Can Luxury Be Intimate? – Part 1


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WhisperThe MBLM Brand Intimacy 2019 Study* was released a few days ago and it’s not good news for the luxury sector.  The results clearly show luxury brands have quite a lot of work to do to build emotional connections with their customers.

Brand intimacy is defined as the science that measures the emotional bonds we form with the brands we use. The MBLM study is the largest study of brands based on emotion. Out of the 15 industries reported in the study, the luxury sector fell from last year’s 13th position to 14th place. Luxury was beat out for last place by the airline and travel industry. The overall Luxury Brand Industry quotient is 18.7 – far behind the cross-industry average of 31.

MLBM derives the Brand Intimacy Quotient by factoring six characteristics of intimacy:

  1. Fulfillment: always exceed expectations; deliver superior/quality service; good value for the money
  2. Identity: values the customer identifies with; projects a desirable lifestyle
  3. Enhancement: makes life easier; helps the customer be more effective, smarter, more capable, more connected
  4. Ritual: becomes a part of the customer’s daily routine, as a vitally important part of their lives (more than a habit)
  5. Nostalgia: reminds the customer of fond memories and associated warm feelings from the past
  6. Indulgence: pamper the customer with a sense of personal luxury; appeals to the senses

with three stages of brand intimacy:

Mario Natarelli & Rina Plapler. Brand Intimacy, A New Marketing Paradigm, Hatherleigh Press, 2017

According to Mario Natarelli, author of Brand Intimacy: A New Paradigm for Marketing, “Brand Intimacy results in greater longevity, more growth, and higher price resilience.” These sound very much like goals any luxury brand would want to achieve. So what’s the problem? 

In a statement to Luxury Daily, Rina Plapler, a partner at MBLM, proposed one reason luxury brands scored so poorly was that they can appear “aloof and untouchable.” Promoting a sense of exclusivity while simultaneously creating a warm and welcoming environment has always been a challenge for even well-established luxury brands. I addressed this conundrum a few years back in an article titled “The Devil Sells Prada… and Burns the Customer!”  At the time I wrote the article on the heels of another study that reportedly said snobby customer service increased sales in luxury brands. Upon further analysis, that study’s results showed the sales bump was temporary and snubbed customers ultimately regretted the rude experience and returned their purchases. Perhaps it’s time luxury associates replace the cold shoulder with a warm smile.

Luxury scored dead last in the Sharing and Bonding stages of building Brand Intimacy and scored next to worst in the Fusing stage. The upshot is that luxury brands continue to fail at forming an emotional connection with the customer. I’ll be talking soon with Mario Natarelli to gain a better understanding of the three stages of brand intimacy with the goal of defining specific skills and behaviors for sales associates to builder stronger emotional customer connections. Stay tuned for Part 2!

In the meantime, I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Horst Schulze, co-founder of The Ritz-Carlton Company:

Elegance without warmth is arrogance.

Luxury should never be snobby; it should always be inviting.

*The report and rankings from the MBLM Brand Intimacy 2019 Study can be found here.


LuxeCX Roundtable: Transforming the Customer Experience Means Transforming the Sales and Support Teams


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I recently had the honor of presenting at the LuxeCX Customer Experience in Luxury Roundtable in New York City hosted by Luxury Daily. The conference featured eighteen speakers focused on the critical role of customer experience in the luxury sector. My own presentation centered on the need to train sales and support teams whenever you are in the process of transforming your customer experience.

Brand and marketing teams often drive new customer experience transformation initiatives. But, in my years of leading the training function of some well-recognized luxury brands, I found they frequently forget to include the front-line customer ambassadors: sales and customer service teams. The sales and customer service associates are the “bookends” of the customer journey. Sales associates are usually the first point of contact your customer has with the brand and customer service associates support the end stage of the customer experience. More often than not, I had to chase down the directors of the marketing, product and brand teams to find out what new customer initiatives were in play.  My goal was to ensure that the transformed customer experience cycle included our customer-facing teams.

The audience at LuxeCX was made up mostly of marketing and brand executives, so I suggested a simple, relatable approach on how to include sales and service teams in the transformation initiative.  In a nutshell, apply the same the marketing techniques used to excite and engage your customers to your sales and customer service teams.  Here are three strategies to start:


Brand and marketing departments invest heavily in designing the right advertising assets to lure customers to the brand. This includes choosing just the right colors, logos, images, and even scents. Words are a critical component of brand messaging. If you compare the brand language of two famous jewelry companies, Tiffany and Cartier, you will notice quite a difference in their language. When describing the customer experience, Tiffany will use more romantic verbiage such as lifetime, love, everlasting, celebration and memorable. Cartier’s language, on the other hand, skews more passionate with statements like,  How far would you go for love? and Obsession du Jour.

I cannot stress enough how critical it is for your customer-facing teams to echo your carefully crafted brand language and sentiments in their customer interactions. Should you walk into a Tiffany store, you may hear an associate ask you “What are we celebrating today?” That question evolves from Tiffany’s core messaging around celebration and eternal love. Gaggenau’s description of the elegant extended profile of its wall ovens is that they “sit proud.” But if your salesperson says they “stick out,” then your mind forms a much different picture. Just as important to reinforcing what words to use, is clarifying which words should not be said. For example, at BMW we were never to utter the word ‘cute’ when describing a MINI. When associates do not use the same language as the advertisements that attracted the customer in the first place, a cognitive dissonance is formed. (You may also want to read the post: “When Matchy Matchy Works: Keeping Your Brand Message Consistent Across Channels”).

Takeaway: Be sure the brand vocabulary is shared with—and consistently used by—your sales and customer services teams.


It goes without saying that just about everything brand and marketing teams do is dedicated to generating customer loyalty to the brand. But what are they doing to create the same level of brand passion in employees?

Brand passion in employees needs to be built organically. This comes about by helping employees share their own experiences with the brand. Encourage team members to share customer stories of how the brand changed their lives. How they went out of the way to help a customer. In his new book, Excellence Wins, Ritz-Carlton co-founder, Horst Schulze, explains how he implemented a policy empowering every employee to spend up $2,000 to make guests happy. As you can imagine, the customer service stories that were created as a result became the stuff of legend. But the next step is also critical— sharing the stories as a form of education. And that’s where Schulze’s 10-minute meeting comes into play. Schulze implemented a short meeting that took place before each and every shift. Every meeting focused on one of the service standards employees are expected to meet. For example, employees are empowered to create unique and memorable experiences for the guests is one such service standard. According to Schulze, “The leader reads the standard, makes comments about what it means, and tells a story or reads a relevant customer comment to show the standard in action.” 

Takeaway: By sharing internally, through morning meetings, corporate social media, or other internal communication process, employees personally experience how the brand promise impacts their customers. It becomes self-motivating. 


Many a marketing budget has been committed to creating extraordinary experiences that immerse the customer into the realm of luxury: whether it be with a champagne and caviar-laden event, or through imagery that evokes an aspirational lifestyle. But what about employees? Of course, many brands offer their employees product or service discounts that allow them occasionally to experience hints of extravagance. But most of these employees will still not consider themselves a luxury customer. There’s a certain sense of “outsiderness” a “nose to the window” feeling of being on the other side of the luxury lifestyle looking in.

I addressed this dilemma in another post, titled “Are You a Luxury Customer?” In it I discuss how to help associates understand that they too are luxury customers, and not all that different from the customers they serve. Horst Schulze’s mantra for Ritz-Carlton employees,  “Ladies and Gentlemen Serving Ladies and Gentlemen,” brilliantly reinforces this idea. 

There are large- and small-scale ways to create learning experiences that will immerse teams in the world of luxury. Again, rather than creating a do’s and don’ts list for service associates, or authoring depersonalized scripts, encouraging employees to develop their own brand behaviors based on their experiences, will have greater impact.

One simple way to expose associates to luxury service is to give them time to go on secret shopping expeditions to a luxury retailer. Create a check-list to help them think about how they were greeted, what the sales associate did to create a luxury experience, whether the sales associate made them feel special, etc., and then share these experiences during a group meeting Not all their experiences may be luxury experiences. Remember, they can also learn what to do by observing what not to do.

To help you get started, I’ve shared below some training initiatives I spearheaded to create luxury learning experiences for different teams:

  • When we  launched a leather collection a leather collection at Tiffany, we needed to reset sales associates minds to think about seasonal fashion. Up until this point, the word ‘fashion’ had been verboten when speaking about Tiffany jewelry, so a new approach was needed. We sent sales associates to high-end stores to take pictures of outfits and then share and discuss on our internal social media platform how they would style these outfits with our new leather line.
  • At BMW, we arranged for our sales teams to stay at the Ritz-Carlton hotel and observe the level of service they received. This experience became part of the learning process.
  • At Gaggenau, we bring in a sommelier to talk about proper wine preservation and a master coffee roaster to talk about proper brewing methods. This helps associates develop a deeper comprehension of product features through sensory experiences.

Takeaway: Providing luxury learning experience helps sales and customer service associates understand and empathize with the expectations of the luxury consumer.

When transforming the luxury customer experience, there is a need to create a parallel, holistic training program that helps associates not only understand the product and brand promise, but immerses them in the luxury customer experience. As you’ve seen, this need is often overlooked. Without it, however, any true customer experience transformation is doomed to fail.

Are You a Luxury Customer?


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MirrorOne of the most difficult challenges in training luxury sales associates, is that they feel disconnected to the customer. They don’t live the “high class” lifestyle they believe their customers revel in. They could never imagine themselves paying so much money for a “frivolous” item. They may even decide a certain customer would never be interested in a high-end brand based simply on how that customer is dressed or what car he or she is driving.

Many of us don’t see ourselves as a luxury customer. Indeed, in a rather humorous piece for the New York Times called “So You’ve Wandered Into a Too Expensive Store,” the comedy writer, Monica Heisey explains the sense of panic that can ensue when you walk into an upscale store:

The air smelled too good; there were too few items on the shelves. By the time you’d touched the first wafer-thin turtleneck, you knew: This is a too-expensive shop.

Heisey then shares some tips on how deal with this embarrassing situation, including asking the salesperson to find another size as a diversionary tactic so she can make a quick exit.

What we don’t realize, however, is that most of us are luxury customers.

In a previous post, titled Do your salespeople really understand the luxury perspective?, I take up the question of whether sales associates really understand who the luxury customer is. There is a disconnect. In the mind of the sales associate, the luxury customer is the “other.” They do not see themselves as the luxury customer.

Horst Schulze, co-founder of The Ritz-Carlton Company, authored the  famous phrase: “Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” The wonderful thing about this phrase is that it eliminates the concept of “they.” The message it delivers to each Ritz-Carlton employee is that “you are they.”  The challenge, then, is to help sales and customer service associates understand that they too are luxury customers.

An article in New York Magazine called The Worth-Its begins this way:

Expensive things are sometimes things we come to regret. Other times, though, years later, they are the things that one feels wisest about having sprung for. What is it that makes such pieces truly worth it?

The article details some very interesting personal purchases ranging from wasabi for $70 a pound to $2000 for a duvet. However, one comes away with the realization that we too have probably spent a bit more on something that had special value to us, even if it’s coughing up $6 for a pumpkin spice latte. We’ve all, at some point it our lives, have probably bought that special item that made us feel exceptional—extraordinary in our own little world. For me it was Tiffany’s Diamonds by the Yard necklace by Elsa Peretti. I initially intended to purchase the sterling silver version of the chain necklace familiarly know as “DBY.” But after being reminded by the sales associate that I would have to polish this very delicate chain, I talked myself into the much more costly platinum version. As the New York Magazine article suggests, I never regretted the purchase. It’s never really about the price; it’s about the value to that person. Everyone has something that he or she values. It’s the role of the sales associate to find out what the customer values—not to assume what that is for the customer, and certainly not to stand in judgement. During training sessions, when I’m working with sales associates to create a list of learning objectives, they usually ask how they can justify the “price” to the customer of whatever they’re selling. I always rephrase this to how to justify the “value” to the customer. Find out first what is it your customer values.

There are many ways to help sales associates appreciate the culture and experiences of the luxury customer. One way to help them  do this is by immersing learners in luxury activities that make it easier for them to transfer their experiences to their own customers. You can have they stay in a five-star hotel, have them dine at a Michelin-starred restaurant, have them shop at an ultra-high end store. But for them to truly understand the luxury consumer, they must move away from viewing luxury as a “nose against the window” experience, and realize they too are luxury customers. Whether it’s paying more for personal service, springing for that special something, shelling out for a unique experience, we all have our little luxuries. We all have something that we’re willing to pay a bit more for—because we understand its value.


Luxury isn’t snobby, it’s inviting.


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I’m currently reading Excellence Wins: A No-Nonsense Guide to Becoming the Best in a World of Compromise by Horst Schulze (co-founder of The Ritz-Carlton Company). So many wonderful ideas and words of wisdom from someone who laid the foundation for service par excellence!

This quote from the book sums up my approach to luxury “Elegance without warmth is arrogance.” Luxury should never be snobby; it should always be inviting.

Below is a link to a previous post about a study that showed while a snobby approach to luxury selling might result in increased sales, the increase is temporary. Ultimately, customers reject this strategy and leave the brand.

The Devil Sells Prada… and burns the customer!




Yours, Mine and Ours: Handling Mistakes


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ImpossibleC’est impossible! That’s what our hostess exclaimed when my husband and I showed up for breakfast at the hotel we’d booked in Strasbourg, France. She didn’t mean it was impossible to have breakfast, she meant it was impossible for my husband to be there. Yet, there he was – alive and well – and hungry.

(Let me back up a bit. When we had checked into the hotel the day before, we discovered there had been a mix-up in our reservation. Though we booked a double-room for two, the hotel showed only a single room was reserved. The error was quickly resolved and we were told what time breakfast (which was included with the room) would be served.

Now back to breakfast. It was immediately apparent there had been no communication between the front desk and the restaurant regarding how many people from room 505 would be showing up for breakfast that morning. Luckily, it took only a short explanation in some broken French to clarify the misunderstanding, and my husband and I were soon enjoying fresh croissants and brioches.

Yet I kept thinking back to our hostess’ reaction, which had implied that we’d done something wrong. It reminded me of similar customer service situations I’d encountered that had been handled less than elegantly. Certainly, part of her reaction may have been cultural (service in European countries can differ from what we’re used to in the U.S.) Still, it prompted me to share some thoughts on how to handle customer misunderstandings—regardless of whether the customer is in the right or not.

Apologize and acknowledge

It may the customer’s fault—or not. You don’t know yet, so avoid jumping to conclusions. Even if the customer is at fault, perhaps there is something you can do to avoid other customers making the same mistake.  Could you provide clearer directions or put a process in place that will catch the mistake before it becomes a problem? Right now it doesn’t matter who’s at fault. A simple “I’m sorry. Let me see what we can do to resolve this” should work in most cases. (And really, aren’t you sorry this happened?)

Be polite and listen

Your customer is upset—he or she is being inconvenienced or is not receiving an expected service. (You may be inconvenienced as well, but part of your job in customer service is handling problems). Customers may become emotional; they may even become loud. It’s up to you to remain calm and listen. Of course, no one should ever put up with verbal abuse, but I’ve found that maintaining a calm, polite demeanor can prevent most situations from becoming overheated.

Focus on the solution, not the problem

There’s a parable I used to share when I taught a class on problem-solving. It applies here as well and it goes like this: A young woman and her two companions are hiking in the woods. A snake bites the young woman. Rather, than helping the young woman, the two companions spend precious time hunting down the snake. Needless to say, things don’t work out too well for the young woman. What’s the lesson here?  Don’t take time trying to find and fix the cause of the problem while the customer is standing front of you. Instead, focus on what you can do to resolve the situation. You’ll have plenty of time later to track down that snake!

Follow up

Once you have the facts, explain to the customer what happened, offer a solution, and determine whether they are satisfied.

Following are two examples:

“We’re sorry you encountered a problem at breakfast. We sat you immediately so as not to inconvenience you while we researched what happened. After talking with the staff, we realized the front desk had not informed the restaurant of the correct number in your party. We will work with both teams to ensure better communication in the future. We hope you enjoyed your breakfast and we value the opportunity to serve you further during your stay.”

“We’re sorry you encountered a problem at breakfast. We sat you immediately so as not to inconvenience you while we researched what happened. We see that while you desired to book a double-room, you indicated only a single room on your reservation. We will look into how we can make this clearer for customers booking online in the future. I you wish, we will change the reservation to accommodate your additional guest at the appropriate rate.”

It’s not impossible for a mistake to happen. In fact, you can be sure you will encounter mistakes from time to time. But by keeping these points in mind, you can avoid the mistake of not handling them well.



Bye-Bye Bloomie’s!

Brown Bag

Sometimes I wonder if, like Don Quixote, I’m chasing windmills in my efforts to slay poor customer service. I travel a lot and have learned to manage my expectations for good service against a myriad of rationalizations: they’re not a luxury brand, my standards are too high, he or she’s probably having a bad day, I’m having a bad day, it’s Monday, and so on. Yet I still feel a sense of disappointment when a promised service call isn’t returned or when the hotel desk associate doesn’t ask how I enjoyed my stay when I check out. Sadly, these small disenchantments seem to be occurring more and more frequently. Mostly, I just let them go. But when a favorite retailer, one I consider at the very least a premier store (if not a luxury brand), makes what I consider a major customer faux pas, then I have to pick up my rusty sword and rail against customer service injustice! Continue reading

Don’t spread the bad mood flu


This year’s flu season is one of the worst. My daily news feeds are replete with tips on how to avoid catching the flu and what to do should you get it.

But there’s another type of malady that seems to be common this time of year – the bad mood flu. It can be difficult to keep up a cheery disposition during the first few months of the year– the holidays are over, the weather is cold, and folks generally seem to be tired of winter. When your job is to deliver luxury service, it can be hard enough to keep your own mood cheery, let alone worry about someone else’s. Continue reading

Own the Moment


Nobody owns the customer, but someone can always own the moment.

This awesome quote comes from Scott Hudgins, Senior VP of Global Customer Managed Relationships at the Walt Disney Company.  I recently heard it repeated at a national sales conference for BSH Home Appliances Corporation, where I’m a senior learning partner for the Gaggenau luxury brand of appliances. Continue reading

The Other Luxury Customer

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Not all luxury customers are immediately recognizable. They may not be pulling up to your store in a Bentley or be sporting the latest couture. In fact, despite having assets in the millions of dollars, some high-net worth consumers consider themselves middle-class. Rachel Sherman, a reporter for the New York Times, recently interviewed a number of wealthy individuals who “never talked about themselves as ‘rich’ or ‘upper class,’ often preferring terms like ‘comfortable’ or ‘fortunate.’ Some even identified as ‘middle class’ or ‘in the middle.’ ” Continue reading