If you've surfed the Web much, you know what a 404 error is. It's better known as a Page Not Found error, and it occurs when you're in a Web site and click on a hyperlink to a page that doesn't exist.

When I get a 404 surfing a Web site, I'm immediately confused. Did I type in the address wrong? Did I hit the wrong button? Was there a server glitch? Do I try again?

After the confusion wears off, I either retreat via the back button on my browser or seek solace in a more reliable site.

Web sites aren't the only place you'll find a 404 error. I like to use the term to describe any situation where the link between a brand and the fulfillment of that brand's promise is broken. A 404 happens anytime a customer's brand expectations aren't met in reality. In other words, there's a broken link between the marketing message and the truth.

The retail environment is ripe with 404s. Just last week, I made a trip to an upscale department store. It had just been remodeled, and the interior was fabulous. The staff was remarkably well trained. The merchandise—exclusive and expensive. And the customers were as interesting as the goods they were shopping for.

As I approached the store with expectations of an experience worth the markup, I experienced my first 404. Just outside the huge glass and brass doors sat a rusty ashbin filled with what appeared to be a year's worth of cigarette butts. On top of the butts were two diapers and a McDonald's bag. On the floor were a dozen or so fries drenched in ketchup.

The last time I had a similar feeling was when the lead soprano at an opera tripped and fell in the middle of the climactic solo. The illusion was gone. The experience ruined. My enthusiasm spent. A big 404.

How could a store brimming with pride in exclusivity allow such a display to tarnish its brand? Again, I turn to the Web for an analogy.

If you've ever done any Web development, you know it's a good idea to periodically check your links. Many development tools provide a function that will do it for you. It's so simple, yet so many site managers and Webmasters forget to run the check.

At the retail store, the people in charge were obviously too busy polishing the brass knobs to make sure the customer's total experience was in keeping with their brand promise.

I've recently been working with a service-industry client that was investing considerable resources to build competency in a new service and win over new customers. Its brand promise was reliability, thoroughness, diligence, no faults, no excuses.

On Christmas Eve, at about 10 in the morning, I needed to get in touch with someone at the client's office about a project we were engaged in. The office was reportedly open that day, yet in more than 45 minutes on the telephone I was unable to reach anyone who could deal with my urgent need on their behalf.

Voice messages I reached left no hint of how to contact anyone, and a live voice was out of the question. I ended up calling an office next door and pleading with someone there to walk across the floor to look for someone who could help me.

Luckily, I wasn't a customer, or I would have experience a relationship-threatening disconnect—a major 404 with no Back button available.

Understanding that 404s exist is the first step toward ridding your brand of broken links. Here are a few other strategies for cleaning up reality:

  1. Develop a “site map” of your customers' experiences. Follow your customers' paths through your organization to find disconnects. Look especially at areas that you consider behind the scenes, such as accounts payable and receivable, collections, reception and automated voice attendants, quality control, purchasing and the like.

  2. Hire a customer service consultant or mystery shopping service. Most disconnects occur because management is too close to the product or service to notice the 404s.

  3. Buy your own product or use your own service. In my first example, the nasty ash can probably never got noticed because employees likely enter and leave through a separate employee entrance. I can't imagine a manager walking through that door without addressing the mess.

  4. Don't create links that you can't keep up to date. In other words, don't make brand promises that you can't or aren't willing to keep. Don't run a nice restaurant unless you're willing to check the restroom every 30 minutes and keep it clean.

  5. Communicate your brand promise to everyone, clearly and often. Make sure vendors, suppliers and everyone who's responsible for the success of your brand know what you stand for and what you won't stand for.

  6. Empower staff. Communicate expectations clearly. Provide the resources necessary for people to be successful, and reward people for exceeding brand expectations. Likewise, be generous with pink slips for people who ignore the 404s.

  7. Give your marketing manager more power. Demand that your chief marketing officer police the organization for points of disconnect between the brand promise and reality. And give that individual the power to make changes.

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Stern Dixon (sdixon@mktcomm.com) is president of MarketComm, LLC, of Charlotte, North Carolina, an integrated marketing communications firm.