The phrase "brand ambassador" has become something of a buzzword these days, and who better to represent your brand than the people who work for you?
In theory, it's a great concept. But in practice, many business leaders struggle with finding high-quality employees and training them to be effective brand advocates.
Read Abbie Fink's blog post for this episode: "Employees as Brand Ambassadors"
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Are your employees empowered and excited to represent your brand? Are they your best advocates, your best ambassadors? Being a "brand ambassador" is something of a buzzword these days, whether we're talking about influencers who are paid to use their platform to promote a company, whether we're talking about turning customers and clients into raving fans, or whether we're talking about employees and the way employees talk to each other and the public about your company and about its work. It's something that gets a lot of attention, but it's also difficult to execute in a thoughtful way. Here to talk about this issue is Abbie Fink, vice president and general manager of HMA Public Relations. Hi, Abbie.Abbie Fink:
How you doing?Adrian McIntyre:
I'm doing well. What's on your mind? You're a communications pro. Communication goes in all directions. This issue of employees is a particularly interesting one. What are you thinking about?Abbie Fink:
Couple of things have come to mind recently. The conversation among all types of employers over the last several months has really been the difficulty in finding good quality employees, right? We are all struggling with bringing in enough people to do the work that we need to do. But I'm struck by the fact that, although we may need people, it's so important to get the right people in our workplaces, because these are the folks that are really customer facing. In a lot of cases, these are the individuals that are going to be the first opportunity for a potential customer or client to interact with your business and with your brand, and who better to be your brand ambassador than the people that work for you? And so as an employer and as someone who manages internal communications for, not only my own company, but for others, is we really have to be thinking about how we empower our employees, not only with the skill to do the job, but really what it means to represent our company, and how the way they act and interact really is a testament to what kind of business we are and what we want to be. And I've had a few experiences over the last couple of weeks where that's really been driven home.Adrian McIntyre:
Customer service type situations, or what was going on?Abbie Fink:
Yeah. I've gotten on an airplane recently. It was kind of exciting. I had a couple of business trips in the last week or so, and so started to be out there again and interacting in restaurants and hotels and with conference services folks, and really just watching them represent the companies that they work for. And these were well-recognized brands, the hotels that I was staying in, and really how an expectation is... Or we walk in with a predisposed expectation of what a business should look like because we recognize the brand. And we elevate what we expect to have happen because of how they put themselves forward out in the community. And, how really handling a situation or not handling it can really alter the way that we think about certain things. And so, the hotels and restaurants are understaffed. There's clearly no doubt about that. But as we go in as customers, we need a little bit of patience as well. We have to recognize that maybe our expectations need to be tempered a little bit, and honor and respect what is happening. But how an employee handles a particularly difficult situation, or how they handle praise when a situation is good, really can change the dynamic of how we think about that particular organization.Adrian McIntyre:
Years ago, I've mentioned it several times, I worked for a number of large international NGOs, humanitarian relief agencies, working in some of the biggest conflict areas of the time. This is between 2003 and 2005. And, as a communications person, as a media spokesperson, as an internal comms policy advisor, with an organization that had affiliates in 18 different countries, it seemed like everybody on our internal email threads, as we tried to work out our messaging and our talking points and respond to specific moments in these conflicts, everybody wanted to weigh in, and everybody had to kind of edit the top line message. And then we agreed, these are the three things that we can say publicly. And there was a lot of, as you find in any large organization, for-profit or non-profit, there was a lot of hand wringing about getting it right, and also, about who controls the message, who's authorized to speak. And, the reality is, every single day, people in the countries we worked in, whether they were, what we called, beneficiaries, the population we were serving and helping in this extremely difficult conflict, they interacted with our program managers, our water engineers, our community educators, our hygiene specialists, and their interactions with those people was just as much the brand, as what made it onto BBC news when I was speaking. A brand could be deeply damaged by the actions of one particular employee, let's say a program manager in a particular region of a particular country. So, who owns the communication? Whose job is it to get it right? How do you make sure that your line employees, the people interacting with your customers or clients or beneficiaries, in our formal language of the aid world, how do you make sure they're on brand?Abbie Fink:
There's a lot to unpack in that little statement you just made right there. So let me look at it in a couple of different perspectives. The key messaging official spokesperson kind of role, right? That is the individual on your team that is 100% responsible for putting forth information about your organization. So by your example, the person standing in front of the microphone during interviews is the spokesperson, and has been empowered with that responsibility. But you are absolutely correct, that there are many, many more individuals within an organization that may not have the title spokesperson, but are interacting and engaging and representing your organization, and may not have all of the benefit of the bullet points and how we say things and what we need to do. And so, there's this interesting dichotomy, I think, between those of us that have the official responsibility of doing it, and then those that assume it, based on the job that they're doing. And really what it comes down to is, for me, whether you have the title of spokesperson or not, you are a representative of our organization. And so, arming you with the proper information and giving you the tools to do it, but really, to me, it's also about giving the trust and confidence that you can do it and you will do it appropriately, and that as your supervisor, boss, whatever title you want to give, I will support how you do that, as long as you abide by the guidelines of our organization, right? So, we all make mistakes. There are things that are considered illegal in mistakes, and there are those where I misstepped and said something I shouldn't have. And so, I think where I really want to get to is this idea that we have so many people within our organization that want to, and should, represent who we are, and we have to give them the tools that they need in order to be successful at doing that. So, if you are, by using your example, someone that is out in country, providing service on behalf of your organization, how you act, how you interact, what you say, is equally as important, maybe even more so important, than the person that is standing in front of the podium with all the microphones in front of them, making the official statement that they've had time to prepare and vet through, all the people that typically do that. And, some of the greatest examples of that customer service philosophy or make it happen at any cost is really what engages us with that brand. Now these are buzzwords that we use now. I mean, I don't know that we would've talked about those 25 years ago. Some of the famous stories coming out of Nordstrom, for instance, about, just make it happen. The customer, whether the story is true or not, it stood the test of time, but the customer that brought back tires to Nordstrom. "We don't sell tires." "Well, I bought them here." Well, the gentleman had bought them at a store that used to reside on that property where now Nordstrom is, and that manager took the tires back. And, that's customer service. That's walking and talking your brand. And there are countless examples of when that's happened. And it can be, whether you are a small business or large national brand, what we put forth as the employee, and the interaction with the customer, can completely change how we think about that particular organization, for the good, and maybe for the not so good. So we really need to give our teams the tools, and that comes from how we bring in those folks, how we onboard them, what we provide them, in order to make sure that they do the kind of job we want them to do.Adrian McIntyre:
It's impossible to have employees communicating in an empowered and effective way, if they're profoundly unhappy, if their work environment occurs to them as oppressive, whether it is or not, if they don't feel like they have the autonomy to make their own decisions and actions without running it through layers of bureaucracy. So the tools that you're referencing, and the processes like onboarding, are super important. But the people also have to be flourishing, or they're not going to have positive communication to share with others. They're going to have complaints that they either speak or suppress, but neither one of those is good.Abbie Fink:
And certainly in today's workplace, that idea is probably even more important, because we are seeing teams of individuals being pushed to the limit. They're being asked to do things that might be outside of the normal business day. The interactions are highly-charged with all the things that are going on still regarding Covid protocols and things like that. So they're being asked to do things that might be outside of really what they intended to do for their position. And that really is a responsibility of leadership within an organization really to recognize that, and then to put forth action that demonstrates, "We honor and respect what you're going through, and we want to be able to give you what you need to be successful." And so, when we talk with our clients, there's so much about creating a workplace, that best places to work mentality, that goes way above the idea of pay them more, or give them bonuses. I mean, it's so much more than that. One of the sessions I attended at a conference actually was one of the panelists was on this idea of creative compensation, and we can get into that in another time, but our team members want more than the paycheck. They want an environment that they thrive in. They want engagement. They want an experience that, when I'm spending eight, 10 or 12 hours in a workplace, that I enjoy it, that I feel respected and that I feel like I'm being a contributing member of the organization. And so, if we... It's a fine line, I mean, you don't want them running all over the place and changing business practices, but you do want them to be able to take the information that they have, and measure that against whatever the current environment is and say, "This is the right decision to make, and I know that my manager, my boss, will back me up, if I proceed down this path, because they have given me all the tools I need in order to make that decision." And it can be a simple thing like, we ordered a Coke in the restaurant, and they said they had no Coke. Nowhere, anywhere in the building is there a Coke product? Apparently not. But instead of saying, "We have no Coke," the answer should have been, "I'm sorry, we do not have that, but can I offer you something else?" And then move it forward, right? So there's this way of handling things that changes how we interact as the customer, and then how that plays out with our understanding and our belief about that particular organization.Adrian McIntyre:
And for leaders, whether you're managers, directors, VPs or executives, I think it's important to confront the reality that, the culture, the environment, which is conversational. Fundamentally, culture is not the foosball table, the bean bags and the unlimited cereal bar. Those are perks. Those are comforts. Culture is conversations. It's what people say to themselves and to each other, when nobody else is around. That culture starts from the top. And if there's a toxic culture at the end that's touching customers, you have to own that as your failure to create an environment that nurtures people or coaches them out. I mean, both are valid. I'm not saying you have to put up with everyone's extreme, toxic, bad behavior. In fact, one of the best things you can do for culture is show the door to people who are unwilling to play by the rules. But, because culture is conversational, it means that how you elevate the culture of your organization also starts with conversations. Just like, it doesn't matter what's in the brand book, in the binder on somebody's shelf, it doesn't matter what the spokesperson is prepared to say in front of the microphone, if the front-line staff are speaking in ways that negatively impact the brand, that is the brand. It doesn't matter what's in the book. The brand is the experience people are having. How do you change that? How do you elevate it? You have to change the conversation, and that has to happen internally. You have to start talking to people, and probably more importantly, listening to people, in order to actively discover and shape the culture, the conversational environment of your company. And that means you have to invest time. We don't need another... I mean, sure, another snack machine or something, that's cool. But, that's not the investment that needs to get made. When you're investing in people, we're talking about time, and we're talking about communication.Abbie Fink:
Right. And you realize that we spend... The vast majority of our time is spent in the workplace. And the workplace, as we know, has evolved and changed dramatically over the last 18, 19 months. And so, foosball tables and ping pong Fridays may not happen anymore, because we don't have a place for those to happen. And so, you are 100% correct about this idea of the conversation. And, what we miss is that dialogue. If I'm the business owner, again, big or small, doesn't matter, but if I'm the business owner, I have a vision of what I want my company to look like, what my customers will be, what our product line will be, the type of people that I want to have working with me. Then I create that. I go out very intentionally to create that. But it's more difficult to ask that question, "What do you want, if you come to work with us?" And I tell this to the young, up and coming professionals that I meet with, getting ready to graduate and such, "You need to be interviewing us, as much as we're interviewing you when you're seeking a job opportunity. What do we represent for you? And, if it's workplace culture, what do you need to have to make this be the place that you want to be? Can you see yourself here?" And so, conversation has to be give and take, right? We have to put the information out there, but we have to listen back. And I think where a lot of us sort of stop is that, "This is my vision. This is my company. This is what I want, and this is what you will do." "Well, yes, but, if I'm going to be working with you, working for you, can I bring my personality to this conversation? And this is my thought. This is what I would like to see happen. Given this circumstance, this is how I might consider addressing it." And we, as the business owner, have to be aware of that and take that in as well. Some of the best ideas are not going to come from me. They're going to come from the people that are out there actually interacting. And so, this goes back to this idea about, who is out there representing your business, your organization, and what are we doing, as the employer or the business owner, to make sure that they are representing us in a way that is, something that is aligned with our culture. And it may not be the way I would've handled the situation, but is it the right way for the circumstance? And, the interesting part about that is, when we allow that to happen, when we give the space for that to happen, we actually are creating a happier employee, a happier workplace. We are creating additional support from our client base, our customer base, because they were treated correctly. And so, whatever guidance it is that we put out there, it has to be able to evolve, based on circumstances and what is in front of us at that given time. And, I think the best thing that a business owner or a boss does for their team, is giving them that opportunity and saying, and meaning it, "I've got your back. Take care of it the best way that you think you should." And we will be together for whatever the circumstances are, as the outcome. And there's, I think, no better culture, than creating that opportunity for your teams.Adrian McIntyre:
There's a saying that, "People don't buy from you because they understand what you sell. They buy from you because they feel understood." I think that saying could be translated right into the heart of this conversation, as practical guidance for business leaders, for managers, for others. Your employees don't represent your brand well because they understand what your company does, because they've internalized the talking points, the mission statement and all the rest. They will represent your company well when they feel understood, when they feel at home, when they feel they belong, and when they feel authorized to be themselves and to communicate openly and fully. It's not an issue of controlling the narrative. It's an issue of empowering the people, so that they flourish, so that what they naturally say, whether it's the exact sentence structures that are in the brand book, or whether it's their own way of communicating it naturally, will be an expression of what your organization is really all about.Abbie Fink:
And that they will be supported in that endeavor, right? That what we, as the management team, put out there is, "You have the ability to do this, and we will support that. Here's who we are, here's our vision and our mission, now you go out and figure out how to live that and make that come to life for our customers and our clients." We often forget about our internal communications when we are doing that. We are so focused on, externally, what do people think about us or people know about us? What are they reading about us in the paper? What do they see about us on social? What is our advertising strategy looking like? But we forget about this critically important part of our communications is the people we have right there, within our four walls, or within our screens, wherever it is that they might be working. And, we can't forget that group of individuals, those internal message deliverers, whether they are the ones that are supposed to do it, or the ones that do it by the nature of how and what we've hired them to do for us, are so important. And I know it from my own sake. I have to take a step back sometimes, when I'm about to say something to an employee that may not be in... Because I'm frustrated or upset or something hasn't happened, and I have to remember, they've got a direction, and they are doing their best to fulfill on that, and may not have been given the power to do something other than what's in the guidebook that's under the desk. And so, it requires some rethinking of the way that we do what we do as the customer, as well in, in terms of our interactions. But if you think through some experiences that you've had... And even if it's a great experience, why was it great? What was it about that particular engagement that set it aside and said, "I really enjoyed that experience." And then those that might not have been up to your expectations, but how were they handled? Were they able to fix, change, alter whatever that was, so that your outcome may not have been what you had intended it to be, but you were satisfied with the outcome? And that is where we really should be focusing as business owners and as communications professionals that are advising our teams about what we need to do is, "You are our best advocate. You will always be the person most available to us to represent our organization, and have we given you everything you need in order to be the best advocate or ambassador for our organization?" And if we haven't, we need to go back and rethink, what are we giving, what are the tools, as leaders to our teams, to make sure that they have what they can have, and need to have, to be as successful for themselves, and ultimately, for us, as they represent us out there.