Branding trust or fear: a case study

My Off Road partner Scot and I had just returned from an incredible trip to Guatemala for our client, Barefoot College. This required flights from California to Mexico to Guatemala back to Mexico and finally, back to California. I then continued on to Portland, Oregon. Each of those international flights and subsequent customs experiences was civilized.

Have anything you shouldn’t? Any fruit or animals that could cause problems in our country? No? OK. Great. Enjoy your stay.

Well, almost all of all of the customs experiences. Not so in coming home to the United States. Coming into the terminal, my fellow travellers and I shuffled down a dingy hallway and away from daylight and domestic passengers. Customs agents herded us down a long hallway to a series of machines.

Choose your language. Make eye contact with the camera. Do you have anything to declare?

This machine spat out my picture (admittedly, scowling by this point) and pointed me to another long hallway below the airport to an agent. He barked questions that I had just answered, undoubtedly looking for me to trip up and provide inconsistent answers. Thankfully, I got them all right and was dumped out back in front of the maze again, to go back through security so I could continue on to Oregon. They deemed me safe enough to enter the country but not to travel about it.

Take off your shoes. Take off your shirt and show us your electronics.

When they finished scanning my body and my bag, the system dumped me out of line again, this time to figure out where I was, what time it was and where I needed to be to board my next flight. This was my welcome home as a lifelong U.S. citizen.

Forget politics for a moment. Can we agree this comes down to trust? And trust goes hand-in-hand with fear. It matters little how friendly the agents may or may not have tried to be (nondescript in this scenario), the system made my value as a person clear; nada, zip, dispensable.

As I often ask in my coaching sessions, “Why am I talking about this in a business workshop?” or in this case, a blog. This example shows how a system or a process, can shape how a customer feels while experiencing your company or product. Lots of effort goes into hiring the right customer service agents, but it’s for nought if the system itself (signage, line design, robots) tells a whole other story.

The system told me that the organization doesn’t trust me and is scared of me. And as a result they want me to also feel scared, to even the score.

All this to ask you… What do your customer-facing systems say about your company? What do you want people to feel about you and what are you saying about how welcome they are to take part in all the products you have to offer? The unsaid is often the most powerful form of communication for your company and brand.

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