Customer service isn’t simply an expensive, time-consuming obligation. It’s a strategic marketing investment if you want it to be.
When Tony built Zappos, he invested in having his customer service people spend hours on the phone with customers, rewarding them for going to great lengths to create memorable interactions. It created a billion dollar shoe store.
When Fedex was building relationships with busy businesspeople who would become the backbone of their customer base, they answered the phone on the first ring, every time.
When Apple needed to save the Mac from Windows hegemony, they installed experts at the Genius bar and encouraged them to spend the time needed to humanize a traditionally inhuman interaction.
Tesla saw that Ford and GM were working to increase the profits that their dealers would make on service. So they chose to seek to make no money at all on service, using that as a key marketing message to their luxury audience. It’s cheaper than TV ads.
Of course, the strategy doesn’t always have to be expensive.
When Google launched their search engine, they made it impossible to contact them. They set the expectation that there was zero human customer support. That expectation is a promise made (and one that’s easy to keep). It puts a lot of pressure on the product, of course, but they were up for that.
What promise does a local deli owner make? Or the freelancer who drives an hour out of her way to deliver the project on time?
A b2b insurance agency spent two million dollars ripping out voice mail from their agency. Every call gets answered by a human every time. It paid for itself in four months. That’s a strategic investment, not a cost-cutting shortcut.
Comcast and the other cable companies led the way in treating customer service as nothing but an expense, one that they work overtime to decrease. And so now, it’s not unusual to spend an hour or two trying to get help from Adobe or Apple. Fedex now takes more than two minutes (up from 2 seconds) to connect a valuable customer to a human operator. Apple, the most valuable company in the world, has shifted its customer support promise to one of denial, delay and disrespect. Was that an intentional strategic act?
The thing about strategies is that you and your team can work to maximize them. If answering on two rings is good, then answering on one ring is better. If 10 helpful salespeople are profitable, then 20 very helpful salespeople are better.
The truth about strategy in a competitive environment: If you are doing what everyone else is doing, if you are inside the band of common, then it’s not an approach that will move you forward. The only way to use customer service as a growth strategy is to be outside the accepted norms.
The question I want to ask the Silicon Valley CEOs that are caught in the uncanny valley of cutting their customer service costs while also puzzling about why consumers don’t like them is: What’s your strategy? Specifically: What’s the reason you’re treating your frontline customer service people as cheap human flotsam, protecting the folks who actually know the answer? What’s the business case for high lifetime value, high acquisition costs and a mindless disregard for customer satisfaction?
You can treat your customers like they don’t have a choice, but in the long run, customers always have a choice.