Flip the Model for Customer Service

Why Limiting Problems Should Be More Important Than Fixing Them

By Published on .

Jonathan Salem Baskin
Jonathan Salem Baskin
Responding to customer complaints isn't a new idea, it's one of the oldest business practices, and as such, it's one of the most outdated. Yet many brands seem happy to use social technologies like Twitter to avoid the emerging new model: customer service and customer relationships are the same thing. Catching problems after the fact isn't good service, it's an excuse for perpetuating bad relationships. Treating them as separate activities does everyone a disservice.

I know it's easy and fun, and it plays into the ever-ready social-media echo chamber that affirms your participation in The Next Big Thing, but as CMO, you're missing a true strategic opportunity if you're letting your social-media team drive this bus. Glib Twitter success stories let your fellow C-suiters off the hook far too easily.

I'd offer that it still costs more to acquire customers than it does to keep them, and that the old ones make you more money than the new ones. I know the fantasy is to laser-target consumers who have self-educated and self-selected themselves to become your willing slaves -- er, engage with your content -- but the same math still applies. You spend comparable dollars whether on massive promotional offers that get a fraction of a percentage-point response, or on funny viral campaigns that get massive clicks but prompt no purchases.

What's different is how you choose to measure the results. Most customer-service models are detached from the operational realities of customer relationships. There's complex math to support the service part, from minimizing costs associated with actually handling customer complaints (like making it harder for them to find you, or simply outsourcing the function to another country or an automated system), to maximizing the benefits of fixing the complaints that emerge on social media (calculating a multiplier effect of bad reviews so the value provided by a Twitter response team can be measured in dollars, albeit imaginary ones).

Unfortunately, the relationship part is distributed throughout the enterprise: The costs are embedded in billing, development, staffing, real estate and whatever other departments have their own C-suiters overseeing budgets. Yet nobody owns the revenue and profit model that emerges, and waiting for customers to post complaints only perpetuates this outdated thinking. Twitter yields actionable learning? Yeah, right, like any of the things people gripe about are a surprise to the operational folks responsible for creating the problems. Our service successes with social media regularly evidence the failure of businesses to address customer relationships as an enterprise-wide responsibility.

Here are six things you could do if you threw your CMO-ness against the emerging opportunity of truly managing customer relationships:

Simplify direct contact. Stand up for easy and immediate connections with service personnel for your customers. It's a simple position to take and I'd wager that you'd always be right. It would mean fighting plans to create exclusive contacts for certain segments (while blowing up contact for everyone else); killing complicated IVR menus; empowering service staff to make battlefield decisions; and getting your fellow C-suiters to regularly pitch in real time on the front lines.

Improve routine communication. Have you asked someone without an advanced degree to decipher your monthly customer billing statement? Conversely, is it so incredibly vanilla that it communicates no value prop whatsoever? And how about putting your foot down so those mailers don't get stuffed with garbage (sorry, I meant cross-promotions). Why isn't every communication a chance to delight and entice, even if it's an invoice?

Incentivize new offerings. Why don't current customers consistently get better deals than new ones instead of it being the other way around? You could cut the cost of acquiring new ones and cut it in half and then offer it as a discount. Couldn't every existing customer become your beta or early adopter, so their communications began long before you started chasing strangers? Don't assume they're satisfied because you haven't heard from them; your news announcement will change the status quo.

Address usage benefits. Your business likely has the information necessary to describe and then predict specific consumer buying and usage patterns (or you can volunteer registration-based programs to help gather that data), so why not proactively offer better calling plans, availability of certain shirt sizes, or other attributes of product experience before they wear out or otherwise fall short of expectations or needs? For every Twitter complaint I'd imagine there are hundreds of simmering issues just waiting to boil over.

Proactively embrace issues. How about telling customers there's a problem before they discover it for themselves? Your gizmo has a glitch, we're concerned with the color quality after repeat washings, whatever. The old thinking is that if they're not aware of a problem you've ducked responsibility. Not anymore. Imagine if you proactively offered fixes and updates that screamed benefits and respect instead of pretending you didn't know about the issue until you saw the angry tweets?

Enlist real co-creators. You could go a step farther than simply notifying your customers about issues before they chance upon them, and solicit their partnership in helping get the word/fixes out. True communities are based upon shared senses of purpose and meaning; why not take your social activities out of the realm of nonsense entertainment and figure out ways for your customers to truly rely on them, and on each other, for support?

Your business needs to get past the latest technology tricks to understand the necessity of transforming customer service from a retroactive occasion to a proactive system. That system is a strategy first, not a solution. Isn't it time to get past new ways to catch dissatisfaction when it appears online, and step up within your organization to advocate for an integrated and collaborative strategy to deliver the satisfied customer relationships that will preclude those complaints from happening?

Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist, author and speaker. Read his blog at dimbulb.net and follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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