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BW Businessworld

Analysis: To Deliver As Promised

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Is human resources a core part of a brand? Discussing this are Anu Parthasarathy and Govind Pandey.

Anu: What I see is this: Samoga the brand is delivered only via its people and the organisation relied on its ground staff at the check in counter like Priya and Madhur besides the others like the cabin crew, pilot etc. to do the right thing to protect, promote but really, deliver the brand as a "Customer Friendly"airlines.
Ajinkya has got it right when he says, "Brand Samoga must be visible as "Our People". I know not much about these issues but I am saying it as it feels. If your people are presented as people who will ensure a safe comfortable flight, who are empowered as the brand to perform on its behalf for all passengers, no one will talk down to our staff."  I could not have put it better.
And Herb Kelleher, Founder/CEO of Southwest Airlines declared that employees came first before customers. His words:   "If the employees come first, then they are happy. A motivated employee treats the customer well. The customer is happy so they keep coming back, which pleases the shareholders. It's not one of the enduring Green mysteries of all time, it is just the way it works."
Govind: I agree with you Anu. For service brands, employee behaviour in the front-line interacting with the customers is the brand. Business wise also, keeping a customer is more profitable than attracting a new one. Long term loyalty to a brand develops as customers have a consistently positive experience with it and the brand defines and meets their expectations. If the expectations are not met, continued loyalty depends on whether problems are resolved quickly. But expectations also need to be set and it is in what you do and DO NOT DO, that the brand is created.

HR collaborates with Marketing in turning these customer expectations into principles, boundaries of the brand values into employee behaviour.

I wonder if this case is really about the airline having to choose between employees and customers....but about clarifying their own brand. As on the frontline you will be perpetually faced with situations where a lot of judgment is needed. One could follow the HR manual but as it is about dealing with people there will be situations which are not in the manual...

Deciding which is the right behaviour between two "reasonable behaviours" requires a clarification of which is a higher value for the brand. So if you use your judgment to decide your response in a stressful situation in line with your brand values...the behaviour is "on brand" being firm with a customer on a larger customer safety value, to my mind makes for building a strong brand.

Anu: I am in full agreement with you that what Samoga needs is a clearer definition of what its brand stands for.

However, I am not sure I agree when you say, "For service brands, employee behaviour in the front-line interacting with the customers is the brand". In fact, I feel this is the fundamental problem that Samoga, and most service businesses in India, suffer from. The key point I am making is that in service businesses, being customer-friendly comprises a lot more than friendliness/politeness of the front-line staff. It's about efficiently delivering key value of the service as sought for by the customer, in a repeatable, professional manner. In the airline business, it is about on-time record, safety, quick baggage-handling, and friendly employee behaviour. Much of this value is delivered by the airline staff who are not even visible to the customer.
 Govind Pandey
Given that service is "manufactured" at the time of delivery through actions of a whole number of the airline's employees, it is imperative that the employees internalise, define, and personify what the airline's brand stands for. And the employees need to feel skilled, and importantly trusted and empowered, to deliver that value to the customer.  This is the key to the airline being able to deliver this brand value, as defined, on a consistent basis.

I believe this is what successful brands do. In continuation of my example of Southwest Airlines, I came across this presentation from Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos, the highly successful e-tailer, who has built his business through a legendary level of customer service, ( says giving great service to everyone - employees, vendors, investors and customers - is a must if you want to make "customer service" a core value of the company.

Govind: So I guess we mean the same thing: by "behaviour" I do not mean it to be just about being polite and friendly , but about being responsive to a customer expectation in the most brand-appropriate manner which may sometimes mean deplaning an errant customer.  And a self-aware and well-defined brand would automatically clarify the behaviour for the employees. Singapore Airways brand which probably sets the benchmark for customer-service for airlines globally also empowered the pilot to take an equally strong brand-defining action where it meant to turn a plane around to get a passenger off.

Also, HR manuals cannot design processes to standardise them to such an extent, in an attempt to treat every customer to the same consumer experience, that they dehumanise the employees; like they don't matter. They should be empowered to bring in their authenticity and style in the interaction to create a genuine experience. I find a standardised  "namaste' being rendered mechanically mildly ridiculous if not irritating. That also brings me to the point of emotional intent behind the rituals; sometimes the only way to judge a person is the intent...and I don't find a fault there in Madhur on that count...

The incident also touches upon the socio-cultural nature of "service" which differentiates us  from Singapore or the West. The notion of 'context' does not exist in "modern" thought, whereas India is only about the context. So to make a slightly generalised comment, India is not yet "modern" .Deep down our sense of entitlement comes from our deeply ingrained sense of feudalism.  Those in the position of wielding power are not accountable to anyone as corruption scams show.  Rich boys from privileged homes can run amok all their lives, in their BMWs with little sense of consequence..

So the notion of flying in India confers on you "maharajahood" thanks to the national carrier and was taken forward by the "king" of good times, that subliminally gives the flyers the license to behave in a certain way and sets the service expectations of a very specific type in Iindia. As a society , by and large our sense of service is still evolving from "subservience".

(A classical definition of modernity is as follows, "Modernity has to do with attitudes, especially those that come into play in social relations. A modern society is one in which at least the following characteristics must be present: dignity of the individual, adherence to universalistic norms,  elevation of individual achievement over privileges of birth and accountability in public life.")

So what kind of training requirements would you have in mind from the HR perspective, for such a mindset?

Yes, we do have peculiar societal issues which could bring up unique situations on the ground. We are still a developing country and our culture itself is in a flux with a mish-mash of Indian and Western behaviours. So it becomes even more imperative that a company like  Samoga should pick the critical customer deliverables rather than leave it vague for interpretation. Yes, the employee can use his own judgement to deliver it eventually but he should not be wondering what it is that his management wants him to deliver. This is what the brand promise is all about.

Training is one part of the mix. Clearly outlining processes for various operational pieces with sufficient room for employee discretion is also critical. Appropriate use of technology along various points in the process can also play a big role in ensuring repeatability, consistency and customer friendliness. All these should come together to enable Samoga to deliver on its promises.

Training is a critical, involved exercise starting at the very top down to the last person in the company. It has to be a continuous process.  Bringing in the right internal and external experts can work very well in making it work. However, eventually training should be aligned with company's vision to be effective.

Anu Parthasarathy runs Global Executive Talent, an executive search firm. Govind Pandey is an advertising professional and works with McCann Erickson

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 19-11-2012)