Reciprocity: Brand Builder, Brand Killer.

Ideas  /  Dave Mason  /  03.10.14

Everyone seems to be talking about it. Everyone seems to want it. Billions are spent in search of it. It seems that every airline and taxi company, retailer and service provider is struggling to be the first to create the next big thing. It's pretty clear that innovation has become the holy grail of early 21st century business. And why not? Innovation can build brands and drive top and bottom line growth, and that makes business leaders and shareholders feel good.

I'm guessing I value innovation as much as the next person, but it seems to have distracted a lot of organizations from another builder of brands and driver of top and bottom line growth that I also value, maybe more so. It's not new and it's not sexy, and it might not look good on the cover of Fast Company, but done well, it kicks ass. And it may be (I kind of hate this phrase, but what the hell) the 'low-hanging fruit' of continuous improvement. Remember customer service?

What percentage of purchase decisions are based solely on a company's level of innovation? What other deciding factors come into play? Price? Availability? Reliability? Ethics? Accessibility? Transparency? Attitude? Trust? Prior experience? Peer review?

I mean really, when everyone's Airbus A300s (or mobile phones, SUVs, software, sports drinks, accounting services, data plans etc.) and prices are essentially the same as those of their competitors, how do we decide where to put our dollars? We make decisions based on our perceptions of the candidates and then we vote with our wallets. That's brand power.

If we're repeat customers we've likely got deeper levels of insight—a more complete brand picture—but as first-time buyers we're in an information deficit position. It's only after we've made a purchase that the greater brand truth is revealed. Need to change a reservation or an order? Got a problem with a piece of technology? Something out of whack with an account? That's when we find out if the brand promise we bought into is fulfilled by people who actually give a crap and are empowered to solve our problems, or that it's undermined by virtually impenetrable self-serve customer service systems or by "Sorry, but I don't set company policy" responses from disinterested / helpless employees.

Designing and delivering innovative products and services takes a tremendous amount of effort, expertise and investment. By comparison, designing and delivering a positive customer experience seems pretty simple and low cost. So the reasons that many organizations fail miserably at something that's relatively easy to accomplish and that delivers value right to the bottom line have to be rooted in some dimension other than 'degree of difficulty'. You'd think that even zero-sum, winner-take-all, kill or be killed types would remember that their customers should not be included in that equation.

A brand is a core strategic asset. Why would anyone responsible for such a critical aspect of an organization's well-being allow anything—especially something they have the power to control—to reduce its value?

Competitors might be able to temporarily out-innovate you. They might be able to underprice you or out-advertise you. But can they out-nice you? Can they out-respect you? Having people who are critical to the future of your organization—especially customers—generally feel good about it buys latitude and forgiveness when things go wrong (things always go wrong), and loyalty and possibly a price premium if things go mostly right. Both are nothing but good for the bottom line.

Nordstrom wins at retail, and it's not because they're cheaper or offer better merchandise. And sure, Zappos, Four Seasons Hotels, UPS and American Express are innovative, but there's certainly more than innovation driving their enterprise values higher and higher.

Want to brand like them? Design everything. Innovate wherever you can. Try to communicate wherever, however and whenever your customers want to communicate, not how you want to—"To be ignored, press 1, to be disconnected, press 2". And for crying out loud remember to be nice to the people that you really, really need to be nice to you.

Because reciprocity cuts both ways.