It’s an all-too familiar story. You call a customer service number hoping to solve a problem and to solve it quickly. Instead, you find yourself trying to communicate with a disengaged call-center worker who refuses to deviate from a set script and who seems unwilling – or unable – to use empathy and creativity to resolve your problem. Many of us are familiar with the growing sense of frustration that results, so let’s share an example of the polar opposite. A member of the customer loyalty team at Zappos, an online shoe and apparel retailer, engaged in a conversation that lasted for over 10 hours with a customer. The conversation ranged far beyond the immediate customer service problem, taking in a range of topics that built a common ground and a sense of empathy, including life, movies and favorite food[1].

While the Zappos example is certainly beyond the norm, it does illustrate a growing understanding that organizations need to do much more to develop loyal customers today. A robotic, rote-based response to customers is not going to build genuine – and extremely valuable – loyalty. Loyalty has always been a prized commodity, but it is even more important in our digital, networked world. Without loyalty, you won’t have any digital brand ambassadors – the loyal customers who use their online presence to champion your brand. Malcolm Gladwell states this opportunity with precise simplicity in The Tipping Point – find a group of influencers, get them excited about the brand, and then sit back and garner the benefits.

Building Digital Top Fan Communities

Brands need to curate and invest in the right ambassadors who can champion the brand on social networks, blogs and forums. The ideal profile is the “Top Fan” – an expert with a deep knowledge of the brand. Top Fans often belong to a select community of followers, pooling their passion and knowledge to drive technical cooperation and developing ideas around specific brand content. American Express offers an example. To promote its credit card for small businesses, the company created a social media community for small business owners to exchange information and engage with one another. The community, which has reached 2,700,000+ Likes and 195,000 Tweets, helped American Express as it saw a +23% increase in transactions to small business merchants[2].  A Top Fan can make the brand richer by 25,000 to 50,000 Euros per year.

Identifying the right segment and community-building are part of the approach, but you also need to create that all-important enthusiasm in Top Fans so that they continue to generate a positive buzz. Companies can solicit the opinion of their top fans in joint development of products/services. Co-creation helps engage Top Fans while drawing on their knowledge, opinions and creative ideas.

Amazon understood this approach with its “Vine” program, which provides customers with honest and unbiased feedback from Amazon’s most trusted reviewers. The invitation-only program selects reviewers based on a range of criteria, such as the helpfulness of their reviews as judged by other customers and their demonstrated interest in the products featured in the program. This community of trusted reviewers helps other customers make informed purchase decisions while also increasing visibility for products. Amazon even sends new products to Vine members to get a sense of initial feedback. Similarly, Kraft Foods collaborated with its fans for suggestions on the design of a print ad for its Mini-Oreo cookies. Kraft received more than 500 ideas from 42 countries of which 10 potential ideas were shortlisted. The inputs from fans led to the new positioning and a global campaign for the Oreo brand themed ‘Bonding Moments’[3].

Building Employee Brand Ambassadors through Digital

External brand ambassadors need to be matched by passionate employees. As Frank Sinatra sang: ‘you can’t have one without the other’. Kraft also provides a good example of an organization that encourages its employees to act as brand ambassadors and share something unique about their workplace. The company uses an app called the “Foodii”, which is an internal online community of about 2,000 employees. The app is used to give employees an insider’s view of upcoming initiatives and products from Kraft while also acting as a conduit to collect their feedback on opportunities to improve a product’s chance of success. For example, the use of Foodii helped Kraft receive more than 100 ideas from employees within 24 hours for a potential name for a new Jell-O Mousse Temptations flavor[4].  As well as ideas and content, this digital first approach is building engagement in the company’s people.

Engagement and empathy are critical ingredients in the recipe. As we mentioned at the beginning, a call-center worker responding within the strictures of a set script will not build loyalty. The key is to give every employee a consistent understanding of the company’s vision while also encouraging them to develop their own unique voice when executing against this vision. This means giving them a margin of judgment. Take the case of Bonobos, an e-commerce apparel company. By giving full freedom to its customer service consultants, the brand has become synonymous with high quality service. In fact, the company’s “ninjas” (customer service consultants) are free from any process related to claims management. They have complete freedom regarding claims management and compensation to the customer.

Brand Ambassadors in a Connected World

The idea of brand ambassadors certainly isn’t new, but what is different is the discipline required to do this successfully in the digital age.  You need to identify the external brand ambassadors who will add value to your business, and create and curate the digital communities of interest over the long-term. The external philosophy will need to be matched by the commitment and passion of your employees, which will require some bold steps and imagination. A vibrant external community will be dead in the water if it isn’t matched by employee commitment. The challenge is on to create a coherent brand loyalty program, internal and external, that utilizes the smart technologies of our connected world.

[1] Huffington Post, “Zappos’ 10-Hour Long Customer Service Call Sets Record”, December 2012
[2] BamRaisers, “10 case studies prove the ROI of brand advocates”, December 2013
[3] Econsultancy, “Five brands using crowdsourcing for product and marketing ideas”, May 2014
[4] Advertising Age, “Employees No Longer Baggage, but Blessing”, November 2010