If you tell your kid it’s important to wash her hands before meals but you don’t wash your own, you’re really saying it’s not important. Say "Always tell the truth" and then tell one lie, and you’re saying "Sometimes tell a lie." Say drugs are bad, then smoke a little weed out on the fire escape and, well, guess what? It’s what you do, not what you say. And that’s as true for companies as it is for parents.
Thanks to the water-cooler effect of social networking, every company, regardless of its actual size, must deliver the same quality of service as a small business. Customers expect personal attention from everyone, whether it’s Toyota or their local bakery. Today, your company’s behavior is your marketing. Period.Look at British Petroleum. In an effort to reposition itself as the white knight of the oil business, BP launched a spanking new identity—an earth-friendly sunflower logo and a new set of aspirations: "‘Better people, better products, big picture, beyond petroleum." It must have cost a small crude gusher to implement globally. Meanwhile, the oil giant ran up 760 "egregious, willful" violations, according to U.S. federal watchdog Occupational Safety and Health Administration. (For context, in the same period Exxon had one such violation.)
Similarly, the Internet provider Comcast has built a media fantasy around speed—fast connections and fast customers. But try getting some action on its customer service line, or getting a representative to nail down a delivery time. People like Internet speed, but do they like Comcast? Do they like it any better now with its new name, Xfinity? Read the customer blogs, or YouTube either of those names. What you do or don’t do trumps what you say every time.
The Four Seasons Hotel brand understands the new customer-service landscape. "We hire for attitude," says its founder, Isadore Sharp. "We want people who like other people and are, therefore, more motivated to serve them. Competence we can teach. Attitude is ingrained." The Four Seasons has been named one of Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to work for every year since the survey began in 1998. The same attention to service can be felt in brands such as Virgin Atlantic and Amazon. And you hope, at least I do, that it’s there in the new Chrysler—that the vision embedded in "Imported from Detroit" is real, that the carmaker isn’t just saying it but being it.Recently, Steelcase, a client of ours, commissioned a short documentary film about the future. We traveled around the world—a zig-zag journey of 35,000 miles—asking 10-year-olds what they see ahead for themselves. They were middle-class kids in public schools, the kinds of kids that will be running things by mid-century. With the odd exception, none of those we interviewed talked about being rich or famous. Most of them—in Latin America, Africa, Europe, India, China, and the U.S.—talked from the heart about the Earth, about helping people, about inventing things.
When you consider that 2-year-olds can already recognize logos—McDonald’s, Shell, Nike, Heineken—before they can recognize the letters of the alphabet, it’s clear how much those values are going to matter. I can honestly say I felt the future was in good hands. It’s the present that worries me.
[Top image by Rolands Lakis]