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Poor customer service creates new opportunity

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Last month, I got into a dispute with my bank. I won't bore you with the details, but I was pretty steamed when I got off the phone with the account rep. Not long ago, I would have written an angry letter and that would have been it. This time I blogged. My 400-word screed made me feel better and once the search engines get hold of it, it may also make some waves at the bank.

My actions were typical of what businesses will increasingly see in the future from frustrated customers.

Generation Y doesn't know or care about going through channels. When they're angry, they turn to their keyboards and to each other. Surf the Web and you'll find twentysomething bloggers tracking the performance of their rants on Google searches. Amateur videographers will steal images right off your Web site and use them to make satiric mashups.

This isn't just a consumer phenomenon. Dell Computer, Sony, Comcast and Microsoft are among the companies that have felt the sting of online attacks from business customers in the last year.

Guess what, marketers? You're in the customer service business. Seize the opportunity while you have it because it's a good place to be.

Customer service is a poor stepchild at many businesses, and they're lousy at it. Convoluted phone menus, long hold times, un-empowered customer service reps and lack of follow-up frustrates customers. Internet service is actually getting worse. JupiterResearch reported last year that only 45% of the businesses it contacted resolved e-mail inquiries within 24 hours. That's less than in 2000.

But in a globalized, outsourced and frictionless world, customer service may be the last real differentiator that businesses have left, at least in the U.S.

Customer service is changing dramatically and it's becoming a marketing function. What used to be an inbound, responsive process is increasingly open and dispersed. Customers choose to speak when they want. They form communities around issues that interest them and engage with each other, regardless of whether the company wants them to.

Marketers should own these conversations. It's marketing's job to be the business' ear to the ground, the early warning system and the architect of constructive communities. Marketers are becoming chief engagement officers.

The challenge is twofold. The first is for marketers to learn how to tap in to the conversation, leveraging the burgeoning variety of online tools that enable that. The more important opportunity is to engage customers in your own communities so that their energies are applied to making your products and your company better.

It's a big job, but there are businesses already out there learning how to do it. The new age of engagement is marketing's chance to shine.

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