Channel Marketing + Sales = Branding

I love it when marketing managers talk about how it's their job to help funnel leads to salespeople, and that they can't control anything after that magical transference of responsibility.

I also enjoy it when salespeople talk about how they spend too much time sifting through weak leads from those same marketing managers to close a sale.

Or when I enter a store after being enticed by a compelling marketing promotion and hot price on some product I can't wait to purchase (phone, climbing gear, and chocolate all come to mind), only to be ignored by the salespeople.

The truth is, we're all in this together: designers, marketing managers, and salespeople. And we have to work together to create compelling communications that support our brands, drive through sales, and ensure that our customers keep coming back.

You'd think the big dogs in the consumer marketing space would have wised up to this new truism of the Information Age: you can't assume that people will like your brand if they get stoked by great marketing and let down by poor service in any channel. There was a great post on Ideas on Ideas about this recently, related to blogs and their influence on purchasing decisions, but I think there's a broader point to be made than just bad service = big word of mouth = bad branding. Often bad service can cascade into a larger problem because of poor continuity between sales channels.

I remember being stunned as I walked through Best Buy last month, to be greeted by every single salesperson I passed. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven after so many years of terrible service there. We had dropped in to purchase a microwave for my wife's office, and they were able to direct us to options right off the bat, without having to sit there and decode the boxes to figure out which one would be the wisest purchase. We'd researched the purchase on the Internet, made sure to call ahead and ensure the products were in stock, and then were helped by a real person right on the spot to make a no-pressure purchase.

What made the experience so great?

Every single point, from Internet to phone to in-store, was high-touch. Swift. Too the point. Propelling us to the purchase, no matter where we chose to make it, and with us feeling like we were in control of the situation. In every channel.

This is the holy grail of retail. The ability to cultivate a positive experience that extends across every touch point in the sales process, from consideration to purchase to happy customer to long-term customer/company relationship.

And why is it so rare?

Because there's a weak link somewhere in the chain from product creation to marketing to sales. And most often, this is related to your channel marketing strategy not lining up.

Companies that grok this spend a lot of time refining their business process on a regular basis — because they know it's the only way to ensure the customer experience is optimal. It doesn't always boil down to a bad marketing promotion or a bad in-store experience. Often the things that can hobble a corporation's branding efforts in the long term are all about how they do business. Marketers like to segment out Internet, phone, in-store, email, etc. in their marketing plans and focus on increasing the effectiveness of each channel. They think about the synergy of how each channel works together to ensure a continuity of experience until a customer engages in a purchasing decision. Where necessary, they'll work around issues with legacy sales systems, weak infrastructure, wonky in-store policies, and other hurdles in the background to ensure that customers keep getting funneled into a sales decision. And this is where their brand truly suffers.

Usually one channel is less mature than another. Some companies are slam-bang great at Internet, but they are terrible in the store. Others have some of the best phone service around, but the online experience is weak. Some companies like to focus their marketing dollars on the channels that perform best, such as online, often to the detriment of hiring the killer staff that will make their in-store sales rise more swiftly.

But I digress. Let's focus on the places where channel marketing can break down, from the customer's perspective.

Customers don't expect much. But they do have real expectations when it comes to how they'll approach you — and what kind of behavior they'll tolerate. Let me share some of these expectations with you:

  • If you're going to sell something online and in a store, sell it over the phone too. Even if your business model doesn't support it. Customers expect high-touch — unless you're Fry's Electronics — and the sale will probably cost you less than the in-store one.
  • Be ready to accommodate multiple forms of payment. In any combination.We take cash, Visa, MasterCard, and American Express. Oh, and gift cards too. But you can't use a gift card online and a credit card to cover the rest of the purchase. So you'll have to go to the store, because we can't take your purchase over the phone. Our computer system can't handle that. And the store isn't close to you. Sorry about the inconvenience.
  • If you don't have it in the store / online / on the phone, secure one for your customer promptly. If you have it on the floor as a sample and it isn't in stock, don't just say: "Sorry, sir, we don't have it." Go find it at another store or have me buy it online with you and then send it to me. Or, alternatively, you could go back to talking with the other salespeople behind the counter while the 4 other customers wander around the store and, like me, eventually leave without making a purchase.
  • If you say you'll call me or email me when the product comes in, actually contact me. Don't wait until I call back in a week or two, ask when said product will be in the store, and be told, "We got a big shipment in just a few days ago." This means you don't have a method for CRM within your store that carries into another channel. I wouldn't complain if you sent me an automated email that was triggered when my product was stocked.
  • Don't send me to a third party to purchase it, if you can. If you make a great product, why would force me to search around for it at the mall? Sell it to me directly and make more money, via phone or Web.
  • Don't think that since you carry that hot product everyone wants, you can treat me poorly in any channel. Yes, I would love that new smart phone that everyone seems to be coveting. No, I will not put up with waiting in line forever, being on hold on the phone, and/or returning over and over again to the Web site to see if it's back in stock. Take my money and send it to me when you get some in. Make it easy for me.

I think most of what I've listed here is fairly obvious and clear to most marketers. But the proof is in the performance: you need to invest in each channel appropriately, and continue analyzing the effectiveness of the customer experience in each channel, to ensure that customers aren't falling out because of inconsistent experience or overcoming your own internal struggles to improve.

In the end, what customers experience in the sales process for a consumer product will likely hold more weight than the quality of your advertising, your marketing, and sometimes even your product quality, if it's on parity with the competition.

Do you really want to risk dragging the equity of your brand down in the long-term? If you aren't retaining your current customers and helping to foster brand loyalty in the long term, then how much money are you really throwing away?

I blog on business and design at http://changeorder.typepad.com/.

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