Manifesto: Customer Service as profit center

I spent 25 years in the advertising industry. I worked on the client side as VP marketing of a $200 million retail chain, and at an educational-software startup. I worked on the agency side as a creative director, managing teams of ‘creatives’ and contractors specializing in everything from composing music to conducting social media influence campaigns. I worked with market-leading brands and introduced new ones.

My work worked, too – judging from my clients’ results and my compensation. But in 2011, I traded that career for a 12 buck-an-hour job, to learn how Trader Joe’s built one of America’s most valuable brands, virtually without advertising.

Over the next year, I realized that Trader Joe’s was no better at its business than my old clients were at their business. Trader Joe’s is probably no better at its business than you are at yours. And despite the company’s fabled secrecy, the secret to Trader Joe’s cult-like brand, fanatical customer loyalty – and by the way, category-leading profitability – was hiding in plain sight. It was built on millions of face-to-face interactions between TJ’s customers and the company’s famously chatty front-line customer-service staff.

Revolutionary Old Idea is dedicated to this simple idea: Your company can build its brand the Trader Joe’s way. We know how they did it, and we know why it works; we can show you how, and it will work for you.

“Culture eats strategy for lunch”

Trader Joe’s hiring and training are entirely devoted to finding crew members who are empathetic natural extroverts. The company on-boarding process encourages them to engage customers at every opportunity. The quality of interaction – the CX each crew member delivers – is the single most important item in employee evaluations.

The beauty of building your brand this way is, there’s no risk of raised expectations. Sure you could go about it the traditional way, by spending a fortune reaching the right customers with a perfectly pitched brand promise through paid media. Or the new-traditional way, by carefully cultivating an audience on social media. But either way, if Customer Experience is shitty, the customer will be more disappointed than he or she would have been if you had not spent a cent on marketing.

They say, “You only get one chance to make a first impression,” but the truth is that the impression that lasts is the last impression you make. Customer Experience will always make or break your brand.

Is this a scary idea? Maybe.

Look, for years you’ve placed responsibility for your brand in the hands of some of your highest-paid executives and most expensive consultants and suppliers. And now we’re telling you to place it in the hands of your lowest-level front line staff. But here’s the thing: You’ve always empowered those people to devalue your brand, so why not also empower them to increase its value?

Go ahead. Try to talk yourself out of it.

Tell yourself, “It works for Trader Joe’s but they’re a completely unique brand.” They’re not, and the same techniques work for Quick Trip, Best Buy, and many others. We use Trader Joe’s because they’re the best example, not the only one.

Tell yourself, “Trader Joe’s can find those employees, but I never could.” The truth is that at a time when many employers are focused on hard skills, building a brand this way involves hiring people with the softest skill of all. And because you’ll be hiring for attitude and training for aptitude (exactly the opposite of what most companies do) you’ll be surprised how easy it is to find the people. You will probably be surprised to learn how many of them already work for you. 

Imagine hiring a branding expert whose first advice isn’t, “Throw out your old brand”

Although Trader Joe’s built its brand on a CX cornerstone, spending almost nothing on advertising, new or old media, or public relations, we’re not suggesting that you should throw out your old brand or abandon a traditional strategy. We’ll help you layer in extraordinary CX, to improve the return on all your branding and marketing investments.

The best thing about adding brand value, and building a culture of profitability this way is, it’s permanent. You’re never going to create an expensive campaign around a celebrity spokesman, only to have the #MeToo movement out him as a douchebag. And it’s the strongest defense in categories that are being disrupted by e-commerce.