Your Most Crucial Moment Comes When the Customer Calls

Spending on Service Instead of Traditional Advertising Gives Marketers Competitive Advantage

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To really incite the full range of customer reaction to a brand -- and by full range, I mean everything from bitter rage at the low end to fantastic appreciation at the high end -- traditional advertising is not the way to do it.

In these postmodern times, where every interaction with the customer is a marketing event, the real crunch point comes when the customer meets your customer-service department.

Seriously, who didn't enjoy watching musician Dave Carroll's takedown of United Airlines for not only breaking his guitar but then refusing to make things right by reimbursing him?

His YouTube video, "United Breaks Guitars," has been viewed 3.5 million times at last count (more than a paid ad can reach on some prime-time TV shows), and sparked nearly 16,000 comments, most from people venting their own anger at the airlines.

That's just the latest example of what Pete Blackshaw, Nielsen VP and author of "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000," identifies as one of the symptoms of marketers who fail to understand emotional psychology at a deep enough level.

As the title of his book implies, Blackshaw has no doubts on the importance of investing in service, even at the expense of paid media.

Last week's purchase of Zappos by Amazon, he contends, shows an entire brand can be built on the backbone of exceptional service.

When brand promises conflict with people's real-world interaction with the company, it feels like a betrayal, he said. "But if you get it right, you get a lot of love from customers."

What you really want as a brand steward is the home run at the other end of the scale, where your service becomes practically awe-inspiring. It can be done.

For example, a few weeks ago my son had a problem with his Mac laptop. I did the usual scrolling through the support option on Apple's website, preparing myself for the usual couple of days of e-mail exchanges. But I found something there I had never seen before: a link to an Apple "expert" who, the site claimed, would phone me RIGHT NOW, if I wanted.

Well, sure! Who wouldn't want instant service? I didn't believe it, but I did want to see the gimmick. So I put in my phone number and clicked on the link. And my phone rang. I mean, it rang that second, with an Apple support person on the other end. Apple's legendary for how it interacts with its customers, but this was surprising even for it. And it's not alone in this particular innovation.

You can do the same thing on Amazon if you have problems with your Kindle. In the Kindle support area, you'll find a link that says, "We'll call you. Right now. Really." And they do. If you have a Kindle problem, try it with friends around -- it'll freak them out, and I mean that in a good way.

Does this make me love these companies and their products even more? Absolutely. But the question is: What does this kind of service cost, and what's the tradeoff for the marketer? Is it better to spend more of your budget on traditional marketing and advertising, or on the moment of direct contact with your customers?

"Customer service is a competitive advantage," Blackshaw said, and he expects to see much more investment in what some might call boring operational infrastructure. "I think marketers really have no choice but to get much better at this." Just ask United Airlines, which quickly paid Dave Carroll his due once his video went viral, and which now says it will use the whole experience as a learning tool for its operation.

Or, as Blackshaw tells CMOs: "Look in the mirror and call your own 800 number." Yes, and then see if you can get a support person to call back. RIGHT NOW.

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