Vincent Lee of ‘Can You Brand Me’: “Till death do us part”

Think of your customer, both your employees and consumers, as someone you want to know, date, court, and ultimately marry. Not literally but figuratively. People do business with people and therefore, we need to view customer service as a process of relationship building. And the goal is to nurture long-lasting ones. Finding new consumers and […]

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Think of your customer, both your employees and consumers, as someone you want to know, date, court, and ultimately marry. Not literally but figuratively. People do business with people and therefore, we need to view customer service as a process of relationship building. And the goal is to nurture long-lasting ones. Finding new consumers and hiring new employees can be expensive, so focus on retaining and nurturing existing ones.

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 Vincent Lee.

Straddling between two countries he calls home for the last twenty years, Vincent’s residential status as an Oklahoman and his citizenship as a Singaporean have earned him an unofficial title; Okieporean. He is a self-taught graphic designer who found his passion for brand strategy during his career as an in-house marketing professional and later, as an author and brand evangelist. With a handful of clients in Africa, North and South America, Vincent enjoys working with small business owners in crafting memorable brands and currently working towards expanding his reach as a brand coach and through his upcoming book “The ONE Game Changer to Boost Your Business. Use the B.R.A.N.D. System, to Go Deeper so you can Go Further”.

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?

I have never been the ‘norm’ by the standards of society when it comes to my pursuit in life. And the decisions I have made thus far may be considered crazy by most.

My enrollment in a trade school as a late teen instead of pursuing a college degree immediately after secondary education was to my rich relative an educational suicide.

After that, I signed a six-year contract as a law enforcement officer. Not a logical move if a long-term career in civil service is not the plan.

In 2000, I left the opulence of Singapore and made Oklahoma City my second home, not a place flowing with milk and honey then.

And twenty years later, my current side-hustle at a grocery store while being a solopreneur of a brand coaching business and an author of an upcoming book sounded like the making of a starving-artist story.

The move to Oklahoma City, however, marked a significant milestone in my journey as a self-taught graphic designer turned brand strategist.

It was in Oklahoma City where I graduated with a Mass Communication degree and started earning a salary as a creative professional. And you will also be surprised to hear that the two years spent working with a grocery chain have taught me more about branding and customer service than the 10 plus years spent as an in-house marketing professional.

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?

Thanks to face masks as an additional piece of fashion wear during the pandemic, I acknowledged a customer as a “sir” while in a grocery store. She chuckled and kindly replied, “Try again dear” and I wished at that moment, I could simply disappear into the floor.

The floor didn’t do me any favor but my face mask did. It hid part of my facial redness as I quickly apologized, introduced myself, and we started chatting while she shops. I learned a few things from this moment:

One, we all make mistakes and owning up to them is better than covering it up with excuses or lies. Two, drop the gender-specific greetings, which applies to babies too. And three, every customer is a friend I have yet to meet. Scroll down for a fuller story between this elderly woman, Peggy and me in relation to customer service.

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?

Having lived in Oklahoma City for the last twenty years, it didn’t take long for me to get used to being called “honey bun” or “sweetie pie”. But one of the most enduring moments was being called a “peach” by an elderly woman. Her name is Alice and I knew her from Church.

Her late husband was known for his artistic abilities and I soon became an admirer of his handiwork visible around the church. In the process of knowing Alice, she began to fill the void in my heart that only a grandparent can. I was never close to my own growing up and therefore, a surrogate grandmother from the south is most welcome.

When I graduated from college and started looking for a job, Alice was instrumental in getting me my first gig. Her grandson’s employer was looking to hire a graphic designer and within a few weeks, I started my first full-time job as a U.S. immigrant.

After about four years, I had the opportunity to establish and manage an in-house design department within this company to serve its subsidiaries in six different industries. It was also about the same time Alice’s health started deteriorating.

The last time I saw her was in the hospital the day before I flew to Chicago for a conference. I remember telling her to get better when I return. She passed away a few days after that. While I still miss her, I know that she has indeed gotten better.

I will also always be grateful to Alice for my start in the creative industry. The in-house experience is foundational to my current approach to brand development, where I believe in going deep within a company, collaborating with my client’s team, and developing brand-centric solutions together.

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?

All businesses are human organizations seeking to make connections with other humans, whether it is through an exchange of goods or information.

As such, we should not look at a customer as a financial transaction or employment paycheck. Yes, I believe that customers should include both the ones who pay for a product or service, and the ones who make the delivery of that product or service possible.

Great customer service will lead to a great customer experience. The ultimate goal is for a business to make a lasting and positive impression on a person so that he or she becomes an advocate for life; as an employee and/or as a consumer.

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 delivery of good customer experience starts from the inside out. If employees are solely motivated to come to work for a regular paycheck, they are never going to be effective advocates for their employer as much as those who feel part of a greater cause within a company.

For example, when employees are trained to view consumers as a means to meet sales goal, they will lose sight of the need to understand and serve consumers as unique individuals. And when employees do not feel that their voices are heard by their leaders, they will not see the value of soliciting feedback from consumers they serve either in a store or online.

It will take leaders of companies to create and model good customer service within their organization; recognizing that every member of their team is a critical element for the outflow of positive customer experience.

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?

I don’t necessarily think that more competition will force companies to improve the customer experience they offer. External factors like these are just going to bring the focus on offering; like what can be done to make the product or service more attractive to the consumers and leading to price- or feature-driven solutions.

Business owners and leaders should consider looking at data showing how the happiness of employees correlates to the success of a company. This article by Steve Spring has several links to data showing how employees’ happiness will increase a business bottom line. For example, Steve highlighted a study from Yale University that “happy salespeople are more likely to up-sell customers, leave your customers more satisfied, and generate more sales.”

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

As alluded to earlier, I have learned so much more about branding and customer service in two years with a national grocery chain than I have as a marketing professional for almost 15 years.

This grocery chain has a cult following of customers who will travel far and wide to get their hands on a particular product. But it was not the product that “wow” me when I first stepped into a local store as a consumer. It is their people.

I was so intrigued by the staff’s friendliness and product knowledge that the peanut butter pretzel I purchased for a road trip that day left more than just a sweet taste in my mouth. For one, I left knowing that I have just made a friend at the cash register.

I was so intrigued that I decided to become part of the team and discovered that it’s more than just a grocery store. It’s an organization of people who live and breathe the brand; one that believes in “wowing” their customers, on top of other values every team member is very familiar with.

It is also a collective effort when it comes to delivering good customer service and experience. The business understands that every team member, no matter where they are in the organizational hierarchy, is an important brand advocate. And every individual is empowered to deliver excellent service within some basic guidelines.

Remember Peggy whom I mistaken for a man at the grocery store? We got past that initial awkward introduction and will always spend time visiting when she comes to shop. As a team, this national grocer takes joy in remembering customers’ names and making the shopping experience more than just completing a honey-do-list. You will be amazed by how much difference that makes to the customers’ experience when a business connects emotionally with people on top of delivering functional value through its products/services.

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

During Peggy’s recent visit to the store, I learned that she will be spending Thanksgiving on her own. I took the liberty of picking out a small bouquet of flowers, wrote it off, and presented it to her on behalf of the grocery store.

And this is the level of autonomy given to every team member and we don’t need a supervisor to approve that action. One might say that such trust can potentially be abused by employees. However, when leadership makes a point to explain the “whys” behind every desired customer experience, each team member will be able to take ownership of that experience and feel part of a greater purpose.

While I may not yet know the specific long term ripple effects that action will have, I do know that we as a team have “wowed” a customer when she said, “You cannot see me (pointing to her mask), but I am smiling from ear to ear.”

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. Think of your customer, both your employees and consumers, as someone you want to know, date, court, and ultimately marry. Not literally but figuratively. People do business with people and therefore, we need to view customer service as a process of relationship building. And the goal is to nurture long-lasting ones. Finding new consumers and hiring new employees can be expensive, so focus on retaining and nurturing existing ones.
  2. “Wow” your employees first. Creating an impactful and positive customer experience must start from the inside out. Caring for the well-being and developmental needs of your employees will create a culture that allows you to nurture a team of brand advocates. What they tell others about their job during their private social gatherings will say a lot about how they view their role in your company. Are they simply showing up to fulfill their responsibilities and collect a paycheck? Or are they showing up with personal ownership to a greater purpose that your company believes in? If you “wow” your employees first, they will help “wow” potential consumers for your business.
  3. Make the right first impression. Just like meeting someone for the first time and going on a first date, making the right first impression will set the tone for how the relationship will flourish. And this stems from knowing your ultimate business for existence as a company. Say you are a mattress company, ask yourself, “Am I in the business of selling a good mattress, or am I in the business of selling a good night’s sleep?” A customer walking into your store may be looking for a mattress. But if your salesperson knows that your company is about selling a good night’s sleep, he/she will be focused on uncovering the needs of that customer-first before selling any product. Genuine empathy will make the right first impression.
  4. Put a ring on it. A customer’s experience with your company should not end with a purchase decision (or a signed employment contract). They have made an investment in this relationship and you need to devote resources towards nurturing it. Are you engaging them beyond sales and swags, or time-offs and profit-sharing? Are you seeking feedback on a regular basis, or communicating information that shows the humanness of your company? This is the process of courtship towards a more permanent relationship; one where the customers go beyond asking, “What can I benefit from this company?”. Allowing a ring to go on their finger is them asking, “What can I do to help this company be successful?”
  5. Till death do us part. Like in any relationship, it is never always about prancing hand-in-hand in the meadows towards a beautiful sunset. As much as a marriage is about going through thick and thin together, customer service is about managing good and bad experiences. No business will be perfect as it is made up of people. You want your customers to see your company as a human organization, not an email address, a product or service, a receipt, or a financial transaction. Own your mistakes, make good on your promises, and continue to do good in society and the world. Your company will not be able to please everyone, but when you have customers taking upon themselves to stand up for your vision, especially in bad times, you know you have brand advocates for life.

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?

Built into your process where you regularly ask customers how you can do better. And again, this applies to both your employees and consumers. It cannot be an after-thought but a proactive process in your day-to-day operation.

Solicit feedback from consumers after every sale, which can easily be achieved via an online form on your website or via a review functionality through social media. If you get a positive review, acknowledge it and when applicable, ask permission before sharing. And don’t ignore the negative ones as you are sure to get some too. Do your due diligence and make it right.

Internally, encourage employees to give shout-outs to co-workers, creating a culture of appreciation and teamwork. In a bigger company with many departments, employees may not have a chance to work together as much. An online portal showcasing departmental stories and inter-department collaborations may help bridge the gap. The goal is to help your team members see that they are part of a bigger picture.

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. 🙂

In your earlier point about poor customer service being a recurring experience by the consumer, I attributed that to the lack of good customer service within a company. Most people are not happy at their job and it’s just a mind-numbing activity to maintain an income. We, as employers or employees, can do better.

Many people are trying to find happiness in the wrong places; from employment with a high paying salary to sticking-it-to-the-boss and starting a business.

I don’t have a “glamorous” career path with well-known agencies and high-profile clients. But through the years of learning and discovery, I have greater clarity about my identity and what I am passionate about. Uncovering one’s personal brand is, at the end of the day, all about discovering one’s unique path to happiness. Happiness is not a destination, it is a journey in life.

If you are happier, that mindset will flow onto your job and into your daily dealings with people. If you have happy employees, it will infect your team and flow onto the consumers they serve.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

My author page on Facebook will put a face to my name and this blog will put a story to my game.

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

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