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Take a look around and you’ll likely notice something about today’s “brand names” in business. Too many of them are crumbling. Now, I don’t mean “imploding” like Bear Stearns; that’s too amazing a disaster to consider anything more than pure mushroom-cloud brand bomb. Rather, I mean the slow rot of some of America’s most “trusted” names in commerce. Sears. Hertz. Ford. American Airlines. Even “recent” brand wonders like Dell computer are disintegrating like rusty chrome bumpers on a ’74 Oldsmobile Delta 88 (a brand that no longer exists itself).

Why are these brands – once market leaders and marvelously profitable companies – crumbling brands sinking to the sea floor like a sorry-about-that-iceberg-thing luxury liner? Simple.


And a very special kind of neglect, too. Not the take-a-stupendous-risk and fall-flat-on-your-face kind of neglect. Not even the “hey, we’re a car company but let’s try to hate our own products because oil is bad” kind of stupidity, either. I mean a much more simple, invidious neglect. The kind that comes from hiring people who don’t know what your company stands for, don’t care who the customer is, can’t say what their job really is and never receive meaningful training to change any of it.

Oh. That kind of neglect.

Take a case in point from last night: Two weeks ago MGM just opened a brand-spanking-new hotel at Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut. Now, anyone who knows anything about casinos knows that Foxwoods is the largest casino in the world and the most profitable of all Indian-owned casinos nationwide. The MGM in Las Vegas is synonymous with style, service and fun. Put the two together and you’d expect to get a powerhouse killer application of casino marketing brand and operational know-how, right?

Wrong. Instead you get a disaster.

The first “neglect” comes in the form of the customer experience. Nobody at Foxwoods/MGM has apparently walked in the footsteps of their customers. If they had, they would have noticed that there are no signs anywhere that tell guests how to actually get to the hotel. Only a stop at the original hotel to ask the valet directed us in the right direction.

In fairness it wasn’t a complete first-experience disaster. The valet, guest greeter and front desk staff were wonderful. And without a doubt the facility is modern, spacious, gleaming and high-tech. Rooms are very high end and even the elevators were lightning fast. But that’s not what makes a brand, as we know. Fancy materials and cool tech tools can’t make up for what happens (or not) when your customers interact with your staff.

For example: no product or service can make up for the kind of neglect from a hostess at the restaurant pointedly avoids making eye contact with you – for a full five minutes. Not the kind of “I’m talking to five people at once, sir, sorry I couldn’t greet you” kind of ignored. Rather, the all-to-familiar “don’t look at me, don’t make eye contact” ignored that comes from hiring staff who have no experience creating a customer experience; and no training to help them do it either. Neglect.

Or the bartender who similarly avoided us for a few minutes, only to take our orders without a smile. A minimalist amount of conversation later, she actively badmouthed “getting married” (we were there for a bachelor party) and not the jovial “there’s still time” kind of banter. Real. Viceral. Uncomfortable. So to save her more pain, which we were clearly causing, we moved on to the casino.

If you’ve ever played Blackjack, you know there are three components to the game: losing money, someone smoking a stinky cigar next to you, and free drinks. Well, we certainly got two out of the three. But for an hour, even after asking twice, the “ignore the customer” policy continued. No waitresses were to be found; and no apologies from the pit boss, either. Just play the game and shut up. Thirsty, we headed off to dinner.

Short of losing the room reservation, nothing is worse than losing the dinner reservation. Actually, there is something worse: not keeping it. Our 8 o’clock reservation meant we were supposed to arrive at 8, but they’d seat us at 8:30. Apparently nobody remembered that Seinfeld was the opening comedian this week. Reservations mean we arrive and don’t have to wait because there’s a table waiting – reserved – for us…. Nope.

Now, not all hope for the brand is lost; because someone clearly trained the waitress. But it wasn’t the restaurant management – probably the customer, whose tips are the best way to induce great service. It’s more likely her great skills were the result of natural talent, considering she was the “exception” and not the rule amongst the staff we had met so far.

Over and over we experienced the most dangerous but simple way to destroy a big Brand name: Neglect. The engineers clearly neglected to think of driving around the parking lot. The management neglected to train their wait-staff to create a customer-friendly eating and drinking experience. Even positioning some “naturally talented” staff couldn’t make up for the damage done along the way to the consumer.

To make a long story short: You can take the best of two powerhouse brands – Foxwoods and MGM – you put them into the finest, most state-of-the art building, cook the best steaks in town and build the sexiest nightclub and spread the finest sheets and pillows. Yet it will all come to nothing if your people can’t deliver comparable levels of service. The elevators were light speed; the waitresses were not. The food was delicious; the breakfast coffee ran cold. The lines were short; but that’s because too many customers simply gave up being ignored and went to the fast-food area.

Does this sound like any companies you’ve experienced lately? Maybe even your own?

Your brand isn’t about your building or your advertising. It isn’t about your shiny technology. Or your expensive goods. It’s about your people. Always. Your staff, managers, vendor-partners will make or break your brand. It doesn’t matter if your casino is always packed – eventually, you’ll annoy enough of them that they won’t be coming back. Keep pretending your customer sitting in front of you is invisible, and he’ll  actually become hard to find when he stop showing up.

Your brand is your people. If you neglect the consumer when you hire unqualified agents, you’re undermining your own brand. if you neglect the consumer when you fail to rigorously train and prepare your agents to deliver great service, your brand suffers. If your secretary stares at her computer screen rather than greeting a walk-in customer; if your agents let consumers walk around open houses all by themselves; if your listing agents ignore their seller customers because they can’t check their email from a smart phone while on the road – you’re brand is dead.

Forget about the competition. Nobody is putting Dell, Ford, Sears, MGM or many of the real estate companies in the marketplace out of business today. It’s not the competitor that’s destroying today’s brokerages. Too many once market-leading brokerage firms are crumbling simply from within.