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Corporate Blind Spots: Is Your Brand Suffering?

Do your customers think of your company as a source or a partner? Do they understand what your company stands for beyond the products or services you sell?
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Just like our personal reputations have an enormous impact on the success of our careers, a company's reputation ultimately determines its profitability. That concept has never been more critical than it is now in our always-online, über-connected world.

Struggling with Competitive Overload

Companies today are faced with a competitive playing field that has expanded exponentially. Consumers are no longer limited to product choices in their immediate areas or regions. With a click of the mouse, they can buy chocolates from Switzerland or furniture from Denmark. Twenty years ago, these options would have seemed mind-boggling.

Price comparisons are almost effortless, too. Shopping around for the best deal is, again, a mouse-click away. With fast shipping options and overnight delivery, accessing the global market is easier than ever. Even strong brands run the risk of being perceived as a commodity with the colossal increase in competition made possible by the Internet. Sometimes the only significant differentiating feature about a company or a brand is its reputation.

According to a recent survey by global PR firm Weber Shandwick and KRC Research, 70 percent of consumers avoid buying a product if they don't like the company behind it. That should be a big wake-up call for corporate executives. Leaders can sit in meetings for days to discuss brand-building goals, but none of that matters if the conversation isn't based on the reality of how the company is actually perceived.

Recognizing the Challenge

So how can companies create a brand personality so strong that a customer wants to do business with them despite plenty of product alternatives and cheaper prices? The key is in building a relationship and sense of loyalty with consumers. Do your customers think of your company as a source or a partner? Do they understand what your company stands for beyond the products or services you sell?

It all comes back to the powerful factor that has been proven to drive corporate success: perceptions. This is the same concept I apply to individuals in my book, You - According to Them: Uncovering the blind spots that impact your reputation and your career. Companies can (and often do) have blind spots, as well. The most successful organizations know how to identify those blind spots and move past them.

Gathering Customer Feedback

Companies can't map out a journey to build their brand reputations if they don't know the starting point. What does that mean exactly? We need to know specifically how our customers perceive our company today. We need to have a clear vision of what we'd ideally like that perception to be. And we need to take action to move toward that goal to compete more effectively in the market.

For larger companies, the solution involves doing market research and listening closely to focus groups. But what about small or mid-sized companies with little or no budget for research? Thankfully, this process doesn't have to cost thousands of dollars, and informal feedback can play a big role in keeping your brand on track.

Make a list of your top 10-20 customers. Call them. Meet them for coffee or lunch. Ask them for a "business report card." How are we doing? What do you like? What could we do better? Encourage them to be candid. Many companies today also use a simple service like Survey Monkey to gather regular feedback from customers. A few specific questions might include:

• How do you feel about the quality of our company's products/services?
• How would you describe what it's like to work with our company?
• How would you describe the value of our company to others?
• What are the challenges and pain points our company most often helps you to solve?
• Do you think our company is a good place to work? (How do you think we treat our employees?)
• Are you aware of our company's involvement in social/environmental/community causes?
• How would you describe our corporate brand and what we stand for as an organization?

Monitoring social media is another critical step in understanding how your company is perceived. The greatest marketing campaign in the world can't compensate for bad online buzz. When you consider the popularity of online sources like TripAdvisor and Angie's List, it's clear that consumers today depend heavily on the opinions of companies' existing customers to make their buying decisions. Your business can't resolve issues (real or perceived) if you don't know they exist. Log on regularly and look for red flags. No matter how you gather customer feedback, just make sure it's an ongoing process.

Eliminating Blind Spots

Once you have a realistic view of your company's perceived strengths and weaknesses, you can use that baseline to make meaningful changes moving forward. Pay close attention to the unexpected responses. Perhaps you were already aware of the need to improve delivery times, but you learn about some lapses in customer service you never knew about. The bad news? You've discovered a blind spot. The good news? Now you can fix it before it does permanent damage to your brand.

Thoroughly understanding your corporate reputation gives you a big advantage as you try to shift customers' perceptions to more closely match the brand image you ideally want to convey. Your tactics will certainly change over time, but they'll be infinitely more successful if your strategy is based on customer feedback that is real and current.

Yes, identifying corporate blind spots takes time and effort. But it works! Simply asking for feedback shows customers that you value the relationship, and the knowledge you uncover will direct and strengthen your brand-building efforts in surprising ways.

Has your company reached out for customer feedback in an innovative way? What were the results? I'd love to hear your success stories.

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