Is customer service the new marketing?

I read an interesting article last week that waxed lyrical about customer service and its status as a new marketing method. The article’s author seemed delighted at his searing insight into the world of the consumer, but I have to be honest, I did not echo his delight. Please stick with me for a while, and I will endeavour to explain why…

We have a family-owned photography shop in my hometown. Goodness knows how long it’s been in business, but my parents went there to get their passport pictures taken, films developed, family photos taken, all years before I was born, and they still do. It costs them a good percentage more of their hard-earned cash to go there rather than to the chain store just a few doors down. Why do they do that? I buy certain specific items of women’s clothing from a specialist retailer that costs more than my high street store, and is a bit further out of my way when I go to do my shopping. Why should I make that extra effort?

In this age of online shopping and price comparison services, it’s easy to forget that at one time each retailer relied on their skill as a raconteur to support their customer relationships: word-of-mouth fuelled new custom, and face-to-face skills were almost imperative to customer retention … with the exception perhaps of Ronnie Barker’s comedic turn as Arkwright in Open All Hours (for those British comedy connoisseurs among you) whose stammer never failed to raise an eyebrow from his clientele.      

Customer service was, and still is, a lynchpin for all discerning, customer-oriented companies. Customer service isn’t a technique or a marketing tactic, it’s a mindset and a skill that should be possessed by an entire workforce whose goal is to provide their consumers with a superb customer experience.

Marketers and and PR sorts appear to be all of a fluster over ‘customer conversations’ and ‘the customer voice’, but customer service is not the new marketing, it’s not even the old marketing, it is the very foundation of marketing - Marketing: 101.

PR companies and online community ‘experts’ are touting social media sites like Twitter as the latest and greatest breakthroughs in marketing. Real-time conversations with customers and interaction with user-bases. They seem to infer that finally you can have a real-time conversation with your customers. What a revelation! Who can imagine such an innovative idea?! [Please note: the last two sentences are dripping with sarcasm] If companies haven’t been having conversations with their customers for the past few decades, what on earth have they been doing?  

In an era where we are still hung up on the ROI of our ‘Fire and Forget’ methods of communication, advertising and direct mail, that simply involve shooting a message out into the ether over and over again in the hope that ‘brand recognition’ might kick in for some potential customers, we appear to forgotten the simple act of developing relationships: conversing with each other, sharing information and experience to come to a mutual understanding and an offer of service.

I’m not suggesting that companies stop advertising, sending newsletters or plugging their brand whenever they can. The spread of knowledge by way of newspapers, magazines, TV and the internet was proliferated by our want and need for information and services that we couldn’t necessarily obtain close by. And it has obviously catapulted certain organisations into profit. The point I am making is that all of this activity is underpinned by customer service. Pull out the customer service peg, and the whole company tent comes down around you. We only need look at customer service experiences with the likes of BT and Sprint

Twitter has been a revelation, but not necessarily for companies. Twitter has been an eye-opener for the consumer, because it has achieved the almost impossible. It has allowed us to treat almost every purchase that we make as one that echoes a ‘corner shop’ or ‘family store’ purchase. The person that we bought from may not be just around the corner, but they are just a ‘tweet’ away.

At the beginning of this post, I said that I did not share the glee of the author of the original article. To clarify my point, I do not disagree that customer service can be perceived as a marketing tactic, but I do disagree that it is a new concept. With the advent of the likes of Twitter, we have come full circle with customer service. We can find out almost in a instant a recommendation for a restaurant, or a suggestion for a cell phone contract provider. Once again it is word-of-mouth and customer relationships that drive marketing, and facilities like Twitter have enabled us to get right back to the grass roots of customer relations.

So tell me, is customer service the new age of marketing, or am I just a sucker for nostalgia, and how is DevExpress customer service shaping up for you?

11 comment(s)
Anonymous
Matt Rhodes

Hi Rachel,

As the 'author of the original article' I should probably start by saying that I'm not convinced I intended to convey either 'searing insight', or 'glee'. Nor did I ever mention that the reason I think customer service is the new marketing is due to Twitter (although I have written about Twitter a few times on the FreshNetworks blog).

Zappos (one of the examples in the presentation I highlighted) makes use of Twitter but has been around (and doing it's thing) long before Twitter. And I expect it to be around long after something else takes its place.

In fact I agree with you that there is nothing new in customer service as the new marketing. At least up to a point.

Your example of the family-owned photography shop is well chosen. This is a great example where good customer service is that shop's marketing. But the kind of service and attention (and indeed local knowledge) no doubt exhibited by this shop does not scale well. As we moved into a market of mass consumption (and larger organisations selling these things to us) it has become more difficult to deliver this kind of customer service. It just isn't cost effective. You only have to look at the history of customer service being offshored, or the stories of businesses making a cost-benefit analysis not to deal with customer complaints to realise that things have got beyond their control.

So whilst I'd love to think that every organisation can offer the kind of personal customer service that a local shop can, this just hasn't been shown to be true. And this is where social media (or perhaps the changing way we are using the web) has changed things. It is now easier and cheaper to give people a more personal experience, the good customer service they require. You can give this service and, perhaps more importantly, be seen to give it. Answering somebody's query on Twitter (sorry!) or indeed on a forum, commenting on a blog or in an online community not only answers this one query, but also shares the information for others to find.

This gives us a truly scalable approach to customer service. Each response the brand gives is available for all to see and for others to share. The average number of problems you can solve for your effort is much higher than with a traditional approach. So more happy customers. Which is perhaps the best marketing you can get.

So it isn't about Twitter. It's about the way we use the internet. It has always been the case that customer service is marketing, but now, more than before, it is easier to take this to scale. Easier to have an impact.

I'm not sure if this is searing nor if my response is gleeful. But hope this build a bit on what I started to say in my post

Matt

FreshNetworls

1 June, 2009
Colin Mackay
Colin Mackay

Also, twitter allows the grapevine to operate at a much faster pace than it did when my grandparents were my age. So if the customer service is poor, by-golly folks will know about it soon enough. And if you like that sort of gossip then just follow the #fail hashtag.

1 June, 2009
Colin Mackay
Colin Mackay

@Matt Rhodes While you are right that in general "It's about the way we use the internet", the specific case of Twitter is still very important because of the way it is used, the immediacy, sound-bite quality and the built in feedback mechanisms.

Companies that engage on Twitter will do better becasue people use it as a converation tool. I use it to converse many-to-many with people distributed across the UK and even across continents (time zone allowing). I've seen companies attempt to use it as a one-way push mechanism. That won't work. It will irritate their (potential) customers. I tend to unfollow companies using Twitter as a one-way push la-la-la-I'm-not-listening-la-la-la-read-my-sanitised-pure-marketing-message-la-la-la mechanism.

I just think some companies have forgotten how to communicate.

1 June, 2009
Anonymous
Boris Bosnjak

Aside from another bout of TIBKS (Twitter Is the Bees Knees Syndrome) there at DevEx ( ;-) ), Rachel's article is generally well put, and DevEx certainly excels at customer service.

But I put it to you that it's not communication in and of itself.  After all, I get "spammed" with communiques from various retailers (a.k.a. "newsletter" emails) regularly, not to mention telemarketting calls from phone and other companies eager to upgrade my experience by having me buy more of their services.

Instead, I have always found that customer service is noteworthy when the vendor sees you as an individual, treats you with concern and respect, and actually *helps* you with your problem.  How a company fixes a problem - easily or painfully - is something I remember, and reward.  Yes, this involves communication, and often fast response, but ultimately it's the outcome that matters - was the situation resolved to my satisfaction?

Companies that talk talk talk, or don't even know/care that you exist (generally huge companies and big box stores) leave you completely unhelped and frustrated.  But a good company, like DevEx, listens to you, converses with you, then actually does something nice for you.  This is good customer service.  

If Twitter helps you speed up your response time, excellent, but Twitter itself doesn't fix the customer's problem.  With DevEx I find email just fine - if I submit a bug/question to Support, I get an excellent answer back within 24 hours (as a Universal customer, mind you), with is satisfactory.  Some companies take days or weeks for this type of response...

So, talk is talk, but "what have you done for your customer lately" is what breeds loyalty among customers.

1 June, 2009
Rachel Hawley (DevExpress)
Rachel Hawley (DevExpress)

In response to Matt ...

Admittedly, some of the embellishments were for literary effect, hence the ‘no offense’ comment, and your article was one of many that I pondered last week. The reason I picked it as the focal point was that it did make a very bold statement that 'Customer service is the new marketing', which is a statement that has been inferred by a number of other social media writers.

However, from your comments, I think we are arguing the same point. What I was trying to get across is that customer service isn't a marketing technique, it's a mindset that should permeate all levels of a company, not just be exhibited by a 'good telephone manner' in one department of the organization. To this end, customer service, by way of a personal approach, should scale. Every person at an organization that a customer may come into contact with should have the same values and motivations to offer a great service to that customer, as demonstrated by your reference to Zappos, brilliant.

As for Twitter, I don’t think it has revolutionized marketing (I happen to have very fixed views on Twitter as a direct marketing channel … i.e. it isn’t), but I do think that it has been one of the success stories in bring customer service back to the forefront of people’s minds.

Channels like Twitter and Facebook are not an advertising channel, they are a mechanism to support customers on a level playing field – it’s not a company forum, it’s a place where they can get advice/assistance/feedback from organizations *and* their peers. Organizations get called out if they are unsupportive, have poor quality products, bad customer experience … It really is like that corner shop vibe.

Social media gives companies a face. As your article says, putting conversations at the centre of a business ‘breaks down silos’. It makes them open and approachable, and forces them to communicate with their customers. Like Boris says, 'a good company ... listens to you, converses with you, then actually does something for you', be it by email, forums or other means.

I couldn’t agree more with Colin, some organizations really have lost the ability to communicate, and that is why in an age where we are still watching click through rates and considering the impact of print advertising on our brand perception, social media (with Twitter being a good example) has been jumped on by companies wanting to get back to basics and focus on customer relationships.

Thanks for the comments.

Rachel.  

1 June, 2009
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1 June, 2009
Christoph Brändle
Christoph Brändle

devExpress has average customer service, but a lot of self loving stuff.. until about 18 month ago they had roadmaps, but now anyone hoping the wpf controls would be delivered, is missing out completely any real information.

devExpress communicates not well at all (in my opinion), and my post will be deleted therefore (most possibly).

2 June, 2009
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2 June, 2009
Rachel Hawley (DevExpress)
Rachel Hawley (DevExpress)

Hi Christoph,

I have no reason to delete your post. I asked what people thought of the DevExpress services and you have done just that.

Tell me, what information are you trying to find out about the upcoming WPF controls? Let me know what you would like to know and I'll try to help you.

Best wishes,

Rachel.

2 June, 2009
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2 June, 2009
Christoph Brändle
Christoph Brändle

Rachel, thanks for your words

Let me say I love devExpress products, also the technical staff is really great. Yes, devExpress points out their customer service. If communication via blog is a service too, then it is just bad. Half of the blog entries of devExpress representatives have zero quality, infragistics, actipro or telerik do much better.

Back to information policy about product development:

Many people would like to know when they great XtraScheduler and XtraPivot can be avaited for WPF.

Beside the DXGrid, those are the two controls that devExpress has proven to be better than others.

There are some weak statements about DXSchedule, but nothing official at all. I expect devExpress to say clear words about plans for WPF in 2009, not just pieces.

Thanks and best regards,

Christoph

2 June, 2009

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