Do companies spend even a fraction of training budgets on employees who are the face of the organisation?

Branding is not a magical destination but is about people. And employees are an integral part fuelling the people process. K. RAMESH BABU

Do you remember our conversation last fortnight when we spoke about the human side of the brand and the need to look at things beyond advertising, media coverage, identity and colours in building brands? We spoke about how critical the first impression for a brand can be, how companies, under the guise of outsourcing, outsource their very brand to people who do not realise its value – such as security guards, for instance. We also spoke about how the telephone and the manner in which it is answered (or not) actually has the potential to take the brand’s image downhill, how companies (CEOs included) fail to respond to people who get in touch with them and about how companies can hurt their own image badly by handling interviews and the process of interviewing poorly.

As one of the respondents to my blog said, “It is easier to preach than to practise!”While I will respond to that comment a little later in my piece, I will continue to talk about what companies can do right and what they often do wrong without perhaps realising or even caring about the consequences of their sins of omission and commission.

A small gesture

While it is perhaps easy to get disillusioned with the way companies are acting or not acting and get pessimistic and cynical, I shall strive to be balanced, however difficult that may seem to be in the light of what I had written earlier. Several years ago, I used to teach brand management at IIM, Kozhikode in its early days. It was term VI and the students were understandably a bit nervous, as it was placement time after all. I asked the class what their favourite company was and while the class reeled out the list of India’s biggest and best, one of the students said, “MindTree”.

I was surprised as it was a very new company then. The reason was not difficult to see: The company had come to campus, made an offer to one of my students and as a gesture given him a company T-shirt on his acceptance of the offer. A simple gesture, you say. Absolutely! But to a student about to join a company on his first job, with all the anxieties that placement time bestows so easily, it had scored disproportionately with a young impressionable mind which he probably carried for the rest of his life. Here was a first impression of a different kind!

Mind you, I am willing to accept that things might have changed over the last decade or so and that today’s management graduates may be more cynical about such gestures. I have also heard people speak with great pride about getting a prompt response from N.R. Narayana Murthy to some letter or mail and so the story goes on… Like individuals, companies too do things right and on occasions also do some things that are wrong for the brand. All of these have some impact on the brand, which leads me to the obvious question: How does your brand’s ledger look in terms of debits and credits?

Money, money, money

Let’s move on to things that are perhaps not so pleasant. Both you and I know that the subject of money need not be pleasant, especially when you don’t get it and particularly when it is overdue. Let me start with my true life experience with a once prominent company that has now become completely obscure. It had this dubious reputation with advertising agencies when it came to payment. I remember the early days, when the company had the money, but used to set aside agency payments, as the attitude of the senior management of the company was, “Well, they need our business, they can wait.”

I know that we went through hell as did the other agencies servicing this client. Later, the client grew in business and in billings, but became so highly leveraged and so strapped for cash that the company soon became a “has been” and a credit risk. I am not referring to companies going through an occasional cash crunch, for several do at some point or the other, but of how accountants can be poor ambassadors of the brand, and often are. How often have we heard these: “Signatories not available” (usually for days on end); “We have misplaced your bills”; “Your bills have not been approved by marketing” and some more ingenious ones as well.

I know that many companies went through a tough time in the recession, but their track record of the past stood them in good stead. They took pains to explain to the affected parties and what stood them in good stead was their credibility. Actually, branding is less about words and more about actions and the sooner companies realise this, the better it will be for them.

Your employees are your brand

Traditionally companies have looked at their consumer and consciously attempted to improve her experiences and engagement with the brand. In the early Eighties, brands were hurt by dealers who had a limited concept and appreciation of customer service. Customers often blamed the company for their poor service, without realising that it was the dealer. Companies have become savvier over the years and invested in service and training of personnel and today brands such as Maruti have built a substantial franchise primarily on their service quality.

Yet, do companies, which spend so much time, effort and money on dealers and their development, spend even a fraction of their training budgets on employees who are constantly dealing with the world at large, whether it is their accountants, clerical staff or even employees from different functional areas such as human relations and finance? Traditional wisdom focuses on the revenue generator as someone who has to be trained as he brings in the moolah. This was perhaps understandable and acceptable in the days gone by, but today’s world has new problems, thrown up by the Net and the increasing activism of consumers and the world at large. Yesterday’s strategies may not work today in an increasingly dynamic and complex work place.

What does the future hold?

Sometimes the answers to the future may lie in the past. Let’s analyse successful companies. What have they been doing? They have done things first and done them differently. Tomorrow’s successful companies are going to be led by CEOs who will show the way in responsiveness. They will show the way by ensuring that their employees are taught the value of empathy. It is common knowledge that the people who are successful in sales have put themselves in their consumer’s shoes. This is that rare quality called empathy. Now, there is a need for any employee who has any sort of interface with the world at large to be empathetic – to vendors and their problems, the general public who may come into contact with the company. Consider the insensitive statement by the CEO of British Petroleum who wanted his “life back” after 11 people were dead and the impact and ripples that it created through the world. If that is the case with CEOs who are trained, coached and mentored, imagine the plight of the poor employee and the ripple effect that thoughtless or insensitive behaviour can cause.

Branding a process, not a destination

While branding is often seen as a magical destination or a sort of Holy Grail, it rarely ever is. It is a process, with unremitting, often boring, attention to detail in everything that the company says or does. It needs direction from the top and the commitment of the CEO or the brand custodian. It needs constant monitoring and investment in training. It needs the humility to listen to criticism that is often harsh, at times unfair and now in the public domain. I realised this as I got an angry response from one of my readers about my ‘tepid’ response to his query and my organisation’s inability to respond to his need in a manner that was acceptable or satisfactory.

We keep getting knocks. The trick, though, is to learn and move on. The solution is not so much focus, but attention to detail on every single thing that the company is doing. It is about processes. It is about people. It is about passion to do the things that we set out to do. And most importantly, it is about everyone in the organisation and not only marketing as we have traditionally believe.