There are at least six different routes to a cracking reputation and results. But there is only one highway - the relationship between employees and customers.
Let's begin the journey with the first route-finder, 'business model'. At its simplest, the latest thinking recommends we focus on short-, medium- and long-term business success. It also recommends we don't just have a vision, we have a purpose. That purpose is the difference we make to the lives of our customers. The second route-finder is 'brand'. Brand guru Wally Olins believes there are four elements to this - products, the environment, communication and behaviour. By volume, the dominant behaviour is the contact between employees and customers.
Our guide for the third route-finder, 'PR', is the academic J Grunig. His recommendation is that new PR is a 'symmetrical model'. It involves listening, understanding and acting on the views of stakeholders - in particular employees and customers. The fourth route-finder is 'corporate responsibility'. Past guides have focused on compliance, best practice models, measurement frameworks and corporate responsibility (CR) reporting. However, because experience has shown it is possible to have a great CR strategy and still go out of business, new CR will probably be named 'sustainable business'.
The fifth route-finder is 'marketing'. Experience from car manufacturers says building to sell no longer works. What works is co-creating with customers products that are socially responsible and commercially viable. The future is likely to include customer engagement in imagining new products.
The final route-finder is 'corporate culture'. Culture is about custom. Custom is a traditional way of behaving or doing something that is specific to your organisation. In other words, it is about behaviour and action.
It's not a tricky argument. Six route-finders - business model, branding, PR, CR, marketing and culture. And one main highway - employees and their daily contact with customers.
These contacts are often referred to as interventions. As author Mark Earls says: 'Interventions are the stuff by which we show our principles ... we show our purpose is not some dusty mission statement but a reality that drives our lives and how we run our business.'
How do we know if we are on the right road? Because it all comes down to the customer experience across thousands of contacts. Think about how you make judgements about brands. Fairly or unfairly, I currently have a positive opinion of Esure. The company made it easy for me to speak to a person on the phone and renew my car insurance, and did it quickly, in a friendly way and at a good price. On the other hand, again fairly or unfairly, I currently have a negative view of Dell. When the hard disk on my brand new laptop died, its customer support was useless.
It may seem unreasonable to base judgements on a single experience. But one person's experience counts. Ask United Airlines. It broke Dave Carroll's guitar while loading it on to a flight and it failed to fix the issue. As a result, Carroll released a single on YouTube and millions of people now have a view about United's reputation.
But here's the rub. If we know the relationship between employees and customers is key, the big question is what motivates employees and customers to act? Getting them to tell us isn't easy. Why? Because 95 per cent of thinking is unconscious. To make real progress toward a sustainable reputation and results will require businesses to become experts in understanding people - why they make the choices they do and what motivates them to act. And that is the beginning of a whole new journey.
Views in brief
- Which company has produced the most relevant and resonant corporate responsibility work over the past year?
EDF Energy's Team Green Britain initiative broke new ground as a catalyst for personal action on climate change. Tip: Find an issue. Make a difference.
- How are you advising clients to pursue a sustainability agenda this year?
Focus on the short and the long term. Sustainability means sustained business success. It's already a legal duty under section 172 of the Companies Act 2006.