How do you solve a problem like poor reception?

Simon Ellis | December 19, 2018

A brand is a promise – a definition of expectation. If I’m paying for a four-star hotel I don’t expect two-star service.

It’s not all about money though. We recently stayed on a campsite on a small island on the Seine, north west of Paris. We arrived after having driven for about four hours north from the Loire. We were tired, hot, dusty, thirsty, uncomfortable, and despite wishing only for a shower and a tall glass of wine, we still had the tent to put up. These were not factors peculiar to us – anyone could easily apply some simple empathy and understand that the majority of people arriving at that, or any other campsite, would be feeling much the same way. We can also empathise with the operators of the campsite and understand that their success surely depends on repeat custom and good reviews.

And yet, although not exactly rude, the receptionist we encountered was brusk, unsmiling and officious.

When we experience bad customer service the disappointment is heightened by the gulf between expectation and reality. Between promise and what is actually delivered. If the one matches the other, your brand is in harmony, and everyone is happy. Fail to deliver on your brand promise and you disrupt the brand harmony.

And the relationship between the two is inversely proportional. That is to say, the bigger the promise the smaller the trip hazard required to upset the harmony. I’ll give you an example: if you’re picking up your brand new Rolls Royce, a finger mark on your new six-coat diamond-dusted A-pillar is going to disappoint a hell of a lot more than it would on, say, your new Dascia. ‘Brand new’ isn’t the same for every brand.

Brand new isn’t the same for every brand.

Brands are expressed at every touchpoint, every time that point is touched. The problem is that individuals may not be aware that they are inextricably linked to a brand – that their actions are seen to be an expression of the brand as much as an expression of them as individuals. They forget themselves, but first they forget their brand.

We see this all too often with politicians, business leaders and celebrities, hastily retracting posts and deleting Twitter accounts so swiftly Larry loses tail feathers.

We also see this with receptionists.

How many times have you gone to visit an associate, supplier or client and been miffed at the attitude on reception? Indeed, how many times have you arrived at your holiday hotel, tired yet excited, only to be disappointed by the ignorance, or the bruskness, or the lack of manners, or the lack of attention, eye contact, greeting, warmth, enthusiasm, understanding from the staff at the front desk? Ever wondered why that is? After all, these could be big brands we’re talking about. Global brands even. In fact, the bigger brands are often the worst offenders.

Is it the fault of the receptionists? Could be. I mean, it doesn’t take much to raise a smile, we think.

Maybe it’s the fault of HR – putting the wrong people in the wrong job.

The cause is brand-deep. It’s all well and good talking a good brand spiel at the executive level, but that’s not where a brand is delivered. If the boardroom is the mind of the brand, the staff are not its heart – they are its fingertips. So if you can’t articulate what their role means in relation to the brand, how can they possibly be expected to deliver it?

A brand can only thrive if the blood running through its veins reaches every extremity.

Thus, all the missions and values and promises and brand statements will amount to nought if you don’t make it clear to the receptionists that they are the first tangible point of contact with your brand. In fact, those documents only make things worse because they heighten expectation beyond what the receptionist understands they are there to deliver.

And of course, we’re not just talking about receptionists. It doesn’t even have to be customer-facing staff. I might love the shopping experience at John Lewis, but if one of their drivers cuts me up on a roundabout my experience of their brand would be de-harmonised. If that happened with two or three John Lewis drivers (or other employees), that disharmony might become unrecoverable.

So, how do you address this?

First, get to know your brand. Really know it. Don’t worry about missions. Worry about the human effect of what you do. Simon Sinek calls it your ‘why’, some talk in terms of ‘purpose’. We like to call it ‘intent’. This introspection can be a slog, but it’s really worth it. Start by considering what would be the same about your business if you didn’t do what you do. It might help to think about brands you know well. If AirBnB became an airline, what would that look and feel like? If Rolls Royce went into restaurants, what would that experience be like? What would we expect of TOMS if they didn’t make shoes?

Second, define and articulate. If you haven’t got brand guidelines, you need to make sure you’ve got some – but don’t then stuff them in a drawer, make it a livingdocument. For designers like us, brand guidelines – sometimes called a Brand Bible– give us a really useful insight to the brand we are partly responsible for upholding. And we don’t just react to the colours and fonts of your brand, we react to why they have been chosen, and the backstory of the brand. We interpret its stated values – what the business holds dear – in the imagery we might suggest or the copy we write. If it can have that much influence on us, outside of your business, imagine what it could do for your staff? Hence…

Third, share this with EVERYONE. How much do you discuss your brand when you are interviewing for new staff? Or in the induction? How much is your brand discussed in your staff handbook? If you do have brand guidelines, do you share them with your staff? Knowing what you’re getting up for in the morning – knowing what difference you make in the world – is extremely motivating, and the codification of your brand establishes that intent in stone.

Fourth, make brand governance a key responsibility, for everyone. Once you’ve got your brand guidelines you can empower the whole organisation to ensure the brand is reflected in a consistent way everywhere. Brands don’t just exist in the LED signage on the outside of the building or the embroidered logo on uniforms. They exist in the notes bluetac’d to the toilet walls bemoaning those with a poor aim, or reminding the grim to wash their hands. If your brand is building expectation by claiming to deliver excellence, precision, quality and care, are those values being supported by a poorly written notice hastily sellotaped to the flush plate with a stretched, misplaced or low resolution copy of your logo? In our experience it’s not that staff set out to corrupt a brand image, they’re either simply not aware of the rules, not aware of their importance, or not sure how to get it right. So…

Create brand ambassadors. Identify people in your organisation you think exemplify the values of your brand and task them with becoming a brand ambassador, or guardian. This person deserves some training, and they may need some supporting resources, but their role will ultimately be to both police and assist the correct expression of your brand at point of delivery. They will need to maintain a foot inside and outside of your business, because for them to be effective they must be able to see your brand through the eyes of your customers. If you’re not sure who to pick for the role, you might like to start at reception.

So, back on our island on the Seine, simple Design Thinking methods could give the site operators a valuable understanding of their customers, and through that, a way to achieve their commercial objectives of good reviews and repeat visits: refreshing water on arrival, some comfy seats to wait in, a warm, friendly, sympathetic smile, and maybe even those hot towel things they give you on airlines, so new arrivals can freshen up a bit.

Then all they’d have to do is have a word with the receptionist.

Design Thinking is where empathy drives strategy through human understanding. That’s why we love it so much. I hope you’ve found this article useful or at least interesting, despite me not getting it out on Thursday(!) Please comment – what experiences have you encountered? What initiatives have you already set in place in your business? Oh, and while I’m at it, please help me to spread the word and Share to your network.

All the best and thanks for reading

Si Ellis