reputation is something you do, not something you have
Reputation is defined as “the beliefs or opinions that are held about someone or something.” It’s a powerful concept. In a sense, reputation is a reality. What we believe about something determines the way we behave towards it, talk about it and feel about it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the truth. It’s the truth to us.
This makes reputation a double-edged sword.
I’m sure we’ve all had our moments this Christmas break where our patience has been tested by weary sales and service staff, and we’ve vowed never to give their employer our custom again. Hopefully, however – whether visiting John Lewis or Buying Now on Amazon – we’ve also had some exceptional moments of service from a person or a system that made us swear lifelong fidelity to their brand. Our perception of an organisation can change in an instant – and it has very real results.
It is possible to maintain a consistently positive reputation, year in, year out. John Lewis and Amazon, for example, have maintained their position in the top 10 of the ICS’s Customer Service league tables for the last five years. It doesn’t matter about the industry – somehow a select group of retailers, banks, airlines and other diverse organisations manage to keep consumers believing great things about them, whatever the unique pressures of the season or the year.
How do they do it?
Quite simply, they realise that a good reputation requires continuous effort to shore up. As we’ve seen, it’s not something you have or you haven’t. It’s not luck. It’s a continual work in progress, one that requires attention and investment day in, day out.
Consider the battering the utilities market took in 2017 – a battering so vigorous the Government had to step in. As a result of poor reputation, one of the Big 6 firms saw customers leave in their hundreds of thousands. In fact, overall, over 5 million households switched energy suppliers in 2017, share prices were compromised across the market, and several promising start-ups powered down.
However, there are some companies that are rising up the rankings at great speed, like First Utility and Ovo Energy. These brands weren’t on many people’s radars when they launched, but they soon developed into word-of-mouth successes. In fact, First Utility grew so fast that their reputation started to falter – but they invested well and took the time and effort to combat the troubles they were experiencing and protect the goodwill they’d built up Ovo, on the other hand, knew exactly what they wanted to offer, and whilst their profits might not be staggering, their customer satisfaction is top class. These are two very different organisations, but they both demonstrate that when the chips are down, reputation matters more than ever before.
Similarly, the banking industry has been suffering from a serious reputation problem for a while – but in this sector, the criticism has largely focused on the way leaders manage the banks. This requires individuals, not just organisations, to do some serious reputational repair work if they were to survive. Many of them did not take up the challenge – with devastating consequences, not only for the business but staff and customers – but others have worked hard, and still do, to change people’s opinions and beliefs. With new challenger banks now entering the fray, this is still a fascinating space to watch, and it is those companies that understand the power of reputation that will eventually win out.
Turn to politics, and the fickleness of reputation is thrown into even sharper relief. Who to believe, who not to believe, who is leading well, who is not leading well, who is a saviour, who is a traitor… every day the opinions of the press, the public, rival parties and even colleagues within the same party seem to swerve from one extreme to the other.
Nowadays, the era of tabloids and News at 10 seems almost quaint. With social media throwing always-on, highly emotional scrutiny onto people, industries and brands, there is no escape. The only answer is to prioritise reputation management as highly as you would business development or essential operations. And before you throw it all in to become a hermit in a cave, rest assured – there are organisations out there getting it brilliantly right.
I had an experience recently that underlined this perfectly. I have a mobile contract with a very well known company that has stores across the land. I’ve been with this provider since the birth of mobiles.But for the past few years, my bill has never been what I signed up for because apparently even though my agent advised me of best plan my data plan wasn’t sufficient, and they’ve wanted to charge me more and more.
I am a logical analyser/competitive driver, so I need a lot of detail to be convinced, and I negotiate hard.
Of course, being that sort of boss isn’t easy. There are always multiple pressures on leaders and just as many opinions on what they should prioritise to ensure a business delivers on its results.
Surely, the question is: Can you afford not to put your reputation first?
But then – sigh – the issues began!
I received my phone and, not being technical, I went down to my local shop in town – all part of the same brand – to get it set up. Unfortunately, the guy in the shop was a bit nonchalant. Instead of trying to understand me as a customer, he wanted to serve me quickly and get it over with. It was like a Catherine Tate sketch – ‘computer says no’. I was in a rush myself, so I decided to trust him – at yet more cost, even though I’d just signed up to a big contract for two years! – and agreed to return in an hour.
An hour later, I duly picked up the phone and went on my way. But it didn’t take me long to find out that it had not been set up as before. To a tech simpleton like me, it felt like an alien apparatus! I was so frustrated. I had trusted this person, representing this brand, to do his job. I tried to fix it myself, to no avail. Maybe at this point I should have gone back, but I now didn’t trust this guy to help, and I had a long journey ahead of me, so I was short on time.
To add insult to injury, I then found out that the contract I had been signed up to – which the advisor had implied was a special deal only for me, and one that would need an extra manager sign-off – was, in fact, was a country-wide promotion, as advertised on the windows of the store. Having been misled by person one and let down by person two, I was not best pleased!
I decided to give them one more chance. Still struggling with a phone I was locked into for two years, I decided to venture to another nearby town, working hard to coach myself not to be too hostile. But I didn’t need the self-given pep talk. The store here instantly had a welcoming, professional feel. This time, I managed to speak to a young guy called Adeep, and – wow, what a different experience. As well as being polite and friendly, Adeep took responsibility and accountability on behalf of this major mobile brand. He sorted everything out for me, taking time to show me what he was doing and checking that I understood every action –right through to billing and checking my tariff. I said that I usually bought their products online because they have better tariffs than in stores, but he assured me that was not always the case, and suggested I talk to them next time and see. Betraying my background in performance improvement, I cheekily asked him how it was he seemed to have more power to make decisions than staff in other stores, and his answer was ‘we have a great regional manager and a team that treats the customer as their number one! ‘
I left the store with a skip in my step, and my faith restored in the brand – all thanks to one member of staff, plus the empowering manager and team behind him that put customers first. The reputation of the whole brand ended up in their hands – and they made a massive save.
There’s an epilogue to this story, too. One Saturday afternoon I happened to be running out of battery and happened to be in the same town. I rushed in to see if they could put it on charge. Adeep was there and recognised me immediately despite the number of people who process through his store. There was nearly a ‘computer says no’ moment by one of the other staff, but Adeep took charge and even suggested that I go off, do my shopping and come back in an hour if that would help. When I came back the other person who had nearly said no apologised and explained they were new. The icing on the customer cake.
Research tells us that leaders who have close proximity to customers, and who give permission to their staff to help customers in ‘above-and-beyond’ ways, achieve better outcomes, and secure better reputations. I do not doubt that Adeep’s boss was one of those leaders.
Of course, being that sort of boss isn’t easy. There are always multiple pressures on leaders and just as many opinions on what they should prioritise to ensure a business delivers on its results. But I can’t think of a better result than the one Adeep achieved, in securing the loyalty of a long-term and high-paying customer, or the resilience this sort of focus on customer experience gave to companies such as First Utility and Ovo.
Surely, the real question is: can you afford not to put your reputation first?