thinking like a customer

thinking like a customer

Rebuttal: Customer Service is the New Marketing

By on January 18, 2013

In December, a panel of speakers on customer service topics hosted by Software Advice discussed “Is Customer Service the New Marketing?”. The panel makes the case for marketing how well an organization serves its customers. This is not new. It’s the traditional ideas being warmed over. The panel’s message to organizations is, essentially, don’t change your approach to customer service; simply market it better.

What if we transformed the way we look at our customer connections instead? The biggest failure we make in thinking about the future is to believe that it will be similar to the past. Our perspective on customer service has not changed for decades. But that is not the way it will be going forward. Conventional thinking about customers will be left behind if organizations ignore the alternatives that are happening. The ways we have been operating in every aspect of our lives are being disrupted and improved. Now, it’s time to realize how customer service is also being re-invented.

Before Apple invented iTunes, if colleagues had told you how to purchase and play music, they would have explained how to buy CD’s and how to play them on a CD player. They, of course, would have based their description on what was accepted at the time. It would not have been wrong; however, it would have been limited – and eventually outdated – because they would have been unaware that there could be a new and better method.

In a similar fashion, the panel is not taking into account a more robust customer-centered business model for the future. As Abraham Maslow said, “If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” Instead, today, exceptional companies are approaching the way they connect with their customers differently.

What if there was a more expansive way to look at customers—a way which captures the approach, which exceptional companies are using to distinguish themselves?  What if you could change the way suppliers serve you? What if, instead of changing their courtesy, they transformed their cultures to think differently about the customer and behave accordingly?

The traditional approach has been to rationalize that it is OK to be product-centered, as long as we add some genuine hospitality, as Morton’s Steak House advertises on its website. Customer service is seen as a lagniappe to the selling of a product—a courteous add-on to a product-centered transaction. But it is an illusion to think that marketing this type of conventional service and expecting it to create loyal customers the way it did in the past will differentiate any organization. Companies have been bragging about their so-called outstanding service, defined as being nice and friendly when customers deal with them, for so long that customers see these statements as something that every company says it does, so they no longer believe them. What is really new is not the marketing of service capabilities that have been around for decades.

Organizations that are truly customer-centered don’t try to market their customer service skills. They don’t need to — any more than great singers or athletes need to market their greatness. Their performance speaks for itself. Instead, these exceptional companies have developed organizational cultures that:

  • Create a customer-centered purpose that represents a worldview that is shared by the entire organization.
  • Empower their employees to look for what the customer is NOT receiving and then to translate that gap into new ideas to create success for their customers.
  • Celebrate how they are making a difference. Every improvement creates more improvements because they are shared and celebrated. They know that it is the right thing to do and that customers will recognize that they are better than the others in their market
  • Don’t read their press releases and get complacent. They share lots of stories about exceptional performances that reinforce the message of being pro-active.

Imagine a structure in which one wall represents a conventional product-centered system and the other is a customer-centered strategy. Climbing the ladder against the product-centered wall, you are limited by the rules and procedures of the organization that must come first because that is what we have come to accept as normal. This wall wants employees and customers to embrace what has been done in the past and to change very little. In this status quo mindset, companies try to sell their product more perfectly by engineering efficiencies and employee behaviors toward customers. What these organizations most want is a business model that delivers predictability and safety (no need to change).

In this conventional scenario, all we have to do is to “serve” customers when they buy from us. For years, this idea has been one of those unchallenged beliefs, which has caused most people to resign themselves into a narrow definition of customer relationships.

Trying to make your business more attractive through marketing is too simplistic and superficial. Don’t just tell the world how good you think you are. Service-centric is not the same as customer-centric. The panelists describe the traditional approach this way:

  1. Customer expectations. ‘Exceeding customer expectations’ has become a phrase that every organization says it embraces. But each business defines customer needs and wants within the limits it has set. If a customer’s expectations are higher than businesses are willing to provide, they will happily explain why they cannot do what is being asked. Companies want us, as customers, to fit in with their product-centric model. And that is what the panelists have taken to explain their rationale. However, it is difficult to market the concept of “We exceed customer expectations if the customer sets them low enough.”
  2. Customer experience. The panel discussion referred to the customer experience. The panelists even premised their conversation with the concept that “you can’t give a valuable customer experience until they show up.” But the transactional platform they are using is too short-sighted. It leads organizations to focus on a customer experience that can be standardized like a fast food restaurant and that optimizing process efficiency is what will make the customer experience satisfying. The philosophy that a great customer experience can be manufactured is not only sterile, but also wishful thinking. A panelist mentioned that “one time, Wal-Mart heard their customers weren’t satisfied…so they spent a lot of money cleaning up the aisles and customer satisfaction did not improve.” This story only reinforces that a transaction-based approach was not the solution needed. Was it possible that Wal-Mart could have invested its money in other changes that could have increased customer satisfaction? The fundamental difference in customer-centered companies is that they focus on their culture and behaviors. The success with individual transactions is automatic when the culture is right.
  3. Leadership. As a result of this transaction-focused thinking, leadership in many organizations believes that customer care is the job of touch-point employees. The panel suggested that leadership should show its commitment to the customer by spending more on customer service representatives. And they want to measure the performance of these employees in order to make tiny, incremental improvements rather than re-thinking their approach to customers. Exceptional companies, on the other hand, have leaders that don’t just want to be customer-centered; they want to do the game-changing work of being customer-centered. They have taken the position that ‘It’s going to get better, so let’s be first.’ They encourage employees to experiment because that mindset opens up flexibility and fine-tuning. It’s not difficult; but it requires a work ethic that doesn’t look for shortcuts. It is willing to be comprehensive and high-quality in implementing improvements that customers will value. Having a highly customer-centered culture does not require spending more money. In fact, reducing customer effort through innovative ideas actually simplifies the work that employees have to do and the costs for the organization.

Did you ever hear of a large corporation without a customer service department? Consider Kayak, the online travel company. It expects all of its employees, including the CEO, to answer the famous red phone which handles incoming customer questions and problems. Everybody owns customer improvements. When a customer is having an issue with their product, it’s visible to the entire team. Why is that important? So they hear it unfiltered. When customers find problems, the employees try to fix them immediately. That’s a customer-centered metabolism!

Placing the ladder against the customer-centered wall is the new normal. We live in an age in which every concept is being re-examined. The world was thought to be flat for many years, even though thinkers such as Aristotle knew that it was spherical. In the same way, conventional, one-dimensional approaches to serving customers, which have been accepted for years, are being re-invented by companies that are asking themselves, “How can we be better for our customers.” All of the evidence tells us that what used to satisfy customers is not as convincing as it used to be and that more change is on the way. The conventional wisdom thought “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.” The times we now live in demands that we be pro-active. We have to think “if it isn’t broke, then break it” and build something better.

Instead of perfecting the management model of the 1990’s, exceptional organizations have taken an organic, more natural approach rather than trying to control the system in order to manufacture stability. At the top of this customer-centered ladder are not restrictions, but an expansive area that is open to new ideas for connecting with customers. Employees have a unified worldview—they see their jobs as working to create new ideas that translate into customer success.

Morton’s got a lot of buzz when Peter Shankman tweeted about the steaks being delivered to him. Remember, however, that he is one of their elite customers. They would not have done that for an average customer. In contrast, I prefer the Zappos story in Tony Hsieh’s book Delivering Happiness about finding a pizza delivery provider open in Las Vegas after 2am. The Zappos employee in that story stepped up to help an unknown customer, even though the company has no responsibility to locate pizza businesses. Zappos is a great company because they have engaged their employees to see their purpose as far beyond ordinary serving of customers.

Marketing is about trying to appear different when there is relatively little difference. Ford, General Motors and Chrysler market their advantages compared with the other two companies. This is only an attempt at positioning. On the other hand, premium manufacturers, such as Lexus, Mercedes, or BMW, for example, are perceived by most customers as significantly better than the average products made by the Big Three automakers.

Branding is about separating yourself from the rest of the market. Truly customer-centered organizations are doing important work which is giving them a unique brand that customers recognize and follow.  Because they are extraordinary, these companies are offering strong cultures that act as magnets for their customers who know they will be successful. A brand represents what you will do, not what you say you have done.

David Byrne from The Talking Heads, who could be excused for resting on his past successes, in his new book, How Music Works, takes a different perspective. He tells us what a great time he believes it is to be making music—full of possibilities. In the same way, working with customers is also full of possibilities. It is evolving from a stodgy, restrictive formula into an expansive movement that is creating a new business strategy that is more mindful of the outcomes that customers are offered.

It’s time to reverse the stereotype of customers—that they will accept the way that we want them to do business with us, as long as we are nice to them. Customers are moving to a new world, and in order to remain important to them, cutting-edge companies have abandoned a status quo mindset. The customer shift is inevitable—we are watching it happen.

In this new world order, a customer-centered organization must have a different metabolism. It is not a traditional organization that has simply adapted a few advances in technology. It is asking how it can become and stay more relevant to its customers. In other words, marketing is not enough. Exceptional organizations place customers (rather than product) in the center of their business model because it causes them to continually regenerate their customer strategy.

Achieving strong customer results depends on the choice between settling for being ordinary and being passionate about making history. Don't create a marketing campaign that is driven by yesterday's customer service model; create a culture that will deliver tomorrow's customer success strategy.


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