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Ad Hype Meets Sad Reality

January 30, 2003
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I was in a busy local gourmet market, preparing for a long stay in thecheckout line, when a clerk signaled the man in front of me to move to a newlyopened register. I followed him. As I deposited my groceries on the counter andpulled out my wallet, the clerk sighed. "I'm sorry, but I have to close thislane now." I knew he was pulling my leg. This chain is extremely popular, fastgrowing, and fiercely conscious of customer service. It's reportedly a "capitaloffense" in the store for an employee to say, "That's not my job."

"You'd never strand a customer like that," I said to the clerk.

"I wouldn't," he said, "but you'd be surprised who does." He then told mea story that should freeze any executive's blood. If it doesn't appall you,perhaps you're in the wrong profession.

The clerk had gone to a big home-improvement store during the holidays to buyan extension cord. But when his turn at the checkout came, the cashier summarilylocked up his register. "My shift's over," he announced, leaving the buyerhigh and dry. Disgusted, he went to a competitor, Lowe's, instead.

Companies love to unveil glossy new ad campaigns and catchy slogans. Buttheir advertising is hollow in the face of bad service in the real world. Wordof mouth compounds the damage, carrying customer-service horror stories fasterand farther than any TV commercial ever could.

Am I saying that TV commercials are a human resources problem? Yes. If yourcompany's ads show helpful, cheerful people, and meanwhile, your employees areturning their backs on customers, it is most certainly your problem.

"The individual action of the employee has far more impact than any ad. It'swhat makes the advertising promise real," says Dallas-based communicationsconsultant Merrie Spaeth. Spaeth Communications, Inc., has developed (andcopyrighted) the Spaeth Influence Model to depict how information flows and isperceived by audiences. Companies think that the formal communication routesthey control, such as advertising, are the most effective ways to reach theiraudience. Actually, it's the informal routes, populated by sources thatcompanies don't control, including the media and the groups with which yourtarget audience has contact (such as your employees), that are the most powerfuland credible ones.

Don't expect to be invited to review marketing and advertising material.Companies have admitted to Spaeth that they avoid showing ads to employeesbecause they, of all people, would know when they weren't true. That's a scaryrationale.

You'll have to make a case for why you should be involved, and employeecommunications are the key. If you can demonstrate that you understand Spaeth'sformal-informal communication model and can show that you've aligned those twokinds of messages as you deal with employees, you have a basis for examiningwhether all the company's messages are in sync. You'll know whether the new adcampaign is promising something employees can't deliver. You can head troubleoff at the pass.

Maybe that's what went wrong with the home-store cashier who stranded hiscustomers. No one told him that the future of the store lies in his hands. Bycontrast, the gourmet-store clerk who helped me understands that perfectly. Andthat's why his store is so successful.

Workforce, February 2003, p. 10 -- Subscribe Now!

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