Customer Service



Marketing theory for non-marketers: Customer service

If Helmuth von Moltke had been a marketing director (rather than a field marshal in nineteenth-century Prussia), he might have observed that no marketing plan survives contact with the customers.

Customer service is where your marketing efforts will be tested. It’s where you’ll generate both the data that informs your further efforts, and the repeat sales which are the bedrock of long-term profitability. Repeat customers spend more and more on each visit, and are massively more likely to take up a new product than a new prospect (around 60-70% odds compared to 5-20%, if you’re counting).

You won’t get repeat customers without great customer service, so customer service has to be part of your marketing plan. Here is what you need to know.

1. Customer services for SMEs

The bigger companies tend to make the headlines when their customer service falls short. Ryanair, for instance, were so bad at handling refunds, cancellations and billing that they made international news with the Italian competition watchdog fining them £550,000 in 2015. Granted, the company turned it around (by improving their website’s accessibility, their seating and luggage policy, and their surcharge structure, as well as by moving notorious customer-hating CEO Michael O’Leary out of the public eye) and earned some good press for doing so, but things shouldn’t have come to that pass to begin with.

Small to medium-sized enterprises may feel safe from bad press. After all, they’re not handling 126.2 million customers a year. The problem is, they’re not safe from word of mouth, nor from its digital cousin – peer reviews on social media.

Consumers trust each other a lot more than they trust marketing. 84% of people trust online reviews as much as a personal recommendation, 70% will leave a review for a business if they’re asked to, and 90% of consumers read between one and ten reviews before forming an opinion about a business.

A bad review or two still have influence with prospects for an average of three months, besides representing a failure to retain an existing customer. Be wary of confronting your reviewers head-on, too: while it’s tempting to take TripAdvisor’s denizens to task, your policy may blow up in your face. Don’t be the next Chimichangos – the restaurant Metro dared its three million readers to review, knowing that manager Jason Tanfield would lash out at every last one.

Any customer interaction is part of your customer service, and each of those discrete interactions, offline or on, has an impact on your brand. How your sales team secures prospects; how your support team handles complaints; how your social media team deals with comments on your content – it all adds up.

2. What’s relevant – B2B vs B2C

In B2C, the customer is not always right, but has to leave feeling like they were. In B2B, the emphasis should be on solving the problem in hand. While customer service is still important – in many B2B markets, the product can be relatively similar and service is where brands compete – the priorities have to change.

Transactions are generally fewer in number but larger in size, and often default to long-term contractual relationships involving product support or repeat business. A long-term customer is more likely to let minor problems slide (you probably won’t see the hysterical “Worst Service Ever!” reviews after one late delivery) and take their business elsewhere when they have an opportunity.

For B2B businesses, this means customer service policies have to be more outgoing, focused on collecting feedback and continuous improvement rather than promoting new offerings or asking for reviews. The data you collect should be broader too, looking at the other business needs, issues, concerns, scale and earnings. Direct recommendations are more powerful than reviews in this sphere, so you’re looking to network rather than solicit on social media.

3. What our marketing directors recommend

South East based Marketing Director Robert Stead advises clients to think tactically. For instance: if your business hires out equipment, tell the telesales team to say “well, we can’t do it this morning, but would this afternoon be good?”

Hardly any customers will take you up on this, as they probably don’t need the equipment at that short notice, but they’re expecting to hear “the earliest we can do is a week next Tuesday”. Net result: they’re impressed by how accommodating you are (assuming you can actually provide the equipment today, just in case they do want it that soon…).

Meanwhile, founder of The Marketing Centre Clare Methven recommends looking for the little things. Let’s say you share your headquarters premises with some other businesses, and all phone calls have to be routed through the reception desk. The phone is answered with “Generic Business Hub” – something no customer will recognise – or worse, by an all points answering machine. “Press 1 for mobility cars company, press 2 for engineering support company, press 3 for frozen ready meal company.”

This is a potential service disaster, no matter how good your service people are. The customer doesn’t know about your headquarters situation or business architecture; they want to get in touch with your brand, the brand they are looking to connect with to address a pain point.

Our usual advice about branding also applies here: make sure everyone’s singing from the same sheet, or at least talking from the same script. Does everyone answer the phone? If so, how? Are they creating the right impression, using the right vocabulary, communicating the right values?

Your social media and customer service strategies need to overlap. If you handle customers properly, you’ll see fewer furious “worst customer service EVER!” reviews; if your social media team remember they’re interacting with potential or current customers, they’ll conduct themselves accordingly.

Most importantly, have a system to manage feedback. What do you do with what people tell you, and how do you prove you’re doing it?

4. What does ‘good customer service’ look like?

The best customer service personnel are empathic. It sounds trite, but the cornerstone of policy should be “treat your customers as you’d like to be treated”. When you phone, email, or tweet to place an order, chase or complain, what do you want the person at the other end to do? Have your people do that.

The way customer service treats people can turn a complainant into a brand advocate. The important thing is that they encounter a person, rather than a scripted process. The customer should always feel like they’re being personally responded to, and never like they’re the problem that needs to be resolved.

Beyond this, good customer service delivers on your brand promise. Look back at the brand values you defined and the vocabulary you established to spread them throughout your company. Turn them outwards. Address the customer or client with those terms, putting out the message you want.

Finally, and most importantly, use your feedback and show that you’re using it. When you implement a change based on repeated customer feedback, discuss it and link cause (the feedback) to the effect (change). The formula is “you said X so we did Y”.

5. What are the myths surrounding customer service?

Myth 1: “customer service is all about complaints.” It’s not. Firstly, most dissatisfied customers don’t complain – they eat their losses, take their business elsewhere, and pass on their negative experiences to others. You have to seek out feedback, good or bad.

Myth 2: “customer service is all about schemes and incentives.” It’s really not. Clear, believable explanations when things go wrong and helpful, empathic approaches to customers’ pain points will go further than any amount of points, discounts or offers.

Myth 3: “the customer is always right.” Absolutely not. The customer wants their problem to be solved, which means they want you to be right. They want you to understand the problem and provide an appropriate, affordable solution. The perception that you are the right brand for the job will bring customers back again and again.

Customer service isn’t normally considered part of marketing’s remit, but it’s where marketing efforts are put to the test. Good marketing cannot overcome bad customer service. Good customer service is empathic, focused on solving problems rather than assigning blame, and transmits brand values in just the same way as  any other form of communication.

At the end of the day it’s about listening: find out what your customers want, deliver it, and show that you’re doing it. That’s how you cultivate reviews, reputation, and the all-important repeat business.

Ready to start your customer service plan? Find out where you stand – take the Marketing 360.