Customer Service Is a Crucial Marketing Channel

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I realize that the title of this post already has some customer service gurus cringing. No, my point is not to turn service interactions into one-way communication streams in which the customer’s needs are minimized while CSRs focus on pushy “retention,” cross-sell, or upsell efforts… And, if you are familiar with any of my prior writings then you know that I hold marketing responsible for customer experience. With that quick frame of reference, inbound service interactions are ideal for marketing because the customer:

  • Is engaged, by choice.
  • Actively provides information that points to problems or needs.
  • May have a need now that, if missed, becomes a lost opportunity.

But, strategies to leverage customer service as a marketing channel will fail if we approach customer interactions with the traditional marketing mindset – let’s tell customers what we want them to hear. Many of us have been talking about this for years, but the time has come. Firms must shift communications strategies away from one-size fits all push marketing – to one that is responsive to individual customer behaviors. To make the shift successfully, marketing organizations must get beyond the old style campaign construct. The very term “campaign” conjures up the image of a bullhorn – marketers shouting out what they want their audience to hear. With the control and choice that consumers have today, marketing must be more flexible — more agile. Marketing and service organizations must align their strategies and:

  • Recognize that every service interaction has potential brand impact. Many customer service centers are measured purely by cost metrics and that result in processes that are internally focused, not customer-focused. Most consumers can recount nightmarish customer service experiences and, today, many are well publicized by jaded customers through vehicles like YouTube. I’m not purporting that cost metrics aren’t important. But, the cost of losing a customer due to a terrible service interaction or the word of mouth associated with broad exposure by disgruntled customers through today’s social channels must also be taken into consideration. And, yes, it is hard to account for all of these costs in an financial spreadsheet. At a minimum, firms can start by mapping and understanding processes from the outside in – that is the customer point of view – as well as the inside out.
  • Consider each interaction as an opportunity to establish an emotional connection. Years ago we talked about “delighting” the customer… The term always struck me as corny and I’ve noticed that I, as a consumer, am so jaded by my past customer service experiences that I am pleasantly surprised when I get a friendly voice on the other end of the phone that sounds genuinely eager to help me out or empathizes with me if I am upset. Again, it starts with the little things — like being human.
  • Only possibly, seek to extend the financial relationship. As I’ve already indicated, customer service interactions present an opportunity in which customers will willingly provide information in exchange for value. This exchange may yield an opportunity but, it requires active listening and capturing information in real time relative to customer’s issues and needs. Using the interaction to push the product du jour — while it may work occasionally — is more likely to be rejected, potentially annoy your customer, and increase your call time.

As I write this, I admit that I have concerns that what I write will be misconstrued or misused. I’ve been talking in public forums about the intersection between marketing and service since 2002. Unfortunately, while companies in many industries have taken steps to turn their customer service centers into revenue generators, I believe that most have done so to the detriment of the customer experience. That is, they view inbound service interactions only from the perspective of the potential financial benefit that could result from selling something new, extending a contract, etc. These companies are still operating in one-way mode and failing to recognize that they have an opportunity to establish a dialog with their customer.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Elana

    What a great and timely post.

    As I wote about in a recent post on ‘Customer Service is the New Marketing’, customer service is most definately a critical marketing touchpoint. But as you so lucidly describe, not the crude marketing monologue delivered at full pitch at the customer, but rather, a two-way dialogue with the customer that both parties can benefit from.

    This isn’t a new idea. The legendary service marketing academic Evert Gummesson coined the term ‘part-time marketers’ in 1987, to describe people not in the marketing organisation, but who influence customers through contacts with them. Jan Carlzon put this into practice during the turnaround of SAS and published his thoughts on it in his now famous book ‘Moments of Truth’, also in 1987.

    But it is a very timely idea. It underpins the current emphasis on the service-dominant logic in marketing. And as your friends Charlene Li & Josh Bernoff emphasise in their must-read book ‘The Groundswell’, customers are now the biggest group of part-time marketers.

    Paradoxically, marketers have nothing to fear from this army of internal and external part-time marketers. Unless that is, as Seth Godin puts it, they have been lying to their customers about their products over the years.

    Graham Hill
    Independent CRM Consultant
    Interim CRM Manager

    Further Reading:

    Customer Service is the New Marketing…Or Is It
    http://www.customerthink.com/blog/customer_service_new_marketing_is_it

    Jan Carlzon on Moments of Truth
    http://www.customerthink.com/interview/jan_carlzon_moments_of_truth

    Christian Gronroos on Adopting a Service Logic for Marketing
    http://www.stratmark.fi/wp-content/uploads/2006/10/Gro%CC%88nroos%20Service%20Logic%20MT.pdf

    Charlene Li & Josh Bernoff on The Groundswell
    http://blogs.forrester.com/charleneli/

    Seth Godin on All Marketers Are Liars
    http://sethgodin.typepad.com/all_marketers_are_liars/

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