It’s no longer enough to provide customers an adequate product or service. Competition is high, and people now consider their entire journey with a company — from the point of consideration to the point of purchase — when deciding who they want to do business with. Recent research shows that interactions with frontline employees have a strong impact on brand perception, so much so that 64% of customers have avoided brands after having a bad experience. Yet despite the fact that customer expectations are higher than ever, the overall quality of the customer experience companies are delivering has remained stagnate.
Why is this happening?
To answer this question, my company, InnerView, recently partnered with FocusVision to conduct research on the effects of brand dilution. We conducted a 10-minute online survey of 250 professionals from midsize to large companies that had revenues of $250 million or more. All respondents worked in marketing, product development, or customer experience. We asked them to share with us their approaches to customer research, new go-to-market initiatives, and brand messaging through questions such as, “Has your company attempted to define a brand story that describes its value proposition?” and “How confident are you that people across your organization can tell your brand story accurately and consistently?”
We wanted to understand how well companies are using customer data — such as purchasing behavior and preferences, focus group feedback, and market research — to build their brand stories and to train their frontline teams.
Through our work, we discovered that there is a severe misalignment between internal marketing teams and the frontline employees sharing their messages. Further, we discovered why this disconnect occurs so often in so many organizations.
Few businesses teach new sales recruits what they actually need to know. Our research found that while tactics like product training and email are some of the most widely used to educate workers (85% and 91%, respectively), they often fail to drive consistent messaging about the product. This is largely because the majority of businesses (69%) rely on bloated information dumps, like document libraries and shared folders that house outdated information, to prepare frontline teams.
Such an approach to training creates a flow of information that travels in only one direction, overloading frontline workers with irrelevant advice that fails to successfully guide their actions and behaviors once they’re on the floor, interacting with customers in real-time. As a result, these employees misrepresent product details and brand positions to potential clients, and in the end, the company suffers.
It’s time for a change. Frontline teams must think and act with agility. Instead of telling their sales teams what to say, companies need to teach them what experience they are trying to deliver to customers and coach them on how to think through the lens of that experience. Training tactics that teach workers how to do this will help generate confident employees who are capable of — and confident in — creating better customer outcomes. Based on our research findings and our experience consulting tens of thousands of sales and marketing teams globally, here are a few tactics companies looking to align their brand message should consider:
1. Ask questions to help you fully understand knowledge gaps.
Fifty-two percent of our survey respondents said they are asked to introduce new products on a quarterly basis. At this rapid pace, alignment gaps are bound to occur. Because frontline teams face a firehose of information during trainings, they often struggle to synthesize all of the details they’re being told into a compelling story. Consequently, their organizations struggle to align brand messaging across not only sales and marketing teams, but also different teams within the customer service division.
Unfortunately, most organizations respond to this problem by scheduling more trainings. But their employees don’t need more of the same information. They need leaders to provide them with tools and messaging that will help fill the gaps in their knowledge.
One organization we consulted serves as a case in point. When we began working with the company, all of its sales and customer service teams were required to attend a two-and-a-half-hour training session that covered technical details about the technology hardware they’d be using to sell products, but defined no clear value proposition. Two months into their product launch, the company had achieved only 11% of its goal. We went to visit the sales teams in person to find out why. At every turn, people told us the same thing: “We don’t get the message we’re supposed to be communicating about the product.”
To dig deeper, we asked these same employees what they did know about the product, its value, and the best way to communicate those things to customers. With that information in hand, we were able to move past the subjects they had a handle on and create training tactics focused on the areas they struggled with most.
We created bite-sized training materials to fill knowledge gaps, one-sheets with infographics, and bullets describing the information they were missing or confused about. Those accessible bits of knowledge, vetted by select frontline reps, were easy for sales reps to consume and became effective vehicles for quick learning. In addition, employees were able to review the materials on their own time, then dive into them more deeply during scheduled training sessions.
This process of baseline testing, follow-up with frontline teams, and iterative training design is an effective, easy way for most organizations to fill knowledge gaps. In the case above, it led to far stronger results than traditional training tactics.
2. Customize the training experience based on team feedback.
Knowing firsthand what’s happening on the floor makes it possible for companies to create programs tailored to the real needs of their sales teams and customers. But too often, organizations treat employees as a homogeneous group simply because they work under the same roof. When this happens, sales results suffer. Just as marketers should perform research to design targeted customer messaging, companies should gather employee feedback to improve and refine their training strategies — but not through employee satisfaction surveys.
Asking employees how they feel about what they’ve learned typically yields inaccurate results. Frontline teams tend to tell management what they want to hear when asked opinion questions out of fear of retaliation. To gain more accurate insights, we suggest creating a structured forum for frontline teams to share their experiences. We have seen this work time and again with our clients.
During one of our consulting projects, for example, we created a forum for people in the company to share feedback. We worked with the leadership team to create steering committees for the various roles in their customer service and sales divisions. We had regular calls set up with each group, during which they challenged our assumptions surrounding brand messaging and provided us with guidance on what materials would be most helpful to them moving forward. We learned that the people who pitched to prospects needed different information than the people who guided those prospects down the funnel. After gathering this feedback, we were able to create materials tailored to each audience within the sales team, and both employee groups exceeded sales expectations.
But sometimes the materials themselves aren’t the problem. Sometimes the problem is how those materials are being delivered. Another client we gathered feedback from told us that the company’s current webinar trainings were ineffective because sales employees found it hard to focus while chained to their desks. What they really wanted was to consume new information in a way that was relevant to their schedules. After learning this, we were able to turn the webinar information into podcast episodes that allowed employees to train on their own time and in ways they were excited about.
The podcast was also valuable because it gave marketing a platform through which it could deliver one consistent message to sales and candidly ask for feedback from sales, allowing the two departments to better align on product messaging and frontline tactics.
By regularly asking employees for input and showing them that it will be put into action, companies can also build environments of trust and gain worker loyalty. In the end, structure, consistency, and follow-up create reliable ways to gather feedback from frontline teams.
3. Focus on building confidence.
Confidence in telling a brand story determines how successful conversations on the front lines will be. Sales reps and customer success advocates who feel prepared to have in-depth conversations with clients consistently outperform those who don’t.
In our study with FocusVision, we found that the most confident frontline employees worked for companies with a consistent brand message across their marketing and sales team. More importantly, companies with the most consistent brand messages were 33% to 37% more likely to use experiential marketing tactics (as opposed to sales tactics) to train frontline teams. These tactics included peer-to-peer learning, focus groups, and launch events for building engagement and excitement around new initiatives. In other words, the strategies that marketers use to change consumer behavior also drive consistent behavior among employees, including how they communicate the brand’s story.
This is largely because empowering employees to be a part of that story and to experience the brand they represent in their own way builds confidence and competence in a way that pushing information cannot.
Still, when we compare the most engaging marketing tactics used during sales interactions — such as video, podcasts, VR, and particularly, one-on-one interactions — to the training methods used to teach frontline employees, we see a huge gap. This is a major oversight on the part of many leadership teams.
Rogers Communications is one example of a company that is so successful because they do the opposite. They focus on marketing to their people before marketing to their customers. Leadership gathers weekly feedback from its frontline teams and uses their suggestions to develop experiential programs that teach and celebrate them. The company frequently holds high-profile events to recognize new innovations in serving the client. Sales is treated as a communal pursuit. Tactics are shared regularly between peers, and the best are adopted and used on the front lines. By following through on the best ideas that come from within, Rogers makes its employees feel a sense of ownership and confidence that ultimately improves customer experience.
It’s safe to say that the old way of training is dead. Information overload and emails with new product descriptions aren’t enough to engage employees anymore. When organizations try to tell employees exactly what they should do or say, they create a rigid system that often leaves all parties involved feeling frustrated. But when those organizations instead establish guidelines for how the brand should treat customers and give employees the ability to put their own authentic stamp on the interaction within those guidelines, they’re nimbler, more customer-centric, and higher-performing.
The strongest, best organizations have high internal brand alignment and employees who believe in the brand because they’ve been made part of it. The tactics described above can help your organization get there.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Rogers Communications is a client of InnerView.