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Very First Impression as Brand Pheromone

by Alf Nucifora

The item in the Pottery Barn catalog was the answer to my months' long search, an inexpensive furniture hutch, sturdy and reasonably attractive, in that laid back, minimalist-style, Pottery Barn sort of way. I go online to buy the item only to find that I have to register first, a process devised by some acolyte of the Marquis de Sade. After seven minutes of frustration, and a constant hitting of the "back" icon to re-enter data, the system still won't accept my newly established password. The only thing that works correctly, is the box that keeps defaulting to a "yes" answer to the question would I "like to receive email communication periodically from Pottery Barn and select partners about products and special events." I decide to call the toll-free number. A first for me in ordering from a mail-order catalog, was the three-minute on-hold wait, before being connected to a pleasant and cooperative service representative. I quote the numbers off the back of the catalog and she locates my data. So far so good. Long live CRM! I order the item, recite the credit card data, agree to shipping terms and ask for a confirmation number and agreement on the final cost. Except there is no agreement. The catalog quotes a price of $119 plus $10 shipping. The service rep quotes a price of $157 and change. Why the 24% difference? An extra handling charge and state taxes neither of which I can find mentioned prominently, if at all, in the catalog. We agree to disagree. I cancel the order and 20 minutes later I'm no better off than when I started. Stated bluntly, I consider Pottery Barn's practices to be confusing at best, and deceptive at worst. Given the type of unforgiving customer I am, Pottery Barn cannot expect ever to hear from me again. Lost for life. A customer at the peak of his spending power. And with a previously good impression of the Pottery Barn brand to boot.

Contrast that behavior with the Amoco Oil Company, as it was then known, which, in 1975 was the first company to offer this poor, graduating student a credit card no strings or limits attached. Stayed loyal ever since. Spent the next 26 years faithfully pumping Amoco gas just as they intended.

It's a relatively simple rule…you rarely get more than one chance to capture and hold the first-time customer. In this day and age of brand oversupply and impression overload, that first impression counts. It creates an instinctive aura by which we judge the brand and how we evaluate its relevance to us as consumers. Consider it a pheromone radiating a hidden aura of attraction and goodwill. It also establishes an early warning system for the future. Is this a brand that I would want to revisit and buy again another time? The old trial versus repeat battleground. Incidentally, the research firm Gartner advises that a 5% increase in customer retention results in a whopping 60% increase in profitability over a five-year timeframe.

First impressions are not all "touch" in the pure physical sense. They're more than a bad experience or transaction with the salesclerk at the checkout line. Impressions are formed in a myriad number of ways from a telephone greeting to email response time; from lobby décor to employee dress code; from CEO personality to media message. For McDonalds, it's a case of ever-worsening television advertising that reeks of cheapness, mediocrity, inconsistency and loss of interest. I single them out only because McDonalds was once the benchmark for the category. "You deserve a break today" spoke to the huddled masses and every social class in a language and with an empathy that permitted little room in the consumer's mind or loyalty for competing brands. Today, they've become just another player on the fast-food strip, albeit a larger one with the good fortune of better real estate.

Marketers are finally waking up to the fact that a good first impression is in many ways tied to exemplary customer service, which in turn, contributes mightily to brand loyalty and customer retention. Many companies are now looking to technology, CRM for example, to address the problem. And that solution cannot be dismissed lightly. As a Modalis Research Technologies study shows, 73% of customers, whether ordering by phone or online, expect the company to possess some advance knowledge about them (basic informational data) and resent having to repeat the tiresome process of reciting various addresses, phone numbers, codes, etc. Hence the growing value of CRM and cookies.

But as the experts will also advise, customer service will never achieve superior levels if it relies solely on technology. Says customer service expert, Roger Nunley, of the Atlanta-based, Customer Care Institute, "The biggest issue is still people…how we hire, train and coach them and measure their performance." According to Nunley, coaching employees in the soft, people-to-people skills will be the primary determinant of how well a company performs in the on-going customer service marathon. It will also guarantee that the first customer impression is always a positive one and never a lost opportunity to establish a life-long relationship between the consumer and the brand.

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