Atalanta Rafferty of RF|Binder: “Be Passionate About Quality & Safety”

Be Passionate About Quality & Safety — This goes hand in hand with the first factor, but an ongoing commitment to product quality & safety is absolutely critical to retaining customers. One of the most iconic crisis management case studies was when Tylenol discovered that someone had tampered with its pills — the brand put customers first, recalling 31 […]

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Be Passionate About Quality & Safety — This goes hand in hand with the first factor, but an ongoing commitment to product quality & safety is absolutely critical to retaining customers. One of the most iconic crisis management case studies was when Tylenol discovered that someone had tampered with its pills — the brand put customers first, recalling 31 million bottles of capsules and offering replacement product for free. This case continues to be a great example of caring first and foremost about the health and safety of your customers.

As part of my series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing Atalanta Rafferty.

Atalanta Rafferty oversees strategic corporate communications programs, working extensively in the food and consumer lifestyle industries. She brings 20 years of experience working on corporate and consumer communications issues for category & market leaders, emerging companies, as well as family and founder businesses. For the last ten years, Atalanta has worked with clients across sectors including food and food biotech, lifestyle and wellness, CPGs, wine, spirits and beverages managing integrated consumer marketing programs. Atalanta is an expert in navigating disruption having dealt with issues of sustainability, food safety, nutrition, product labeling on the one hand and retail promotions, large scale consumer events and the advent of food bloggers and social media on the other. Over the years, Atalanta has developed and executed strategic partnerships with non-profit organizations, influencers, celebrities, and organizations to support her clients’ business goals. Through these experiences Atalanta has honed an expertise in helping to launch new products & categories as well as supporting geographic expansions and brand transformations. Atalanta also has a background in journalism and crisis communications. She received a B.A. with honors from Brown University. She is bilingual in French and English and has a basic knowledge of German.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

After college I began my career working in journalism for the International Herald Tribune in Paris (now The New York Times). While working there I grew increasingly interested in how brands were leveraging media to communicate and build relationships with their consumers. I then began working at a leading independent French advertising agency for major brands like Yoplait and Rover. It was there that I developed my passion for brand communications and I soon decided to move to New York City to join the PR Department for Societe Generale. At Societe Generale I had a great opportunity to work on a major consumer engagement campaign tied to the Super Bowl and experience firsthand how brands could successfully mobilize large groups of people. I carried that perspective throughout my early years in communications at Hill+Knowlton, Burson Cohn & Wolfe and then, Ruder Finn. At Ruder Finn, I worked for the first time in the technology sector — during a very interesting time in the space, right at the peak of the dotcom boom. This was a transformative experience for me as I had a front row seat to the first wave of direct to consumer e-commerce companies. I saw this sudden ability to tailor to consumer needs in an instant, and the growing importance of a best-in-class user experience. It was clear in those years that technology would soon change customers’ expectations and demands from brands. While at Ruder Finn, I worked closely with Amy Binder, who saw similar trends in the digital world, and knew the agency model would have to change with these significant shifts — in 2001, with a small and scrappy team, we started up a new communications firm, RF|Binder. In our 19 years of operation, I have served as the leader for food and consumer lifestyle accounts, helping countless organizations build, grow and transform. Over the years, it has become clear that the customer experience is paramount — and critical to success.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

For the first media and trade event that we were hosting for Wines of Germany, we had a lot of last minute details that needed to get finalized before we opened the doors for our guests. The top German wine producers were speakers and we were preparing them to give their remarks, while also managing our clients, the head of the German Wine Institute and the director of marketing. Since we were hosting the event at a high-end restaurant, there were a lot of people standing around as we ran around finalizing the run of show. Someone approached me to get wines chilled and on the table as I was in the middle of many other details. I turned to one of the people who was standing there, thinking he was part of the restaurant staff, and asked him to go handle it. He smiled and offered to help, no questions asked. As we were getting ready to go “on stage,” I realized that I had asked one of the top German wine importers to help, not the restaurant staff. I was moritified! I went up to him afterwards and apologized for “bossing” him around and he could not have been more gracious about it. It taught me early on that you should always treat everyone like you would treat a customer. His reaction also left an impression on me — he was one of the first to show me that no matter what your title is, you should stay humble and be willing to roll up your sleeves.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

So many people come to mind. In fact, I would argue that I’ve only been able to achieve success because of the strong teams I’ve been part of throughout my career. I am of the belief that as a leader, you should acknowledge your own weaknesses and surround yourself with people who you will lift up, but that will also help fill in your own gaps or give you new perspective. At RF|Binder, I’m fortunate to be part of an incredible team that brings out the very best in each other. I’m surrounded by talented people and am able to staff projects around people’s specific skillsets so that we can come together and produce fantastic results.

I believe that with a strong team you are actually able to make the impossible possible. An example of this was an activation we did to help consumers understand the power of culinary algae oil as a new “superfood.” Within a month’s time, we were tasked with building a branded experience that would drive widespread conversation in the Los Angeles area. No one on the team ever questioned our ability to make the timeline and achieve the results we needed. We ended up renting an amazing house in the Hollywood Hills and invited the top local health, culinary, and nutrition influencers to host micro events and learn more about the health benefits of algae over the course of a month. This event required management of about one million moving parts, working in an ultra-tight turnaround time, and transplanting half of our New York team to LA for the month, but we made it work. I always knew that I could rely on the people around me to lean into their strengths and get the job done. By tapping team members for their social media prowess, media relations expertise, event planning brilliance, and general grit and optimism, we pulled off not only a successful event, but actually created a one of a kind consumer experience that resulted in bottom-line impact for the brand. We did it together, as a team — and though I was the lead on the project, I think I learned as much from the team as they learned from me.

Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business?

Understanding your customer is the first and most crucial step in starting a business. First and foremost, if you aren’t offering a high-quality product that addresses consumer needs, then no amount of customer service can save you. That said, while making a good product is table stakes to keep a customer coming back, the entire experience of engaging with your brand should be tailored around their needs, and make them feel valued and understood. That’s where exceptional customer service and a holistic customer experience becomes critical. Customer service and a great customer experience build trust with the customer — trust is how you build not only repeat purchases and loyalty, but also brand advocacy.

Quite simply, if customers feel valued, heard and rewarded, they will continue to buy your product. A great example of this is Talenti Gelato, a brand we worked with. They have a truly exceptional product which helped drive a passionate fan base. They never stopped at that. From the beginning, they were very responsive to customer concerns. The brand set up a model where they were heavily responsive to anything that came up on social media and even sent out letters with a personal touch from the CEO. If someone had an issue with the brand, they always felt heard and valued. The experience of the product and the care the brand showed in responding to their consumers went a long way in driving mass brand advocacy, to help get Talenti to where it is today.

We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?

The thing is, building strong customer service and customer experience is not easy — it requires a lot of hard work, and a lot of resources — time, people and money. Without a significant investment, it can be hard for a company with even the best intentions to provide the best possible experience for its customers.

For instance, a good customer experience is intrinsically tied to a good employee experience. What’s always been true in customer service and remains true to this day is that you can’t just think about the end-user experience. Your employees are human beings. If they aren’t happy, there’s a good chance your customers won’t have a great interaction with them. That’s why a good customer experience starts from the inside — it requires strong training and development programs, incentive programs, a positive and uplifting work environment, and compensation and benefits that meet their needs. A customer-centric culture can only be cultivated once the needs of employees are taken care of.

There’s also pure human-error — a team member had a bad day, isn’t following protocols, is going through something challenging in their life, etc. It’s critical to have checks and balances in place to ensure each team member has the proper oversight and training support needed to ensure they’re following policies, protocols and norms to avoid these types of situations altogether. With consistent, ongoing, and scalable customer service training, companies can ensure that their employees not only have the tools they need to navigate ambiguous situations, but that they can trust the larger organization to have their back when doing so.

In addition, the definition of what it means to provide a good customer experience is ever-changing and evolving. Today, with COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement, the longstanding motto “the customer is king” is no longer absolute. The general policy of assuming the customer is always right just can’t hold true if they aren’t wearing a mask, if they are putting other customers’ health and safety on the line, or if they are being discriminatory to other customers or employees. Today, companies can’t just have blanket policies — they must instead lead with strong values.

It’s now critically important to have strong guiding values as an organization that are incorporated at all levels of the company and are a key component of your ongoing customer service training. A company’s culture and values will always provide employees with a north star, even when a situation is off-book or off-script. This kind of best-in-class culture takes time to build, and requires the right team who truly believes in the organization’s guiding principles.

All in all it’s just not easy, and takes a lot of investment.

Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?

Competition does force companies to improve the customer experience they offer. Consumers will absolutely question your brand after a negative experience and could easily be swayed to a competitor offering a superior experience. The best plan of action to avoid this is to ensure your team is continually trained and empowered to provide a best-in-class customer service experience. But competitors are not the only factor driving shifts these days. As I just mentioned, the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement are just two recent events that have dramatically shifted what consumers expect from the customer experience. Going forward, consumers are going to increasingly expect companies to take decisive action in a way they never have before, on customer service issues and beyond.

This will mean speaking up if a customer does something that contradicts where your brand stands on a hot button issue. A great recent example is how two tea brands responded to the Black Lives Matter movement. When Yorkshire Tea stayed silent in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, a cohort of Twitter users started actually celebrating the brand’s lack of involvement or action. Yorkshire’s response was extremely direct — they actually turned away this group of customers, saying to never buy their tea again, and explaining their intent was to support the movement. The team shared that getting educated on the issue was their first step, before speaking out and creating new policies and initiatives. This incident even transcended brand competition when rival company PG Tips spoke up in support of Yorkshire with a similar message. They also refused to prioritize a small subset of customers over their larger values. The next generation of customer experience won’t just be about keeping each individual customer happy, but about continually acting with your company’s values to build real, lasting relationships with consumers.

Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?

Sure! I have a couple in mind. Going back to Talenti Gelato, the brand’s customer service actually went above and beyond being responsive to customer needs. They also celebrated when a customer had a great experience and gave them a platform to sing the brand’s praises. A great example of this was the brand’s “Pintcycling” contest, where the brand encouraged fans to share how they were reusing its iconic pint containers on social media. The brand team had organically noticed consumers sharing reused pints on their social channels, and tapped into that insight to build a campaign for them to showcase their unique designs. People loved having the opportunity to share their creativity — the first year of the campaign was so successful that we ended up extending it to be an annual event, which still happens today. This campaign gave newfound visibility to the brand, and brought more visibility to the iconic containers Talenti was so well-known for in the early days. And, winners were even given a free year of ice cream — nothing drives better engagement than a year of free ice cream! The recycling and reusing part of the activation was also very consistent with the brand’s larger values and it gave customers an opportunity to be a part of that as well.

Another example with a radically different customer base is Tupperware. For Tupperware, their salesforce team members are really their customers, since they buy and distribute the product. What Tupperware does incredibly well is incorporate recognition into every salesforce experience. They celebrate people’s successes with the Tupperware brand and reward those who are going above and beyond to champion the brand. During our first year working with the brand, I remember attending the annual salesforce meeting, the “Tupperware Jubilee.” The event was a whirlwind — I have never seen such a bright, enthusiastic, and energized group of employees…there was cheering, jumping, hugging, laughing, it felt more like a Beatles concert than a sales meeting! It was a true signal and the ultimate outcome of a positive customer experience.

While very different and with different business models, what’s true in both of these examples is that the brands are making the extra effort to celebrate their customers. Making customers feel heard and valued is about doing more than giving someone a coupon, it’s about building an authentic relationship.

Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?

Absolutely. Creating a “Wow!” experience not only leads to happy customers, but ultimately long-term brand advocates. These strong relationships between consumers and your brand are powerful when times are good, but they truly pay dividends during a crisis. When we were working with Talenti, an issue emerged with cross-contamination in the factory resulting in the recall of certain products. While typically this cause for concern might result in consumer criticism and diminished trust, Talenti had built such a strong relationship with their fans that they stood by them throughout the issue and actually vocalized their support across social media. These brand advocates publicly supported the recall efforts, eagerly asked when the recalled products would be back again, and even encouraged others to try new flavors while waiting for supplies to be back to normal. Because Talenti had built such an incredible customer experience, their fan base did not abandon them at the first sign of trouble, but instead defended the brand through what could have otherwise been a disastrous situation.

Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Deliver a Great Product — Whether you’re a consumer, or B2B company the first step in delivering a great customer experience is an exceptional product that meets the customers’ needs. As an avid book reader, I have — reluctantly at first but then wholeheartedly after — become a Kindle advocate. Since I travel often for work, Kindle enabled me to read books wherever I was and buy a new book if a title caught my eye at the airport book stand. I have continued to upgrade to the newer versions of the Kindle Paperwhite for those reasons — a seamless customer experience and a product that always delivers.
  2. Be Passionate About Quality & Safety — This goes hand in hand with the first factor, but an ongoing commitment to product quality & safety is absolutely critical to retaining customers. One of the most iconic crisis management case studies was when Tylenol discovered that someone had tampered with its pills — the brand put customers first, recalling 31 million bottles of capsules and offering replacement product for free. This case continues to be a great example of caring first and foremost about the health and safety of your customers.
  3. Recognize Consumers for Embracing Your Products and Reward Them — The best way to create brand advocates is to celebrate them as much as they are celebrating you. Consumers will go the extra mile, as will employees, if they feel recognized and rewarded. Tupperware always has ardent fans because they believe in recognizing their sales teams. Amplifying fan’s voices can go a long way, but giving them something unique can go even farther.
  4. Create a Culture that Drives Forward Your Purpose and Values ̶ Nike does a fantastic job at showcasing what it believes, featuring athletes and statements even if it means some customers won’t like it.Patagonia talks about the durability of its clothing and the importance of reusing and repurposing rather than pushing constant consumerism. It’s important to lead with your culture and values but also towalk the walk if you are talking the talk.
  5. Innovate — Lastly, brands can’t rest on their laurels. They have to provide consumers with new products to get excited about. Beverage brands have recognized that if you don’t innovate, your customers won’t continue to stay with you. For example, Oatly launched in the U.S. and rapidly developed a strong customer fan base with just its milk product. Today, it continues to drive new products and innovation, like ice cream, yogurt, and spreads, while still delivering on its original quality and taste.

Are there a few things that can be done so that when a customer or client has a Wow! experience, they inspire others to reach out to you as well?

The best thing you can do to encourage a customer to spread the word about your company after a “Wow!” experience is to empower them to share their story. Part of building an engaged, loyal customer base should be providing your current fans with the tools they need to sing your brand praises and reach new audiences. A simple way to go about this could be encouraging them to share their story on social media perhaps through brand-specific hashtags that allow customers to tap into a larger conversation about your products and engage with fellow advocates. A more sophisticated and more direct approach could be giving the happy customer a personal link that they can share with friends and family to access limited time offers. That way, not only did the “wowed” customer have an outstanding experience with your organization, but they actually have the opportunity to pay it forward to new potential advocates.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Access to quality education! Everyone in this country, and in the world for that matter, deserves equitable access to a high-quality education. There are so many aspects to how one makes that happen–from giving teachers fair and equitable pay, to providing access to technology and to learning materials and textbooks. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the challenges there are to making quality education available to all. However, education opens doors and can bring forward change in a way that little else can mirror — especially among young people.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow me on LinkedIn, and follow RF|Binder on Twitter @RFBinder.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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