The month of May provided two salient reminders of why the airlines aren’t exactly known for exemplary customer service. First, there was Spirit Airlines’ refusal to refund  a ticket to a dying Vietnam veteran. The story went viral via thousands of Twitter and Facebook shares that lamented the carrier’s insensitivity. Just last week, the discord spread to YouTube when a United Airlines customer uploaded video of a ticket agent  who willfully ignored every question he asked from the moment he approached the counter--until she asked security to escort him away.
With the advent of social media, every consumer with a smartphone and a gripe has been empowered with his or her own barrel of ink, so it’s no wonder that companies in every industry are going to great lengths to avoid embarrassing episodes such as these. But with so much emphasis on the don’ts of customer service, it’s easy for the dos to get lost in the shuffle. As a result, not enough attention is paid to the ways in which employees can enhance and enrich corporate brands that are comprised of much more than a logo, color scheme, and marketing strategy.
Customer interaction is when the brand becomes real. The brand promise is either enhanced or sacrificed by what a company’s employees do and say. Each customer interaction is not a task to complete or worse, an inconvenience; but the moment at which brands grow or begin to die.
Let’s return to the airlines. Tragically, there is little doubt that many of them have suffered labor discord. Much as they try to hide it, you can feel it as soon as you encounter an impatient flight attendant, a rude ticket agent, or a non-communicative pilot. By contrast, Southwest has mastered the concept that customers equal profit. The smiles, jokes, and even the posts shared on its wildly successful Nuts About Southwest  blog all support a brand strategy rooted in whimsy, approachability, and warmth.
This carrier, which has enjoyed 40 consecutive years of profitability, understands that employee behavior is about more than the fundamentals of good customer service; it’s about living the brand and making the better choices that reflect what it stands for every day. The Southwest template isn’t easy to imitate, but there are three key strategies that can help every company’s employees better reflect its core values.
1. True brand ambassadors aren’t born, they are made.
Larry Oakner, the Managing Director of Strategy at CoreBrand , believes that employee engagement with the brand is absolutely essential. He has helped numerous Fortune 1000 companies implement their brands through employee engagement programs and sees real value in making brand familiarity a cornerstone of training at every level of the organization.
"In the context of brand ambassadorship, energy, proactivity, and the right attitude are all great things," Oakner says. "But the real question is; do employees know how to support the brand in all that they do? No matter how motivated or engaged they are, employees that don’t know the basics of the brand they represent will never reach their full potential--and they can’t learn the basics unless someone is there to show them the ropes."
JetBlue teaches each of its employees to breathe life into a brand built on fun, safety, and integrity. It emphasizes these core values in introductory training programs that are administered by mentors who have already demonstrated a keen understanding of how the brand proposition is best articulated in a wide array of situations.
In JetBlue, we see an example of a company that doesn’t fall for the fallacy that great customer service is simply a matter of common sense. Because it takes nothing for granted, the carrier has created a brand identity that can even withstand the impacts of one individual deviating from the norm (as was the case recently, when a pilot experienced an emotional breakdown during a flight).
2. Employees must be empowered to make their own decisions.
Oakner’s second rule states "behaving is believing" in the brand. Companies can’t rely on scripts to provide great customer service; they must help their employees "live the brand" in all that they do. Simply put, this means that employees need to be taught not just the fundamental principles of the brand; but be encouraged to reflect it in every decision. The overarching objective is not to lay down hard and fast rules; but rather to embed a set of guiding principles that empower employees to make their own brand-supporting moves.
Oakner points to how Nordstrom emphasizes the passion for customer service that sets its brand apart. "The company’s employee handbook says it all," says Oakner. 'Our number one goal is to provide outstanding customer service. Use good judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.'
The personal freedom Oakner describes is what enables Nordstrom employees to personify the brand once they learn what it’s all about--even those situations for which there is no precedent or script. Because the brand becomes a part of what they are, great customer service comes as natural as a smile.
3. Great customer service is not a one-size fits all proposition.
Finally, Oakner’s third rule of employee engagement with the brand is that it isn’t a one-size fits all proposition; but rather something that changes when viewed from each of the unique perspectives within an organization.
Oakner tells the story of a bank that was struggling to implement its brand identity due to a series of acquisitions that resulted in rampant legacy cultures and a disconnected executive team. "In this situation," he says, "asking front-line and C-Suite managers to sit through the same presentation on living the brand wouldn’t have made sense. The program had to be tailored to meet the diverse needs of positions that relate customers in very different ways.
"The solution came in the form of an alliance between the head of HR and the leaders of the brand team. They conducted workshops that challenged different departments to identify their own ways to infuse the brand into their own specific positions and perspectives."
In the end, the program worked because customer service was no longer an abstract concept; it was a way of life--and it took hold because the employees themselves owned it from start to finish.
The value of effective brand behavior.
Brand behaviors are powerful points of differentiation for companies that emphasize them. They are what separate the Nordstroms, JetBlues, and Southwests of the world from rest of the pack. They don’t tell customers what their brands are all about; they use each and every interaction to show customers that the brand isn’t just a symbol, but a philosophy.
In today’s media environment, that level of customer service is much more than a value added; it’s necessity--because when you paint the skies as friendly, there are very real consequences when customers begin to feel that they are anything but.
Richard Levick, Esq., president and CEO of Levick Strategic Communications , represents countries and companies in the highest-stakes global communications matters, from the Wall Street crisis and the Gulf oil spill to Guantanamo Bay and the Catholic Church. Levick was honored for the past three years on NACD Directorship’s list of "The 100 Most Influential People in the Boardroom," and has been named to multiple professional Halls of Fame for lifetime achievement. He is the co-author of three books, including The Communicators: Leadership in the Age of Crisis , and is a regular commentator on television, in print, and on business blogs. Follow him on Twitter and circle him on Google+ , where he comments daily on brands.
[Image: Flickr user Cameron Grant ]