Customer Service Playing Bigger Role as Marketing Tool

National Brands Find Value in Meeting Their Consumers' Needs Down to Local Level

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For 20 years, Enterprise promised customers, "We'll pick you up." And it still will. But the car-rental company also realized that its well-received but rational service message wasn't fostering an emotional connection, one that many of its agents in individual stores already had with customers.

And so Enterprise's most recent campaign highlights "The Enterprise Way" and features its own employees, from some of its 6,000 company-owned stores. In one spot called "Fix Any Problem," an employee says, "We all have the power to make it right. I don't have to find a manager, I don't have to make a phone call."

Enterprise's 'Fix Any Problem spot.'
Enterprise's 'Fix Any Problem spot.'
In an increasingly technology-driven society, where consumers are frustrated by not being able to get a "real" person on the phone or find a polite salesperson in the store, the delegation of decision making and problem solving by national brands down to the local level can be a powerful marketing tool.

"We're not Coke or Pepsi or Budweiser that have [natural] strong emotional connections. ... In our industry, customers are looking for price and convenience," said Jim Stoeppler, director-brand marketing at Enterprise. But "our corporate philosophy is to take care of the customers and employees first, and the business will take care of itself. Our training program, "Making it Right,' is based on the belief that we take care of the customer and do what's right at the moment of truth at the counter."

In a recent Consumer Reports survey of the most infuriating customer-service problems, the inability to speak with a real person on the phone ranked No. 1, followed by rude salespeople in store. And consumers' frustrations with customer service are evident in humorous advertising that makes fun of automation, such as Discover Card's use of "Peggy," the non-helpful customer service agent, and the new Geico commercial where robots are used to run a daycare to save money because "robots work for free."

Without the authority or desire to attend to consumers' problems at the local level, brands can open themselves to social-media and viral complaints. The opportunity, of course, is that the flip side of vitriol is great local customer service that earns digital praise.

Shep Hyken, author, speaker and expert on customer service, said he recently had a great experience with a national retailer who quickly fixed his problem at a local store, and he immediately tweeted how impressed he was with them.

"The difference is a national company with a real local presence, vs. a national company with a local branch that 's an extension," he said. "... If you're a national service company and trying to be a local customer-focused business, you can never say, "It's not my department, call corporate.' "

He teaches that even if you're not the person who can fix the problem, if the customer came to you with the problem first, you "own it" and should shepherd it until the problem is solved.

Ace Hardware is an example of a national brand doing local well, Mr. Hyken said. The hardware retailer serves coffee and doughnuts to local contractors, sponsors local baseball teams and offers tables every weekend to local Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts to sell their nonprofit cookies and candies.

"The trend is back to local and getting great customer service," said Lynn Vitello, VP-marketing at MaxPoint Interactive. Ms. Vitello added that the Albertson's grocery chain recently eliminated self-checkout lines because they want to have more interaction with customers.

Kohler's "Save Water America" campaign is another national effort, created by the kitchen and bath manufacturer to spur people to use modern products that save water, with a local extension. At the local level, a combination of marketing and collateral materials are distributed for point of purchase, along with "Save Water America" events being held in a variety of cities, said Shane Vaughan, director-marketing for Balihoo, a digital local marketing specialty firm, which helped Kohler with the campaign.

"The opportunity for the local dealers was the ability to tell a story around sustainability the way they wanted," he said, adding that in general, "the national brands need to provide the strategy and the tools to local affiliates who should be able to do what they want to do."

Giving up some control is difficult, of course, but imagine the potential for positive local interactions. "You can have the right creative and brand promise, the right ad campaign with the right message and incentives to reach local customers, but once they're in the store, you have to keep them in the store," said Ms. Vitello. "Training and customer service are so important, but they're often looked at as separate from marketing."

Enterprise's Mr. Stoeppler said employees' compensation and career advancement are based on their Enterprise Service Quality Index score, which is a measurement of consumer happiness. A few weeks ago, the company began a Facebook contest called "Thank You" to find the best customer-service stories at a local Enterprise. It got 3,000 entries in less than a week and saw a 43% uptick in its Facebook friends.

"We've got so many people talking about their local agents and how they've established a great relationship with them. When agents move, as they do in going up through the company, and if it's within the same city or area, people will inconvenience themselves to go to the new store to stay with that agent," Mr. Stoeppler said.

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