Customer service has traditionally been seen as an after-sale operational function but has increasingly moved to the forefront of marketing to new and existing customers. Businesses need to address this new opportunity. No longer is customer service synonymous with a “help desk” or “complaint department.” In the days before social media, it was common practice to handle problems if and when they occurred, and usually with varying degrees of consistency and resolution. Problems were simply after the fact of sales that had already occurred, and they were seen to have little to no direct connection to future sales. Customer service was a cost center, which meant that businesses tended to try to staff and execute the function with as few resources as possible. The utility of social media as a platform for sharing has made the fact of user experience more explicit and visible; it has moved to the forefront of marketing.
Complaints, reviews, and ratings serve a central function when consumers are contemplating purchases. Technology services platforms like Facebook and Twitter, not to mention the multitude of chat rooms and user communities that occur across the Internet, make it vital that businesses come to terms with the customer experiences that form the basis for these communication tools. Using customer service as a marketing tool requires far more than simply replying to dissatisfied customers’ tweets, though. Every brand is expected to fix problems; doing so is no longer a differentiator, just as every brand can all but depend on encountering a certain amount of problems and complaints (especially larger consumer brands, and certainly technology brands). Successful customer service involves efforts to reduce the number of complaints that occur; resolve them more quickly; make sure that a reliable and fair approach is applied to every instance; and proactively reach out to likely problem cases and preempt them. Here’s detailed thinking on each quality:
Perhaps the most common misunderstanding about social media and their effect on customer satisfaction is that the capacity for customers to complain has allowed some business to push the edge of the envelope on reductions to product and service quality. The thinking is that it is cheaper to reduce quality and handle the subset of customers who will complain vs. try to achieve some absolute thresholds in hopes of pleasing everyone. Many will argue that service has declined since the advent of social media tools, just as some customers have learned to resent the necessity of complaining in order to get satisfaction. The idea of preemption — renewing operational focus on identifying and rectifying potential service failures or shortcomings — remains the best way to enhance customer service. The goal should not be to spend money on fixing problems that could have been better invested in precluding them in the first place. Many industries, such as automobiles, are ranked on “initial customer satisfaction” metrics, and not on how well they resolve subsequent problems. The best customer service is to not have to service them, which means there’ll be more satisfied customers recommending (i.e. marketing) your products and services to others.
The 24/7 web has raised everyone’s expectations for response time or, better put, reduced them to all but zero. There is meaningful research on internet usage that suggests consumers have become more impatient in all aspects of their lives (because things happen so fast online). This makes the speed at which customers receive service almost as important as the substance of that help; certainly, the former informs the latter, so great service that’s late is less effective than so-so service that is prompt. Many companies maintain service teams that are ready to respond to complaints at a moments’ notice, usually with nothing more than a message that the complaint has been received and is being addressed. Approaching online complaints requires this immediacy, along with a statement of next steps and timeframe, so as to inform expectations. The next worst thing after being slow in initially acknowledging a problem is to be vague on the follow-up and/or expected resolution target. Consumers who feel that they’re being told things promptly and fairly are far more likely to endure any period of time before a problem is fixed, and to speak positively about the experience.
Though every customer is different, there’s no way that a marketing campaign of any significant size would attempt to craft customized offers to individuals. Product configurations can’t be infinite, and pricing can’t (or shouldn’t) be open to any values. Communications, like business operations overall, need constraints that help define the scope of the effort. What a company is willing to say and do when it comes to servicing customers also communicates what the company is willing to commit to its brand. Therefore, it’s important that businesses apply the principles of branding to the policies of customer service; one has to inform the other. Just like a company doesn’t presume to sell to any and every sort of customer, its customer service needs to be cognizant that some customers will not be satisfied with its policies and/or there are certain thresholds (rewards, etc.) that cannot be ignored. The idea that a company should be willing to do “whatever it takes” to please customers is a catchy slogan, but it’s not real business strategy. Defining customer policy and then sticking to it is a sign of integrity and brand coherence.
Imagine this circumstance: a handful of customers encounter the same problem, perhaps even a small one, and you discover it can be remedied by a company action. Traditional service policy would be to wait for additional customers to have the same problem, with the hope that they wouldn’t contact the company (this drives many of the social media service strategies today, whether admittedly so or not). But a true customer-centric brand would proactively seek out its customers, or perhaps the subset(s) most likely to encounter the same problem and notify them of the fix. In other words, highlight the problem with a solution before anybody else encounters it. This is a powerful idea, and it might run counter to some existing company policies or routines. But it simply acknowledges reality: It only takes one customer with a problem to notify every customer via a social media platform, so there’s no such thing as keeping a secret, and therefore no reason to hope to avoid issues. A core quality of making customer service into smart marketing is to embrace it as an outbound communications strategy that strengthens customer relationships, and that means telling them what’s going on, bad or good.
The bottom line is that customer service is a marketing tool whether you use it as one or not. The smart play is to embrace the qualities that elevate the function from being passively responsive to actively engaging with your customers and markets. It can thereby move from being a cost center to a generator of sales and brand equity.