The panel's moderator, Pete Blackshaw, exec VP-strategic services at Nielsen Online, asked the three panelists, "Is this marketing or is it customer service? In the age of consumer control, is there an opportunity to really build consumer loyalty through that type of interaction?"
Interactions equal growth
Tony Hsieh, CEO and director, Zappos.com, said those interactions have been the force behind the company's growth. "The way we have grown the company is focusing on customer service and not actually spending a lot of money on marketing or paid advertising," Mr. Hsieh said. "We take the money we would have spent on advertising campaigns and instead put that back into the customer experience and grow through repeat customers and word of mouth. For the past nine years that's been our primary source of growth."
Mr. Hsieh said his company gets nearly 5,000 calls a day from customers and it views each of those interactions as a branding opportunity. "At that point you have the full attention of that customer," he said. "That's the time where you have a huge opportunity for you to shine."
Linnea Johnson, director-consumer services, Unilever, who called her division the "Stitch and Bitch Club," said the world's second-largest consumer package-goods company should be doing more to take advantage of those types of interactions.
Talking 'your ear off'
"We're a little bit behind the momentum," she said bluntly. "The consumer services department can talk your ear off about all of the information of the brand, tell you what brands to use and cross-sell you but what we're not allowed to do is take ideas from you. So the minute someone calls up who has a really forward thinking way to promote Dove and Suave, we have to shut them down because that's what legal tells us to do."
She believes the consumer-services divisions, especially in the consumer package-goods space, could play a significant role in the development of marketing campaigns based on the interactions they have with consumers. "In the CPG industry [consumer services] are the people who are really entrenched in the company's brands," she said. "And there's a lot of information we could help you with when you build your campaign or build your ads to deal with consumers."
Rick Clancy, senior VP-corporate communications, Sony Electronics, and primary author of Sony's first consumer-oriented blog, said Sony also had legal concerns about accepting unsolicited ideas from consumers. "But once you decide to dive into the pond of social media you have to do away with that," Mr. Clancy said. "We get ideas on my blog that are shared throughout Sony and in fact a few of them have been incorporated."