Successful customer experience often comes down to a question of empowerment.

Amid the uproar about the United Airlines passenger being forcibly removed from his overbooked flight (the customer experience implications of which my colleague Augie Ray covered in a recent post), the Los Angeles Times published another story of the airline’s customer centricity shortcomings. According to this account, a wealthy investment firm executive who had purchased a full-fare, first-class ticket was threatened with handcuffs if he didn’t disembark from the plane to make room for a “higher priority” passenger. He ended up remaining on the flight, although he was downgraded to an economy-class middle seat.

I was struck by this passage toward the end of the Times story:

“Fearns said three different members of the crew on his middle-seat, economy-class return to L.A. apologized for how he was treated in Hawaii. But they said they were unable to do anything.” (Emphasis added.)

The seeming powerlessness of front-line employees is a recurring feature in brands’ customer experience failures. It brings to mind one of the core challenges associated with complex organizations: navigating two separate but inextricably linked journeys — one for external customers, the other for internal stakeholders. Internal journeys may involve a large number of stakeholders, from direct employees to franchisees or even independent agents. Regardless of their relationship to the brand, they play a crucial role in delivering on customer expectations.

Distributed Marketing Scenario

The stakes associated with these parallel journeys are high. In such “distributed marketing” scenarios, your ability to delight external customers may hinge on how effectively you serve your network of internal stakeholders. This means using the insights and data you have about your external customers to guide the brand standards, processes and systems the organization employs to deliver on their expectations.

When setting brand standards for internal stakeholders, it’s crucial to understand where your “connection” with customers resides. For example, does it derive from trust in your parent brand? Or is it driven by the local touch of a relationship manager, community provider or, in the case of the airline stories circulating, a gate agent or flight attendant? Knowing which dimension of your brand to bring to life most prominently is essential.

Structuring processes and workflows in a way that will help your internal stakeholders maintain brand alignment and ultimately achieve positive outcomes both locally (e.g., in the moment) and for the brand as a whole can be a delicate balancing act. Our research suggests that where you establish trust and empower internal stakeholders to take initiative — within reason, of course — the results benefit both customers and the brand. Greater employee empowerment might have spared United some of the embarrassment and negative PR it has received this week.

I’ll be talking about the benefits that can accrue to complex organizations when they successfully navigate the twin journeys of internal stakeholders and external customers in the final session of Gartner’s Digital Marketing Conference in May. Hope you’ll stick around for it!

The Gartner Digital Marketing Conference is May 10-12, 2017, at the San Diego Marriott Marquis and Marina.

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