As many of my followers are aware, one of the highlights of my year is having the honour of participating as a judge at the UK Customer Experience Awards. Three years ago, when Manuela Pifani entered the judging room, I expected to be impressed, but was not expecting to be overwhelmed. Manuela is one of the most passionate, professional, capable CX Professionals I have ever had the pleasure of coming into contact with. She has influenced many in her career to date and I am delighted to be able to share her thoughts on my blog so she can inspire many others. Enjoy…

Have you ever been stuck on a deserted island, with only your thoughts and a handful of fellow castaways for company? Well, I guess not many people have… physically. But mentally, I have landed in that place a few times.

I have been in fantastic strategy roles, in great organisations and working with some excellent visionary people – all focused on the future and the development of radically innovative brand strategies, which we believed would disrupt the sector and build new sustainable competitive advantage and business value. But just like the castaways, we had been operating in the little, isolated island of strict confidentiality, away from everybody else and unable to communicate to anybody outside our isolated shores. Days upon days, our minds were designing the most intricate strategies and the exciting routes which could get us there – to the imaginary wonderland at the other side of the immense ocean which separated our current reality from that far away vision.

As weeks and months went by, the vision became clearer, the best sailing route more defined and that promised end-game experience more compelling and differentiated. But also, our castaways started to feel the pressure and strain of their situation. While their minds were already heading for that future destination, their bodies were still stuck in the harsh reality of their present – under the pressure of their actual environment, with limited escape tools, resources or skills to get them off the strategy island – blinded by the sunshine of how bright their imaginary reality could be.
Strategic talk alone doesn’t build a raft. Only speculating about the future doesn’t change the reality of the present. The best brand strategy alone doesn’t miraculously build a smooth journey to the perfect customer experience. The most enticing brand promises, if not delivered, make a grim reality feel even worse.

This is why I strongly believe in the importance of marrying brand strategy development with expert 360-degree business execution. Far too often CMOs remain focused only on executing brand communications, devising the shiniest and most creative advertising campaigns and media strategies to tell the story of how wonderful their brand is (or they think it is) and setting high expectations on what it offers. They naively believe that sending a few internal communications and marketing tools to thousands of frontline employees is enough to actually deliver those brand promises. But that is only the beginning – and whenever brand delivery stops there, it jeopardises its full impact.

According to a study by Gallup, “only half of customers believe that the companies they do business with always deliver on what they promise”. Very often, loyalty depends on the trust placed by the customer on the brand’s ability to deliver on its fundamental promise, and the Reader’s Digest US Trusted Brands survey reveals that 79% of participants said they opt for a ‘trusted’ brand when choosing between items of equal quality and price.

A brand is a promise, and the brands that are successful add value by delivering on those promises … every time. This is not a description of what the brand can do or provide for a customer, but rather what they actually are for their customers and how they deliver value to them. Virgin Atlantic’s brand promise “to be genuine, fun, contemporary and different in everything we do at a reasonable price” mentions nothing about planes, travel and holidays, but reflects the brand’s unique character and essence, and is mirrored by investment in empowering its people to deliver this ‘Virginness’ consistently. Pret A Manger’s brand promise is simple, “Passion” – passion in everything they do, passion about their fresh, natural food, about their organic coffee and, most of all, about their passionate staff, which they nurture through a culture that fosters staff motivation and engagement.

The best brand strategies are supported by a clear understanding of how they can be brought to life and become part of the DNA of an organisation. They require a strong focus on designing the promised customer experience, building the right capabilities, aligning the whole organisation behind its delivery and empowering all colleagues to support it end-to-end – well before they start to communicate to their customers those new brand promises. Therefore, even before creative marketers, they require the skills of expert customer experience professionals, whose main role is indeed to translate the promises of a brand into the reality of the customer journey. And this implies the allocation of the right investment to these customer experience initiatives, before millions are spent on marketing and media. If nothing changes in how the organisation operates and relates to its customers, it would just be insane investing in communicating new brand promises – like in Einstein’s definition of ‘insanity’ as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”.

Personally, this is why I have become a Customer Experience Professional and love playing in this field. I have a corporate and strategic background and really enjoy developing a compelling vision of the future and setting the strategic direction for the organisation. But I always crave that moment when I can escape the deserted island of strategy and can start building the capabilities and the customer journey to take us there and deliver those brand promises.
In summary, I am a strong believer that brand trust and customer loyalty cannot be assumed or bought through shiny advertising, but they need to be earned through real actions, as reflected in the customer experience the brand delivers consistently, over time. Only a carefully designed customer experience can achieve this consistency, which is a key factor in gaining and keeping consumers’ trust in an organisation. It is not about fulfilling the brand promise once and moving on to the next campaign, as it is a continuously sustained building of trust that nurtures brand loyalty. A customer experience that delivers the brand promise strengthens trust in the brand, while unfulfilled or broken promises diminish it and set the stage for a long and possibly impossible win back.

You can connect with Manuela on LinkedIn to continue the conversation!