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Google+ Debate: Is Customer Service the New Marketing?

 

Software Advice recently moderated a live online debate called, “Is Customer Service the New Marketing?” This Google+ Hangout featured a star panel of professional speakers, authors and thought leaders. They discussed how the roles of marketing and customer service have evolved, and strategies for accommodating these changes.

Click on the video above to watch the entire recorded debate.

The panel answered four scripted questions before the discussion was opened up to the 43 attendees. These included:

  1. Zappos leadership sees support not as a cost center, but as an opportunity to market through personal connections with customers. Their success is largely attributable to customer loyalty and word of mouth. So, based on this, is customer service the new marketing?
  2. And where doesn’t this work? Who shouldn’t slash marketing budgets and put the customer first at all costs?
  3. What do we have to do to make this happen? What do companies have to do to implement such a monumental shift in strategy and culture?
  4. Clearly, this is a strategy that pays out over the long term. How can a business measure this shift to ensure they are getting the right return on their shifting investment and priorities?

Here are several takeaways from their responses.

The Don Draper Days Are Over: Mirror Customer Expectations

Once upon a time, businesses could count on marketers to add that patina of magic to their product. It didn’t matter if the product or the customer service was good, bad or indifferent, Micah Solomon said during the debate. Think of the Don Draper in the Lucky Strikes era. Marketers could push the message that portrayed the brand they want to deliver.

Micah Solomon

“The world has changed a bit since then because competition is now just a click away. Customers are interested in marketing, but they don’t believe what your company says about itself unless it matches what they and their friends experience,” said Solomon, a professional keynote speaker and best-selling author.

In other words, companies need to reflect their customer’s expectations about the brand, then meet or exceed those expectations.

Shep Hyken Headshot

“The customer is deciding what your brand is going to be. If customer service is what you want to offer, that’s what you need to deliver on,” says Shep Hyken, speaker, author and Shepard Presentations chief amazement officer.

 

At the same time, the group said not all buyers expect a customer-centric culture; nor will making your business more service-centric necessarily improve the bottom line. Hyken offered the comparison of Walmart and Nordstroms. When a customer goes into Walmart, they don’t expect a sales associate to guide them through every department and provide thoughtful recommendations and advice. The Walmart customer’s expectations are low price and variety.

“One time, Walmart heard their customers weren’t satisfied with the experience so they spent a lot of money cleaning up aisles, putting up end caps and so on. Guess what happened? Their experience rating went up but revenue didn’t,” Hyken said.

Marketing & Service Not Mutually Exclusive: Leverage Together

Several times during the debate, the speakers brought up the Morton’s Restaurant Group. Like Zappos, the steakhouse chain has made service and quality central to its marketing strategy. But that doesn’t mean great customer service can’t be used in in conjunction with marketing promotions.

One example of this involved a blogger with 100,000 Twitter followers who was a known fan of the brand. The marketing team identified him as an advocate and saw an opportunity to leverage his influence. One day, the blogger facetiously tweeted about how he wished Morton’s would deliver him a steak at the New Jersey airport where he was waiting. Marketers caught this and delivered steaks to him. He later shared this customer experience with his massive, trusting audience.

Marketing doesn’t have to be “either or” when it comes to word of mouth or more straightforward promotional strategies.

Anyone Can Say They Put the Customer First: Walk the Talk

Most if not all companies say they put the customer first, but few actually apply this to the Zappos extreme. And it doesn’t make sense for all companies to want this for themselves. But for those who do, it’s all about making the decision to change from the top down.

“Someone has to make the decision that you are going to put the customer at the center of everything you do. This has to be reinforced from the top. Then the customer-centered culture and mindset will follow naturally,” Solomon said.

This must also be backed by resources and a commitment to improve outcomes and processes based on the interest of the customer. This could mean spending more on customer service representatives, or practicing more rigorous performance measurement. (For more about customer-centric service metrics, check out this Software Advice article: “A Zappos Lesson in Customer Service Metrics.”)

Customer Experience Still Only Part of the Puzzle

The most important thing marketers need to consider is that the buyer is in control of their buying process. You can’t decide what information they will go after, or when, so “you need to be the prettiest girl at the dance,” Marketo co-founder and Marketing Vice President Jon Miller said.

Jon Miller

“You need to make yourself attractive so that when that customer is ready to make a purchase, they’re going to want to talk to you. … Now, if you give great customer service and people are talking about your customer service, that’s key aspect of the being the prettiest girl at the dance, but not the only thing,” Miller said.

This is particularly important for companies that have really specific customer. Say you are selling to the CIO of a Fortune 500 company, Miller said for example. You can’t just hope they go and talk to another customer that had a great experience. That CIO needs to find your company, then marketers need tools to nurture and develop that relationship until that person is ready to buy.

Denis Pombriant

“It always makes sense to do anything you can to keep your customers happy. But for selling to new business, you can’t just wait for them to hear about you. That’s the thing about creating a valuable customer experience. You can’t give one until they show up,” said Denis Pombriant, CEO and cofounder of the Beagle Research Group.

Do you disagree with these opinions about customer service and marketing? Has your company been successful with this customer service-centric strategy? Chime in with your own thoughts by commenting here.

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Ashley Verrill

About the Author

Ashley Verrill has spent the last six years reporting and writing business news and strategy features. Her work has been featured or cited in Inc., Forbes, Business Insider, TechCrunch, GigaOM, CIO.com, Yahoo News, the Upstart Business Journal, the Austin Business Journal and the North Bay Business Journal, among others.

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