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Throwing you under the bus

Graphic of bus seat pattern

I've been giving my website a bit of a spring clean and rereading a few blogs I wrote a while back. I came across this one about staff being brand ambassadors. As it's something that still rings true today, I thought it worth a repost.

It’s a well known saying, at least in the design world, that your brand is what other people say about you when you are not in the room. This analogy got me thinking the other day whilst sitting on the bus. It seems your brand is also what your employees or even ex-employees say about you when you are not in the room.

Over the last year, I’ve been using local buses as part of my daily commute. It’s a 15-minute journey, fairly regular service, averagely priced and not much to write a blog about you might think. Nothing eventful has happened during my travels but I now have a very negative opinion about the operating company. And it’s not even their fault. So how did this happen?

Every day when I boarded the bus there was a retired gentleman leaning against the glass partition chatting away to the driver. I learned a lot about this man over time even though we never said more than good morning. For the entirety of my journey, he would hold court at the front of the bus. He would offer the drivers his opinion on the bus company’s management style, the way they treat staff, their disciplinary proceedings, even the state of the bus depot and all the old buses left to rust in it. He had strong views on all the managers – and names for most of them! I'm sure he felt entitled to voice his opinions having been a driver for over 30 years. Unfortunately, there are not too many distractions when you are sitting on a bus so it’s hard to ignore someone who obviously likes to be heard. So every day I and my fellow 30 odd passengers got the next instalment of ‘a day in the life of a bus driver’.

I took his tales with a pinch of salt as he did seem to paint himself as some kind of bus driving superhero, disciplining pesky kids and helping little old ladies. What offered validation to more negative aspects of his stories were the way in which many of the drivers chose to join in and offer up their own tales of poor management. Maybe when they are in their little glass box at the front of the bus they forget that voices carry. Maybe they are unaware they have a captive audience sitting less than three feet away with nothing better to distract them. But my point is, these bus drivers are brand ambassadors. My only experience with the company is with these guys. If they don’t have a good word to say about the company what conclusions are their customers going to draw?

This got me to thinking about the whole issue of brand value and just how crucial it is to any business. Unfortunately, this isn’t one of those articles where I merrily put forward a solution or a neat conclusion at the end of it. I just thought my one small isolated experience highlighted an issue which must touch most business at some point. The real question is, just how do you create true brand ambassadors in all your staff, but in particular those most visible to the public? And just how much damage can a disgruntled ex-employee do to your brand given a big enough audience? And in the case of this bus company, does it even matter? I still got on the bus every day and handed them my hard earned money. As long as they are providing the public with a reliable service, do any of those other captive passengers on the bus even care?

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