Organisations can spend big to create a great brand identity - but often it's the FM team best placed to ensure that a painstakingly developed image is what customers actually experience. Attention to detail is key, says Nick Martindale.
11 September 2017 | Nick Martindale
First impressions count, as the phrase goes, and that is just as true in a professional setting as it is a personal one. In an age where competition for both employees and customers is fierce it stands to reason that those organisations that can create the right impression - in line with their employer or customer brand - will be best placed to retain talent or keep customers happy.
For many businesses, the first impressions are often influenced by FM.
"While building and environment design provide the physical impression of a company brand, the finishing touches become the voice and experience of that brand," says Anthony Bennett, co-founder and director of Bennett Hay. "This is everything that comes from the FM team and the host, down to the uniform that complements the colour scheme of the reception areas, the flowers, the scent in the air, the welcome beverage and the specific layout and concierge service offering designed to anticipate guest needs."
The front-of-house area is the most obvious place for FM to make a good - or bad - impression. "Reception areas and the teams that manage them need to closely reflect the ethos of the wider organisation," says Jeff Flanagan, managing director, commercial, at Interserve.
"This could mean creating a relaxed, casual atmosphere for a young media business, or reflecting the credibility, reputation and formality of a large, established corporate firm."
It is important that businesses don't neglect the employer - as well as customer - brand in this, he warns; something which emerged from Interserve's latest report in its two-year programme to examine the link between effective design and management of the workplace and employee performance and productivity.
"The message that has come loud and clear from the research is that we need to think of employees as consumers of the workplace, who increasingly expect the same high-quality and tailored services that they receive in their home lives from their working environment too," he says.
Mark Arnold is chair of BIFM's catering and hospitality special interest group and managing director of Maalt Consultancy. He stresses the wider impact FM can have, starting with the impression a visitor gains when approaching the building from the outside. "If you arrive at a building and the windows on the doors are dirty or there are cigarette butts from a smoking area right by the entrance then you haven't got a good presence," he says.
"Often you find there are security guards, but they may be the wrong type," he adds. "They may not have been trained in customer care skills so they don't know how to respond to customers or employees coming into a building. Every stage from the minute you arrive in the building is FM's responsibility."
In more corporate settings such as the City of London, there's a growing expectation that there are showers, lockers and parking space for bikes; all come under FM's remit.
A good starting point for FM teams is to ensure they understand the values of the organisation they serve. Where FMs work as part of an outsourced service this is something that will require training, says Andrew Mortimer, managing director of destinations and venues at OCS, particularly for those in customer-facing positions. "While general customer service training is essential, a full induction into the values, mission and vision of the client is also imperative," he says. "This is especially so for external contractors who may be less familiar with the brand, and it must apply to the entire FM team."
Any training also needs to take in more than just the practical elements of keeping facilities functional and presentable, says Alistair Craig, managing director of boutique FM service provider Anabas. "Successful brand experiences are more than bricks-and-mortar experiences," he says. "It requires consistent service delivery by a team that believe in and follow the brand service. This means a continual programme of motivation, energy and regular coaching for the FM team to ensure the approach remains the same. A simple induction and off you go just isn't enough." His company has a dedicated customer experience manager to train employees in how to deliver and maintain brand values and rewards them for successful delivery.
Having the right individuals, who will be a good match with the organisation's values, on FM teams is also essential. "The balance is in achieving individualism while ensuring a consistent approach to how guests are looked after," says Bennett. His firm uses personality profiling to help its customer-facing staff adapt to the different customers they may come across, he adds.
Attempting to see things through the eyes of the end-customer or employees they ultimately serve is a good way of identifying anything that is not in keeping with the organisation's values. "Most reputable FM organisations now have some method of mapping out a guest experience which includes the people and design aspects," says Bennett. "They then have various ways of measuring the success of the experience through mystery shopper exercises, guest feedback and continuous training and coaching of the front-line teams."
On the front line
Those working in frontline roles need to be able to respond to any areas where there are gaps, says Angela Love, director of Active, and should also seek out any problem areas. "FMs should use their common sense, and always ask what is required of them, or exceed what they think is," she says. "By collaborating with all parties, you lose the 'us and them' perspective and, with that, the opportunity for any blame-shifting if something hasn't created a positive impression."
The extent to which FM is able to impact on an organisation's brand values will inevitably depend on the sector in which the business operates, both in terms of how important the brand is seen to be and also the degree to which FM is given the scope to influence this. "If you take something like the pharma industry or manufacturing generally, there is a very different view on FM services to that of a law firm or hedge fund where clients may have just signed multimillion-pound deals or are being wooed to become clients," points out Arnold. "That level of service is akin to five-star hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants."
FM service providers operating in that space tend to operate as niche players, he adds, and often work harder to attract and develop top talent. "People will see working for a niche operator providing hospitality services to Goldman Sachs as a really good place to be but anything below that and people aren't trained or developed in the same way," he says. "There is definitely a difference in the way people are treated, whether that's trying to feed 5,000 workers in 25 minutes in a factory or 300 people in a law firm."
More practically, it's often the case that how focused FM and client organisations are on the brand depends on the degree of contact end-customers or clients have with buildings and facilities. "We find that the greater the frequency of client visit to the facility, be that shop or office, the more focused the business is on ensuring that brand standards are maintained and evidenced through the right environment and service behaviours," says Craig. "It's crucial that FM teams understand the organisation's desired brand standards."
The type of business can also have an impact on the extent to which FM can impact on a brand. "Sector differences are important to note," says Mike Floyd, managing director of FM at Servest Group. "In the retail sector the expectation is that the service is almost invisible, so the alignment is so important. In high-profile buildings, on the other hand, the approach may be more direct and outward-facing."
It's a point echoed by Glen Cardinal, managing director of Platinum Facilities and Maintenance Services.
"There are some sectors where FM teams are expected to fit seamlessly into the background," he says. "That's not to say it isn't recognised but that people are only aware of FMs when there is a problem. From our experience within the commercial office environment, providing a tailor-made service solution is the best way to deal with the differences in client need and expectations."
Ensuring a consistent approach that also factors in regional differences across different locations can also be a challenge, says Bruce Barclay, a senior FM at Dell Technologies and author of the BIFM Good Practice Guide to Managing FM Across Borders. "In large, distributed organisations, a distinctive customer experience depends on a collective sense of conviction and purpose to serve the customer's true needs," he says. "This purpose must be made clear to every FM team member through a simple, crisp statement of intent: a shared vision and aspiration that's authentic and consistent with the client company's business strategy and brand-value proposition."
This holds true whether the team delivering the FM services is in-house or outsourced, he says, but adds that those working for outsourced service providers often tend to find it easier to deliver a consistent service, as they will be used to juggling the needs of different clients and multiple locations. "Integrated FM providers can demonstrate consistency across multiple sites that it can be more challenging for an in-house team to deliver, and they can introduce innovations from other contracts which help to improve the employee experience," he points out.
Ultimately, it is up to client organisations or in-house FM teams to decide the values that they want to promote, says Arnold. "If you have 20 offices across the UK and you want the services to be broadly identical in each, the first thing you need to think about as a client is what you want from the space, how you want it to work and how you're going to own a relationship with the supplier for the in-house team that is delivering that," he says. "If you have a great relationship between client and supplier it allows you to figure out the challenges of providing services across multiple locations. It all comes down to relationships."