Brand Building Versus Customer Service

What's more important? Building a brand, or serving your customers?

Happy buyers are essential to making your business succeed. Without customer service, it doesn’t matter if you’ve created a great brand. Ignoring buyers or potential customers is counter-productive to the ultimate goal of attaining success.

That being said, a strong brand identity is like a way-finding system for your customers, so it’s very important, too. It signals what you do, how you position yourself and lets your customers understand how you fit into the marketplace, and how it relates to them. Customers encounter your brand and should quickly understand a brand’s personality and position among competitors and decide whether there is a good fit.

That’s how the Graham Cracker Cookie Crumbles

Some of you know, my husband, David Horsfall , and I opened Alki Surf Shop  in Seattle seven months ago. It may be February, and so what if Boston is buried in 100 inches of snow
( @chillie31512 )?  The weather in Seattle has been balmy, and Alki Surf Shop is gearing up for spring and summer!

One of the things I’ve learned about retail stores like ours — there is a need to continually integrate new, fun and useful merchandise, as well as give each of our customers as positive an experience as possible. We installed a new section of slat wall, which is a display system that will allow us to add food items this summer. One of the things we have been researching is ingredients for S’mores .
In the spirit of due diligence, we’ve been reading reviews by consumers concerning their feelings about certain brands of marshmallows and graham crackers. A brand I’ve never heard of landed on my radar, so I sent a query asking about where I might be able to find their goods to try them, and what it would entail to open an account (minimum opening orders, terms, etc.) if it looked like something we want to pursue.

Here is their reply:
Granted, Alki Surf Shop is not going to move the dial even an iota in terms of product orders, but it struck me as a bit lame, similar to when an intern will post something silly on behalf of a national brand on Twitter.

May I help you?

For whatever reason, this phrase seems to have fallen out of favor. Some companies seem to have erected walls between themselves and their customers. When is the last time you were able to reach someone at Google or Twitter, for example?
Also this week—we ordered a large batch of hoodies to take to our screen printer. When attempting to contact the supplier to confirm the order was ready for us in Will Call, we weren’t able to reach them. My husband, on a leap of faith and using the directions on their web site, drove there to pick them up. But the building wasn’t where it was supposed to be and they weren’t answering their phone. So a 40-minute drive from Seattle to Auburn was wasted.

Eventually I called customer service for their parent company who was able to get through to the facility. The rep told me, “Oh, they are really busy and don’t have any customer service reps, so they don’t answer their phone!”

When a business lists a telephone number, but has absolutely no intention of answering the phone, why bother listing it?

On the second attempt, David discovered a glitch in the directions and was able to pick up the hoodies. He asked why they continue to post the wrong directions on their web site, and an employee replied, “One of the guys put it up there, and we heard about the mistake. I guess he never got around to fixing it.”

If you build it, will they come?

Without brand development, your customers might never find you in the first place. Good customer service provides your clients with positive experiences that can carry over to continuing relationships and result in word-of-mouth recommendations. Branding and customer service are essentially two sides of the same coin. When one side is missing, the currency is worthless.

Have you had any exceptionally good or bad experiences with a business? What are they and how have they affected your relationship with them? I would love to hear about your experiences.

Alki Surf Shop is located on Seattle's best beach. 2622 Alki Avenue SW, Seattle, 98116 Phone: 206.403.1901


  1. Hey Terri excellent post, love it!! I've had many exceptionally bad experiences with Bank of America and MSN!! They both bounce you around until you get disgusted and just quit!!
    BTW another four inches tonight!! @chillieboy

    1. Hey, Bill!

      Thanks for the comment and for reading the post!

      I couldn't help but think of you and all the snow that you guys have been seeing this winter!

      BofA and MSN? You get to talk with actual people, thought? At least that would be an improvement over a phone maze of "push this key for xxx."

      Hang in there, weather-wise, Bill. It can't keep snowing forever!

      Warm ((HUGS)) Terri

    2. Terri, there are no humans in BoA and MSN customer Service, just "click here" buttons and always "see our FAQ, for more Info" screen!!
      BTW, supposed to get another 4" of snow tonight/tomorrw/Thursday!! {{HUGZ}}

    3. Bill, pretty frustrating! Have you ever tried "Get a Human?" I've used it a bunch of times to varying degrees of success, Mostly positive, though! Give it a try:

      As for another 4 inches of snow, ya gotta be kidding me! I'm so sorry!

      ((HUGS)) and stay warm, Terri

      PS. I'll be curious to see what happens if you try using the Get a Human number for either BofA or MSN!

    4. Thanx Terri for the lead, will try it out tomorrow!! I have another to add, Turbo Tax!! They are the worst, my free return is now costing $28.00 for a 1040EZ so that I can file state taxes!! And of course absolutely NO HUMANS!!

    5. Dear Bill,

      UGH! That's horrible! It would seem Turbo Tax, of all consumer goods, would need to provide a form of human support. How can a free return cost $28? That makes no sense whatsoever!

      Please give "Get a Human" a try. I've been mainly pleased with being able to reach a person. Even when they haven't been able to resolve my issues, it somehow feels better to be able to talk to someone.

      LMK! ((HUGS)) Terri

  2. You encourage me to address an issue I have with a supplier of mine with no uncertain words, Terri - thanks!

    Another example: in order to contact their support you have to create a special support account, get a ticket and if this ticket is considered answered by their FAQ they will delete your ticket - boom - no help! How's that?

    It will take Back to Nature Foods several weeks to return your call? I'd start wondering about their products' shelf life ;-)

    1. Dear Barbara,

      Many thanks for reading and for your great feedback.

      I've never heard of customer service unilaterally deciding not to help if they feel your concerns could be addressed in a FAQ. Wow. It's really quite incredible and makes you wonder what kinds of issues their customer service fields? Serious catastrophes? Anomalies that will, in the future, be incorporated into their FAQ?!

      That would truly drive me up the wall, too, Barbara. But how does one go about initiating change?

      Perhaps an old-fashioned snail mail letter to the CEO would help? Real letters still seem to resonate.

      And great question about Back to Nature's shelf life. If it takes them as long to get their products from bakery to packaging to distribution as it takes to answer a query, it's already lost a month of "freshness!" ;-)

      Would love to know what happens with your situation. And thanks again for the response!


    2. Good morning, Terri, and I will be forever grateful to you for the proverbial kick in the butt to address this issue!

      Here goes, Terri:

      The support / FAQ gang up: I spent 21 minutes on the phone with them (5 minutes listening to: your call is important to us, we will be with you shortly) and had to convince them that I really was determined to cancel business with them.

      I was asked three times whether I did not want more time to rethink, analyze and ponder .... No, thank you, my decision is already based on much analyzing ... Hallo, how seriously do they take their customers.

      I am looking forward to the phone bill as the company is based in USA and I live in Switzerland.

      But I was so relieved in the end that I had finally addressed the issue, even had the opportunity to speak to a real person and I could cross off one of three items on my list.

      Back to Nature's products: they might save on freight charges and have them walk by themselves to your shelves ;-)

      Have a wonderful day and three cheers to customer service!

    3. Dear Barbara,

      Switzerland? Wow. I have to believe you can find a supplier on your continent!

      I guess your supplier never heard the saying, "It's a lot easier to keep a customer than get a new one."

      It's beyond comprehension when I see this happen again and again.

      I really believe a letter to the CEO is in order. He/she probably doesn't have the vaguest clue of what the underlings are up to. I'm in the process of tracking down a mailing address for the CEO of Back to Nature. I'm going to print out this post and the comments for his reading enjoyment.

      Congratulations for making an improvement in your work and life. Sometimes negatives happen for a reason, and reveal themselves to be good!

      Much gratitude to you for the update, and wishing you all the best in forging a relationship with a company who values your business!

      Best regards,


  3. Hi Terri, I happen to believe that customer service is the most important part of the entire sales process. Get that right and you're on the path to success, providing you have a decent product.

    1. Hi, Patricia, and thank you for your comment.

      I'm in agreement with you. It's arrogant to think of the customer as a pesky annoyance when, without them, the brand would fail.

      All the best, and thank you again,

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  5. Anonymous10:42 AM

    Dear Terri! There are so many technologies designed to leverage the "burden" of customer care! One should only have the decency to learn how to tale the extra mile towards a true great BRAND,

    1. Dear A,

      Thanks a ton for the really insightful comment. Isn't it strange that customers become a "burden?" But I really believe you nailed it.

      Woody Allen once said he wouldn't want to belong to a club that would have him as a member.

      Treating your customer as a valued part of your company would seem to be a no brainer, but maybe market research has shown that customers actually enjoy being mistreated?!

      Again, many thanks for the comment!


  6. Dear Terri!
    great post it really help a lot, :)

    1. IE, many thanks for reading and for the comment :) Cheers/Terri

  7. very good post...thanks!

  8. Good post Terri - yeah, I might be old school - but I worked as a sales nd marketing vp for over 30 years and even though I was focused on branding, I always kept my hands in customer service for ongoing feedback that what we were selling was truly delivering the promise as to what we were promoting.

    1. Dear Ron,

      Huge thanks for reading and commenting. I really take your comments to heart.

      Old school isn't necessarily bad school! There are many tried and true practices that are as relevant today as they were at their inceptions.

      Marshall Field (among others) is credited with the slogan, "The customer is always right." And while it might not be true, taking a customer's concerns seriously goes a long way to creating good will and building a mutually enriching relationship.

      Thanks heaps for the feedback, Ron. You sound like a true asset to any company to which you lend your expertise.

      Cheers/Thanks, Terri

  9. I saw a post where someone said they had ordered a chicken and an egg from Amazon. They promised to post the results to finally answer the question about what came first!

    Your post is a great reminder that customer service or the lack thereof becomes your brand.

    1. Harold, thanks for the comment. I like your conclusion, "customer service or the lack thereof becomes your brand." If all companies considered looking at it that way, they might place more importance on customer service.

      Many thanks for reading and commenting!

      Best regards, Terri

  10. You really nailed the importance of focus when in business, the people who will be your clients and hopefully, return clients. Excellent piece and very sage advice. I appreciated the point to remember to ask you customers about things that you are trying as well. Very well done.

    1. Hello, JL,

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting. A single incident of poor customer service is something we all endure, but if there multiple instances, it starts to look like a holistic problem.

      This post wasn't written with the hope of changing anything, but "misery loves company," and it's both good and bad to know I'm not alone.

      Wishing you all the best,


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  12. I had a "customer" come into work the other day to complain about our service. Just about everything from top to bottom was wrong to him. When he parroted to me what he had he thought we were all about, it was just the opposite. It turned out that we do wasn't at all in sync with his expectations. At one point, I had to tell him that I completely understood his unhappiness given this gap in understanding. When I acknowledged the misunderstanding, it seemed to really deflate the whole discussion. It taught me that sometimes, people feel good about what you do and want to believe it's the right fit, but it's not.

    1. Dear Marianne,

      First off, thank you so much for reading the post and sharing your experience. I love how your sincere empathy helped deflate the intensity of the discussion. The reason why I love it is, you did exactly the thing each "customer" "client" "constituent" seeks — to feel they have been heard.

      So often we are denied the satisfaction of simply venting our frustrations because the only one "listening" is someone without power, or someone who is apathetic, or even an automated bot.

      Especially because you validated his concerns, you ended up with a positive outcome. Way to go!

      This is why you're paid the big bucks! :D

      Warm regards and thank you again,


  13. Anonymous8:40 PM

    Always a pleasure reading your thoroughly informative articles, Terri, with your added light touch of humor, of course ! ~ I've certainly had a negative experience or 2 in the past, dealing with a difficult customer service, but can't honestly recall the details now. As for the record snowfall in MA this winter, a little bit more is forecasted tomorrow (3/28) for a few areas of the state.
    Continued success (with equally-important Brand Building & Customer Service), to you and your husband at your Alki Surf should be especially interesting for you to see how well the Smores and other newly added food items sell during the upcoming summer. :-) Have you sold many of those Strider hand board\surf boards (not sure if that's what they're called exactly) ?
    With that tough loss by your Seahawks to our Super Bowl Champion Patriots not too long ago, it's now onto baseball...are you a Mariner's fan at all ?

    Mike, the mariner

    1. Dear Mike,

      Gosh, what a fun surprise to see your comment here. Thank you so much for reading and responding! I really appreciate it!

      Mike, it made me smile to see you refer to my "light touch of humor." Believe me when I say I'm glad someone noticed! LOL!

      But seriously, customer service and experience is so very important. We work extremely hard for, and appreciate, every single sale!

      Today someone from Arizona came into the store and mentioned the Seahawks loss! It's funny because I don't really think about it anymore. But at the time, I was in complete disbelief! It's all good. It just wasn't meant to be!

      It's been a while since I closely followed the Mariners. Let's see how the season goes and I'll get back to you!

      Thank you, Mike, for your ongoing friendship and support. I don't know how it is that we struck up a conversation on Twitter, but whatever sparked it has grown to be one of my favorite connections on Twitter!

      ((HUGS)) Terri


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i'm a graphic designer who loves words. - terri nakamura