Style Guide: Do you have one?

Customer purchasing habits have changed markedly sinceStyleGuide the development and rapid expansion of web based applications where you can find almost anything at anytime.  Consequently the science of attracting and retaining customers has become very sophisticated involving SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and one-click shopping for example

This has become even more challenging for businesses with a physical presence (buildings, store front, or other structure) to get customers to visit their locations, deal with traffic, find parking locations and fees to just get them in the door to potentially purchase their goods and services.

Many customers still find it necessary to touch and see before buying, but are heavily influenced by an in-store experience.  It is not just the exterior/interior trappings of the store, or its music, or presentation of goods but the experience and relationship with the staff during the buying process (including exchanges) that makes a difference.

Just ask yourself where you choose to buy and why? What makes you comfortable? What circumstances cause you to drop the barriers to buy?  Why do you look forward to going back, possibly even the same day?

It is the collective and individual style of how each staff member conducts themselves that can have a big impact not only on the first purchase but, more significantly, influence a purchase in the future.  The style of an individual is not just appearance – clothes and hairstyle – but style includes many other factors such as mannerisms, language (use of slang, off color words, etc.), conduct, grooming, personal hygiene, trust, interpersonal behavior, demeanor, and personality.

What About B2B
What I have described so far may appear to be retail oriented but similar issues exist in business-to-business (B2B) transactions.  In B2B, experienced buyers are often involved, including senior leadership, and or the owner.  In B2B the style stakes are higher, given the size of the business involved, and the potential for establishing a long-term business relationship.

What Can You Expect of Employees?
Can you expect each new employee to come to work equipped with the set of style factors that will compliment your business brand and create the necessary experience to attract and retain customers? Unfortunately, many of the important style factors listed above are not practiced naturally by many experienced employees, let alone inexperienced employees, new to the work place.  Therefore, it is important for you, the owner, or senior leader, to define the set of style factors that support your brand and, if executed consistently, will drive the success of your business.

Recruiting New Employees
Forging your organization so that it exhibits a unified style is a chore. From the outset it requires someone to establish what is expected.  Hopefully your recruiting process is designed to interview and select new employees that demonstrate the ability to adopt and project your style. Those that fall short after employment should be released during the probation period.

An important part of a strong recruiting process is the team that does the face-to-face interview.  Employees selected to interview prospective employees should be recognized for their ability to comply, project and teach (train) the style factors of the business to other employees.

Style Guide
A style guide communicates expectations. This can be as simple as a multi-page document, or as complex as a series of videos that coach employees on the correct style issues and include role-playing.  Role-playing is particularly valuable when a large part of the organization interacts with the customer one-on-one.

The style guide should be something that all employees can make suggestions to improve, but you, as the senior leader, have the overall responsibility for the style of the organization.  Some style elements may be negotiable and could evolve over time as the market and customer attitudes change, whereas others are not negotiable, as they represent the core values of the business.

Style guides are used by many businesses to control the look and feel of end products, define web site functionality, look and feel of marketing communication but for some reason, are rarely used to guide individual and organization behavior when working with the customer. Why leave such an important event to  chance as the success or failure of the sale or service  determines how that customer will view your customer, refer it to others, or return for a future purchase? The outcome of this experience should not be left to chance but the result of an intentional design – your style guide.

Training begins with you.  The style guide is worthless unless you, as the senior leader, practice and exhibit compliance with the style guide in every aspect of your job. Classroom and one-on-one training is necessary for the organization to adopt and implement new behavior effectively. Where possible, employees who excel in exhibiting style under pressure (difficult customers) or overcoming a significant business challenge without compromising internal relationships(such as landing a big client or wining a large order) should be recognized.

Stand Firm
There will be occasional pressure to compromise your style, allowing it to become circumstantial (applies one time but not the next when different circumstances are present) as to when it applies.  If visible, and it will become visible to others, you will confuse your team as to what is right or wrong.  This is a values issue, which you have to respect, or your employees and more significantly your customers, will devalue your brand, and question why they should continue to do business with you.

Stand firm and you will be rewarded with stronger employee and customer relationships.

Observation & Feedback
Be prepared to regularly observe and measure the effectiveness of your organization’s business style.  Be open for feedback from employees, managers and executives, customers and the local community.  You can use formal methods such as comment cards, surveys, suggestion boxes and when possible report back on what people are saying about the style of your organization – which may be real or perceived impressions that you provide a response to – either good or bad.

Resolving a perception that conflicts with your reality is difficult to deal with and is often the result of some other issue, that when resolved, clears up the perception.  Organizations that take feedback seriously and deal with it in a positive way enjoy a healthy relationship with employees and customers.  It is when negative feedback is ignored that dissent and the impression that “no one cares” becomes the order of the day for employees and customers.

In our contemporary culture we experience push back when employees are asked to adopt values and behavior different from their personal norms.  However, you cannot just “hope” that a collection of employees will conveniently adopt a set of style factors favorable to your brand.

Providing you have properly explained what is expected prior to employment, and you are a consistent example of how desired behavior factors are to be performed, then you have a solid baseline upon which to train, motivate and develop a consistent style performance in your organization. Achieve a desirable customer experience by design – not by chance!

A “winning” style will result in employees that are comfortable performing their job responsibilities and attracting customers that enjoy their experience doing business with your organization.

Don’t let your business style develop by accident, but by design, using a winning style guide!

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