it when they receive poor customer service from undertrained employees, but often misdirect their negative feedback back at the employee they received poor service from — not the employee’s manager.

Customer frustration negatively impacts the morale of the employee, who typically has no control over the training they receive, while simultaneously reflecting badly on their performance in their manager’s perception. Underprepared employees are also more likely to be stressed on the job and to negatively impact the productivity of their coworkers, which contributes to the cycle of employee dissatisfaction, disengagement, and turnover.

Culture Clashes

Poor recruiting practices can also negatively influence brand perception in a couple of ways.

Employees that don’t mesh with company culture are much less likely to be satisfied with their jobs, even if they’re perfectly equipped for their position. Employee disengagement can undermine the productivity of an organization, and it’s unfortunately the norm in the workforce: “Recent studies have shown that 71% of workers consider themselves unengaged or uninspired at work,” notes a resource from Pepperdine University.

Investing some extra time in researching potential employees might result in savings in the long term and better cultural fits. Background checks and social media searches can help reveal problematic behaviors or personal values that run counter to company culture. For example, toxic company cultures in Silicon Valley have been widely publicised recently, and it’s been indicated that many of the individuals contributing to the growing anti-diversity sentiment actively discuss their views on social media — something that could be uncovered through more thorough vetting during the hiring process.

Deciding to invest heavily in people isn’t the norm, but there’s a lot of evidence to indicate that exceptional companies do just that. Although the upfront costs of more thorough recruiting, comprehensive employee training programs, and ensuring staffing isn’t at the minimum might seem like misplaced spending, investing in people might be the innovation your company — and brand — needs to set it apart from the competition.