Does the brand personality define a company's customer experiences or do a company's customer experiences define and inform the brand personality? I used to wrestle with this question until I decided that this wasn't a chicken or egg conversation. Ideally, the brand personality (as defined by the brand values) should define the customer experience. However, more often than not, the brand values aren't considered during process or UX design and the customer experience ends up contributing to the brand personality.
When creating a customer experience, some may think they are only defining a transactional flow or journey, when in fact, they are defining what it is like to work with that company. They are contributing to the brand.
So what is a customer experience? Well, anything that the customer interacts with - a department, an employee, a process - for a company. A designed interaction online or in-person isn't the only experience a customer has. Random conversations with employee sat a trade show could be an experience. Dropping off a package to a reception desk (or no reception desk) is an experience. Almost any interaction with a company is an experience. What tells a lot about a company is the impromptu experiences between an employee and non-employee.
It is through these experiences that someone understands what this company is and what it is about. How people learn about a company through these experiences is similar to how people learn what you are like by experiencing you, as a person.
A company's brand isn't really all that different than an individual's personality
We understand someone's personality based on their actions, word choices, and how they approach living. People don't have logos and taglines and slick brochures to communicate who they are and what they do (ok, maybe they do have resumes). You have to experience a person in order to understand who they are, meaning you have a number of conversations and interactions. That's why job interviews are often multi-stage and require many conversations. The individuals involved - on both sides - are wondering:
- Are the conversations consistent in tone, content, and perspective?
- How do others on the team experiencing this person? How do I experience the different people on the team?
- How can this person help this company or team? What can this person contribute and add?
- Will this person fit into the culture? This person may be nice, but is their personality and work approach too divergent to work with us?
It's the same if you are trying to build a friendship with someone - you experience that person at coffee, lunch, during stressful times, sad time, happy times. That defines that person's personality and identity. An ID card alone is not enough to identify a person. In fact, an ID card is an insufficient form of identification. It doesn't tell you anything about who that person is and what he or she is like.
We also do this with a company. We have multiple conversations and interactions with many people and departments, depending on our needs. We understand who or what a company is by experiencing it, interacting with it. How you experience the entire company tells you who they are.
In the past, we experienced companies mainly through their products. The problem that the product solved helped us understand the product brand and sometimes the company. It had its own logo, colors, fonts. But we didn't experience more than the product or the company's sales and support teams. The distributors and retailers would buy direct from the product company. Consumers weren't involved in the process. The retailer had the customers and customers understood who the retailer was. A company could have an external face and an internal face, become a "Jeckell and Hyde," so to speak. And that continued for years.
But that all changed with the rise of the Web, ecommerce, and online shopping and sales.
Branding, UX, internal culture, and the Web
The Web revolutionized companies more than creating a new marketing channel and automation. It exposed how a company operates, making it transparent to its customers, partners and distributors. People could see how customer service, finance, sales, and operations work. How a company did something became just as important as what it did and what it sold. The choices a company made regarding what goes online, how to interact with outside people, and the information requested said just as much about a company as their color palette, logo and language choices. The actions and words of a company are its expressions like a person. And let's face it, actions speak louder than words.
Digital transformation exposed internal culture, making it part of a brand. Culture and brand have always gone together, but with company operations and communications becoming more visible by being digital and online, so was the internal culture and operations.
The first step for automation is often to take the existing offline processes and put them online. That's when a company's internal culture first becomes visible. All of the conversations and processes that happen are now visible to IT and the development team, who make them apps, exposed for the world to see; they are no longer written on a piece of paper in a binder. Not only are the consistencies and efficiencies visible - so are the inconsistencies and inefficiencies.
Years ago, a prospective client called me asking for my opinion of their site. It was a large bank that had a site which would allow you to manage transactions. The brand stood for making banking friendly, approachable, consistent and easy. They had branches worldwide, so you could complete any type of banking transaction anywhere. The branches didn't have glass protecting the tellers - in fact, the lobbies resembled more of a lounge than a traditional bank teller booth. However, the digital experience had a 180 difference. As you would complete different types of transactions, the experience would change to be slightly different for savings or checking or reporting or account management. On top of it, the consumer banking site had a very different experience than the credit side or other departments.
I told my contact that the company felt fractured and I asked if there were completely different teams working on the different parts of the project (not just silos, like different development teams operated by different consulting firms). He was surprised that I would say that (he thought I had telepathy for a second there, because I was right), but I told him that the online experience is saying it for that company. The inconsistent experience communicated for the company. People can tell when a company is fractured for this reason.
How do you start to fix this and communicate the brand personality through the customer experience?
- Review your brand personality and values and brainstorm ways to express those values through actions in an experience. For example, dependable could be expressed by a 24 hr call centers or online chat/phone centers being available. Honesty could be expressed through call center scripts or a robust online support database. Transparency could be expressed by detailed online transactions showing notes and next steps.
- Look at how customer experiences and journeys work across the organization and stop looking at a customer experiences in a silo. See how the experiences complement and integrate the brand values. Go across all experiences and look for uniting factors. This customer relationship lifecycle chart could help you see, from a high-level, how different parts of a customer experience could connect together, be more fluid, and better represent your company. You could build synergies between different steps and journeys, creating a unified experience the flows from one step to the next.
- Build your brand through experiences - not just product and graphic identity. For example, Apple's support line lets you schedule appointments, so you don't waste your time. This speaks directly to ease of use and convenience, making computing accessible. Microsoft claims to be easy to use but good luck reaching a support person or getting an issue resolved. (I have experienced this too many times with them - they are understaffed and have their own madness happening in there. It's not easy for a customer to work with them.) But then again, you have to wonder if this is operational or if this is part of their brand? Microsoft is known for creating software for mass production. Apple is known for making computing accessible. There's a slight difference in their motivations, and their brands, and it shines through in the experiences and actions.
In a way, the emergence of online customer experiences and journeys exposed brand personalities for what they really were - disjointed or consistent. Again, this always existed, but the Web made it more noticeable. But this raises a larger question: do companies really have process/CX/UX issues? Or do they have brand issues?
(Personally, I think more companies have brand challenges than we realize. At least, that's my experience.)
When it comes to customer experiences, actions speak louder than words, and nothing speaks louder than how a customer experience expresses a brand's personality.