Putting Your Worst Foot Forward

Yesterday I attended a discussion with members of the exco of a huge multinational company at their Johannesburg CBD headquarters. Because Cerebra is based all the way out in Fourways, I allowed an hour travel time. Luckily for me there were no traffic hiccups and so I reached my destination with a half hour to spare.

And yet I was 15 minutes late for the meeting.

I had been given quite specific directions to one of their many parkades, and upon arrival I was greeted by an outsourced security slash access guard with a navy blue jersey and a demeanour as ice cold as the freezing Jozi winter air.

“Reference?”, he said.

“Hi”, I said.

“Reference!?”, he answered.

I scrambled through the emails on my phone to find the one containing the parking reference and showed it to my new best friend. He consulted his clipboard.

Alas, I was not on the list.

After some discussion, I was redirected to a second parkade two blocks away with a central parking office, and my friend suggested I ask them to contact the person I was meeting with to get a new reference number. Off I went.

I won’t trouble you with the details of the next part. It may or may not have involved me threatening a riot. But eventually I parked my car and got to reception. I announced myself to the lady filing her nails and asked that she call my meeting.

“Orright”, she said.

Another lady walked into the lobby and offered me coffee. I was chuffed with this new development. However, after taking my order she never returned and eventually, after a few minutes, my meeting came down to collect me.


Before I could traverse the turnstile that would allow me access to the humans I was there to see, I was confronted by a second navy-jerseyed champion who this time needed me to unpack every piece of electronic equipment on my person to list it on a register, serial numbers and all, and sign away my life to prove I wouldn’t steal anybody else’s electronic goods.


If you’re smiling, it’s probably because you’ve experienced exactly the same thing visiting clients or partners or a potential employer. The bigger the company gets, the harder it is to scale personability at the most critical customer touch points.

This little story is an extreme example, usually reserved for the biggest and scariest of corporates, but this disease of consistently bad experiences with the companies that we invest so much money and expectation in is pandemic.

Call centres.

Service staff at branch level.

Outsourced security guards.

The thing is, all of these roles, and the staff that populate them, make perfect sense in an Industrial Age organisation where we want to cut costs, sweat assets and squeeze the bottom end of the organogram for all it’s worth.

Terrifyingly, this dynamic translates to how corporates are resourcing social media touch points. Companies are outsourcing their social media engagement to (at best) some junior in their marketing department who knows something about Facebook and Twitter, or an agency.

But in the agency the same dynamic plays out again. You have ECDs and CSDs and CEOs and MDs, but none of them are monitoring your brand’s Twitter handle. They’re all out selling to clients and creating clever ideas. The guy or girl that actually interfaces with your customers is a junior. Probably badly trained, badly paid and altogether pissed off. It’s one of the reasons we regard the outsourced community management portion of Cerebra’s business as such a critical offering to our clients. Even though this part of the business is transforming into a consulting, training and advisory role as some of our clients internalise their community managent, we try our very best to put highly skilled, highly intelligent, experienced staff in those roles. Our clients deserve that. No wait, scratch that. Our clients customers – YOU – deserve that!

This is profoundly paradoxical behaviour when I see companies touting how important their “brands” are and how critical brand equity is to the bottom line, but then they staff those positions that have the biggest impact on brand with their unhappiest people. Brand does not belong in marketing. It’s not owned by the business. It’s the collective thoughts, associations  feelings and stories customers tell about your corporate identity. The origins of those stories are in-branch, at reception, on the phone. Scary thought!

Where’s the sense in putting your worst paid, least motivated people at your most critical customer touch points? There is none, but it stems from an inordinate obsession with the acquisition of new business, and a desperate hope that the barrier to change is too high. Companies are happy to create a brand promise in the hope of acquisition that is so blatantly divorced from business delivery in the hope that nobody will notice, or that if somebody does, they won’t have the platform to express it. When this goes belly up, it REALLY goes belly up – see HMV’s staff Twitter nightmare.

This didn’t really matter until the customer developed such a significant voice in the equation. Until the customer evolved into a proactive, networked, informed, capable prosumer.

Ultimately putting really badly trained people at critical customer touch points makes perfect sense from a commercial perspective, but little sense from a brand perspective. It makes perfect sense from an Industrial Age perspective (assembly line thinking) and no sense from an Information Age perspective (connection and relationship thinking).

Speaking specifically to social media now, your brand’s Community Manager(s) should be a highly qualified, experienced, educated and capable person. Whether you choose to outsource to an agency or insource to marketing, they should have a solid grasp on the business in its entirety, the target audience and its nuances, the global and local zeitgeist, and they should be nice to boot. That’s a hard person to find. That’s a person at the upper echelons of the organogram, not at the bottom.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter?

  • Hayley Joy Weinberg

    This article ticks all the boxes. As the owner of my brand, Hayley Joy, I am aware that I cannot be everywhere, all the time. How my staff conduct themselves, says everything about who and what I am. I have invested the time, to train them, to handle any situation as if they were me. I regularly put myself in my customers place, so far I would be a happy customer!!

  • Tamryn Grobler

    Love this article, community managers play a vital role in conveying the voice of your brand! Such a difficult thing to get right!

  • Mariska van Wyk

    Community Managers are a company’s first point of contact online and the voice of the brand/company. It’s vital to choose the ‘right’ ones. Or risk having your brand/company exposed in bad light. They should be the most skilled/ qualified/experienced as you say, yet companies hire freelancers/contractors/people who think community management is updating a status every so often. I think community managers are taken for granted by many. Loved the post – thanks for sharing.

    PS: It was one of the CBD banks, wasnt’t it? ;)

  • Markus

    You’ve hit the nail, or a series of nails, on the head. You’ve voiced something I’ve noticed for a long time – companies want to portray images they’re not willing to live up to. I chose my job because of the personal interaction I had with my future bosses from the first “hello” onwards. I turned down a job at another company because of the cold, distant conversation I had with their people. Whether it’s business or personal, people are people and interaction, on the web or in the real world, matters.

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