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?

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