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- 10 Sep 2009
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Making Everyone a Brand Ambassador

Brand ambassadors have become the lynchpin in creating an incentive to spend in a competitive luxury climate

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BERLIN – “The customer is king” has long been a favourite business adage, but the current economic climate demands that brands do more than pay lip service to this received wisdom. While efficient supply chains and targeted marketing exposure remain important, luxury businesses are also beginning to focus more on those individuals who engineer a memorable and satisfying customer experience — “brand ambassadors” who represent both a company’s image and its service offering. These ambassadors have become the lynchpin in creating an incentive to spend in a competitive luxury climate that suffers no shortage of sophisticated design and superior quality. At every rung of the service ladder, companies are contemplating a recalibration of how their ambassadors are equipped and how they should perform.

The most public incarnation of a company’s service profile is its brand ambassador. At Christian Dior, Kalyani Chawla, VP of Marketing and Communications, began her career with the company as its Indian Brand Ambassador — the first to occupy such a role in the Indian luxury market. As Dior entered this complex, fraught emerging market, Chawla, a businesswoman and popular member of the country’s elite social scene, helped them to make sense of an opaque consumer landscape and to navigate its customs, thus improving their customer interface.

Part of her job description entailed delivering publicity in high-profile glossies as she was snapped at cocktail soirees and events, projecting an image for consumers to identify with, as a visual summary of the “Dior woman” in India. Besides functioning as a reliable point of reference for potential customers, as a personal contact for many of Dior’s high-society patrons Chawla also more directly expanded the level of service Dior offers. The brand’s core clientele in India mostly belong to an extended social network and, as she says, “the advantage here is that they’re all personal friends. That relationship that I have with almost all of Dior’s clients, of pure friendship, definitely helps on the commercial angle.”

Clients will reach out to Chawla when they have an event coming up and entrust her to select pieces that will work for them — her intimate knowledge of their social milieu, tastes and personalities allows her to cater to their needs, transforming Dior into more than just a luxury brand but into a sort of “girlfriend” who can be called upon to help achieve an ideal sartorial solution. Chawla’s close relationships exemplify the ways in which the brand can improve customer satisfaction, as she solicits feedback from her clients on what works for them, what doesn’t and what they would like to see more of in the future. This approach is ideal in an emerging market such as India, enabling direct communication with a relatively small customer base and fostering a sense of membership for customers in an exclusive, high-fashion club.

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Membership in a club of elite individuals is a critical part of the service portfolio that professional concierge company Quintessentially offers its clients. The company is the poster child for the shifting emphasis towards a customer’s interaction experience. Its performance depends on its ability to meet clients’ needs in high-pressure, short-deadline circumstances; to this end, Quintessentially invests heavily in its 700 service specialists who form the public face and voice of the company.

Guy Lawrence, Quintessentially’s CEO, says, “We do everything from extended role-playing to training them on the most appropriate ways of delivering. We will also tend to specialize within the offices. We have an international team in London, for instance, who are skilled in negotiating and catering to cultural differences.”

Quintessentially’s team includes a huge variety of experts across all segments of the lifestyle industry — restaurants, clubs, hotels, tickets, fashion, wine and more — with years of experience and insider knowledge. Their task is to make clients’ dreams come true, no matter how indulgent, while saving them both time and money. For one client, they organised an epic, action-packed Indiana Jones-style adventure in Jordan, which involved training by ex-MI6 agents, a mock mission to rescue “hostages” in busy market places, off-road desert driving, as well as private access to the ruins of Petra.

The increased importance of customer satisfaction is encouraging some service roles to expand their remit to encompass a larger offering. The haute couture division of Givenchy, for example, has begun to send tailors to their clients in order to provide last-minute alterations and to ensure that everything is perfect for a big event such as a wedding. In the past, clients were expected to travel to Paris; but today many houses are willing to do whatever it takes to keep their clients happy.

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NetJets has been in the business of fractional aircraft ownership since 1986, establishing itself as the market’s dominant player. Diego Briani, Senior VP NetJets Europe, explains that the firm is now taking proactive measures to increase the level of service they provide to stay competitive in the present climate. “We are the only airline that trains our pilots on customer service. Commercial pilots and most charter companies [are] not trained as there is minimum interaction between them and their passengers. At NetJets, our pilots… meet and greet customers at entry and escort them at exit,” he says. And while clients are onboard, NetJets’ pilots are more available than commercial pilots, happy to respond to any questions and to give a detailed brief on technical info or weather — or alternately, to leave passengers alone to work or rest.

On-the-ground service agents play too important a role for their efficacy to be left to chance. More and more, companies will need to create a service culture in which they are better able to interface with clients, assess their needs, and deliver solutions. In some cases, the basic service paradigm needs to shift to empower employees to make more autonomous decisions that, if executed properly, will add tremendous unscripted value to a transaction. Other companies can more profoundly tap into the experiences of their representatives with clients, soliciting invaluable source of feedback on how the client can be better served. Others can invest in elevating the profile of the service provider from a mere cog in the corporate machine to a well-respected, essential component of success functioning as the principal source of problem-solving skills.

What stands out today in a crowded marketplace are companies developing unique roles for their service agents, which exceed normal expectations. By delivering a complete service equation based on qualitative customer interaction that goes beyond product experience (the quality of the good or service) and transaction experience (the service’s efficiency, ease, etc.), companies can distinguish themselves from their competitors — and possibly secure a lifeline to profits in spite of these troubled times.

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Sameer Reedy is Editor at Large