Customer Service is the New, New Marketing

The topic of empowering your customers so that they become an extension of your marketing isn’t new. Transforming people into a surrogate sales force is the dream of any service organization.  The difference today is that the landscape has shifted to the point where good customer service is no longer the minimum ante to play the game.

Over the next decade, customer service will fuse with marketing to become a holistic inbound, outbound campaign of listening to and engaging with customers that will rewrite the rules of the game.  And, most importantly, the lessons learned in the field will be fed into the marketing department to create and run more intelligent, experienced, and real world initiatives across all forms of marketing, PR, sales, and advertising.

Over the last year, Social Media has intrigued and even inspired companies to engage in the communities where their brands and products, as well those of competitors, are actively discussed by the very people they want to reach, aka the new influencers. Participation is no longer an option as Social Media isn’t a spectator sport.

Whether you believe it or not, these conversations are taking place with or without you, so ignoring them only eliminates you from the conversation and also removes your company from the radar screens of your customers.

Marketing-savvy corporate executives are working with PR, Advertising, and Marcom teams to explore options and strategies on how to participate in relevant online conversations. This represents a shift in outbound marketing as it creates a direct channel between companies and customers, and ultimately people. It starts to look a lot less like marketing and a lot more like customer service.

Last year, I introduced customer service into the Social Media equation, as for every company, PR is truly is the responsibility of the entire organization. But it’s much bigger than boxing it in a PR paradigm. I truly believe customer service is the new marketing and communities are at the very least, opportunities to engage customer service.

Social Media is rooted in conversations between people and peers, regardless of the technology that facilitates them, and everyday they take place across blogs, networks, forums, micromedia, and online groups. And, each day, with every new community and social tool that is introduced, brands, products and services are actively discussed, supported, and disassembled. Some companies are listening, while many aren’t even paying attention.

Services such as GetSatisfaction, ThisNext, and even DIY communities such as Ning, Yahoo and Google Groups, and Facebook are playing host to conversations between customers regarding products and services, and while they don’t invite marketing, they do seek helpful information, advice, and direction.

Social Media represents an entirely new way to reach customers and connect with them directly. It adds an outbound channel that complements inbound customer service and traditional PR, direct marketing and advertising, placing companies and their customers on a level playing field to discuss things as peers. Most importantly, it transcends the process of simply answering questions to creating a community of enthusiasts and evangelists.

For the most part, the only way companies know that customers have questions, comments, or concerns, is if they contact customer service, make the news, form a public group, or if buying patterns, stock value, and sales trends suddenly shift.

You can bet that for every inbound customer inquiry, that there is a significant percentage of existing and potential customers actively discussing the same topic out in the open, simply looking for guidance, feedback, acknowledgment, and/or information. And usually, these discussions transpire without company participation, leaving people to resolve issues and questions on their own.

Why leave the door open for your competition to jump into the conversation and steer customers in their direction?

Companies must engage or they place themselves on the long road to inevitable obsolescence.

It’s like the old adage, out of sight, out of mind. Or, quite simply, engage or die.

Nowadays participation is marketing.

Conversations are marketing.

Experiences are marketing.

However, marketing needs to be clarified as I am not referring to the traditional marketing that typically “speaks” at people through “messages.” In Social Media, this is about dialog, two way discussions that bring people together in order to discover and share information…and adapting businesses along with our learning. Joining the conversation isn’t as simple as jumping in however.

Companies first need to listen in order to accurately analyze how, where, and when to participate.

Social Media forces companies to look outward to proactively find the conversations that are important to business and relationships. And it’s not just the responsibility of PR, it requires the participation by multiple disciplines across the organization in order to genuinely provide meaningful support and information. Again, we’re not talking about messaging or sales propositions. If you stop to think about it, we’re talking about fusing marketing, PR, community relations, and customer service in an entirely new socially-aware role.

This is about formalizing outbound communications and community participation, creating a dedicated team to ensure that customers and influencers are not overlooked, but engaged.

We’re already seeing companies that are either dividing outbound responsibilities among existing teams or dedicating roles to full time listening, participating, responding, and commenting across all forms of Social Media. But, this isn’t limited to a select few businesses. This is a role that will become standard in companies around the globe, from SMBs to enterprise organizations, and will likely scale from one person to teams.

This is more than prioritizing enhanced customer service to bloggers. We shouldn’t aim our fire hoses at only fires that have public attention. We need to focus on customers that take the time to contribute to and participate in social networks that simply seek information – even if it is delivered in the form of a rant. Furthermore, we can not simply rely on inbound service. We have to analyze inbound activity in order to seek out related conversations among those that decide to take the conversation outside of the traditional service process.

>In addition to advertising, PR and marcom, these new roles are combining a variety of marketing disciplines including, communications, customer support, and product management and go by several titles:

- Community Advocate
- Community Manager (although, I also hear push back on this title, as communities can’t really be managed.)
- Community Ambassador
- Social Media or Community Specialist
- Community Relations
- Community Builders

Many of us have been involved in online community relations since Web 1.0 through topic-driven discussion groups, user forums and other online communities such as DejaNews, Yahoo, and Google.

We did so as experts and didn’t try to BS the people who were seeking advice and answers. This is an important note because, in order for any of this to work, you actually have to know not only about your products, services, reputation, strengths, weaknesses, and benefits, but also how you compete in the market and where you stand against the competition.

The social media landscape is vast and growing, and may require several internal people to listen and participate every day across blog posts, blog comments, forums, groups, social networks, micromedia, etc.

Please note, that contrary to the Social Media love fest that’s taking place across the blogosphere, not anyone can jump in and solve problems. Companies need to create an internal game plan that officially assigns specific people who will go in and help customers.

Listening to active communities will dictate your participation. But let me point out something very important here. It’s not just about reactive community relations. Companies can and should learn from listening to and talking with customers to create specific content that addresses the wants and needs of customers and distribute it within their communities. This allows you to translate the lessons learned from one on one conversations for the greater good of the masses.

Outbound customer and community relations is among the most important campaigns any company can integrate in its immediate and future initiatives. It not only helps PR and customer service, it builds relationships, creates enthusiasts, and ultimately instills customer loyalty.


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  • Kami Huyse

    This is great Brian. I think that people are organically coming to see that this is the way to most effectively engage with the communities that are most important to an organization.

  • Anonymous

    Brian,

    Excellent synopsis. I agree with much of what you say, except I take exception with this: “For the most part, the only way companies know that customers have questions, comments, or concerns, is if they contact customer service, make the news, form a public group, or if buying patterns, stock value, and sales trends suddenly shift.”

    The best way for companies to know what their customers are saying, especially with B2C, is to ask their employees, who interact and engage with customers in a much more open and honest way than any communications tool can, including those in the social media tool box.

    Nevertheless, you are correct that businesses need to analyze every communications tool and use those that best engage their customers. That includes but is not limited to social media.

    Lewis Green, bizsolutionsplus

  • onlineprguy

    “…not anyone can jump in and solve problems. Companies need to create an internal game plan that officially assigns specific people who will go in and help customers.”

    So very true; the amount of time to really live in social communities is vastly underestimated by many companies rushing in to play. Great article.

  • onlineprguy

    “…not anyone can jump in and solve problems. Companies need to create an internal game plan that officially assigns specific people who will go in and help customers.”

    I am seeing several firms rush into the social media sandbox without realizing just how much time and effort it takes to play there. Great article Brian. Vince

  • Valeria Maltoni, ConversationAgent.com

    As I reread “The Cluetrain Manifesto” I am astounded by how little progress we have made towards conversation — both inside and outside organizations — since 1999/2000.

    I just wish more agencies took the time to understand community and social media dynamics. That is before they recommend it as a new way to get traction on a message/brand fast.

  • www.Measuredup.com The last word in Customer Service

    Could not agree with you more.

    In fact, so much so, we created a customer service review site called Measuredup.com so that consumers and business would create conversations with each other.

  • Richard Stacy

    Agree – I have long been saying that in the future , marketing departments won’t exist – there will be the conversation department and the story department. Prediction 6 in this rather lengthy article http://preview.tinyurl.com/3c79ac

  • Becky Rhone-Nowlan

    This is an excellent post. I really believe that what you are saying is in fact the future of business. It has become too prevalent in business to just satisfy the customer.

    Especially businesses on the internet. It has become popular and sadly the norm to automate their customer service. I absolutely believe that those are the businesses that will get lost in the noise.

    As all of the social network sites popping up (read web 2.0) show that people like to communicate with people.

    The people who believe that customer service is boring will need to wake up and reorganize their thinking or get left behind.

    Thanks for your well thought out insights. It’s a pleasure seeing someone paying attention to the customer for a change.

    becky@fortuneinthefollowup.com

  • Tom O’Brien

    Brian:

    Great post – the really big challenge is for corporation to learn to speak in a human voice. Essentially this means letting real human beings interact without having to run their words by marketing or legal

    The best way to know what people are saying? Listening! (That’s part of what we do at MotiveQuest.)

    More over here

    http://humanvoice.wordpress.com/2007/12/06/customers-are-the-service/

    Tom O’Brien
    http://www.motivequest.com

  • Gauravonomics

    Is customer service important? Yes. Is customer service more important than ever before? Yes. Is customer service the new marketing? Of course not!

    Read my rather contrary post here.

  • Brian Solis

    Kami, thank you. You really are on top of the subject as well@

    Anonymous, true, that should also be part of the equation.

    onlineprguy, thank you!

    Valeria, you too are an expert on the subject. So, thank you. You’re right. There’s a lot of pontification right now but very little understanding or experience.

    Richard, interesting! I’ll have to read it…thank you.

    Becky, thank you. It is the future of business.

    Tom, thank you. I’ll take a look. There is a very active debate about whether or not outbound teams need to run their activities by legal or not. It depends on the company and the goals.

    gauranomics, after talking with you at your blog, I think we’re somewhat in agreement…of course customer service is the new marketing, just like any other element where companies get to talk with customers and hopefully earn their business and their loyalty.

  • Ali

    thanks!

  • http://www.facebook.com/socialmediatrailblazers Philippe gadeyne

    For those of us who have always had the customer at the center of our priorities, customer service, listening and engaging our customers always was “THE”marketing. not the NEW marketing, not the OLD marketing, but THE marketing. When did marketers lose sight that the customer was the center of our world? I read tag lines like “Putting the public back into public relations” Who were marketers talking to? Themselves?
    Called me old fashion, but I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs and business owners and the first thing I learned as a child is that the customer reigns, the customer put bread on the table and a roof on our head. I never forgot the Business 101 lesson and built my career on that principle.
    There is nothing new in the fundamental principles of social media, it's about good business practices, it's about truly caring for your customers
    A few things are new though, the tools are a lot more powerful than what we had in the past and social media gives the public a platform to voice their opinion thus forcing marketers to finally start listening or suffer consequences. In the past, the public's voice was muffled and marketers thought they could get away with not listening, social media gave the public a loud platform marketers can no longer ignore
    In the old days, businesses did not have a choice, marketing, advertising was mostly local, very local, customers talked to each other, there was a balance and that balance generated respect and fear of word of mouth, with mass media, marketers gain an advantage over word of mouth and the public, social media restored the balance.
    It's not new marketing, we have just come full circle and those of us who never lost track of these fundamental principles are finally getting some recognition

    • http://www.briansolis.com briansolis

      Phillippe, I really appreciate this comment. Thank you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/socialmediatrailblazers Philippe gadeyne

    For those of us who have always had the customer at the center of our priorities, customer service, listening and engaging our customers always was “THE”marketing. not the NEW marketing, not the OLD marketing, but THE marketing. When did marketers lose sight that the customer was the center of our world? I read tag lines like “Putting the public back into public relations” Who were marketers talking to? Themselves?
    Called me old fashion, but I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs and business owners and the first thing I learned as a child is that the customer reigns, the customer put bread on the table and a roof on our head. I never forgot the Business 101 lesson and built my career on that principle.
    There is nothing new in the fundamental principles of social media, it's about good business practices, it's about truly caring for your customers
    A few things are new though, the tools are a lot more powerful than what we had in the past and social media gives the public a platform to voice their opinion thus forcing marketers to finally start listening or suffer consequences. In the past, the public's voice was muffled and marketers thought they could get away with not listening, social media gave the public a loud platform marketers can no longer ignore
    In the old days, businesses did not have a choice, marketing, advertising was mostly local, very local, customers talked to each other, there was a balance and that balance generated respect and fear of word of mouth, with mass media, marketers gain an advantage over word of mouth and the public, social media restored the balance.
    It's not new marketing, we have just come full circle and those of us who never lost track of these fundamental principles are finally getting some recognition

  • http://www.briansolis.com briansolis

    Phillippe, I really appreciate this comment. Thank you.

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  • Djohnson

    Trying to interact with customers online is definitely an important skill for all companies to have, but it cannot replace the critical experience that a customer will have with the company face to face. If a company has crabby employees answering phones or greeting customers there is no use of having a great website or Facebook account that is maintained flawlessly, customers won’t visit it! Also, it is imperative to remember that there is still a huge segment of the population (the baby boomers) that aren’t as familiar with online blogs, twitter feeds, or Facebook posts. For these customers, the only way they will give feedback is in store or over the phone. These critical aspects of customer service must be in place before a company can venture into the digital world.
    The way that a company can achieve greatness is by truly having a great team of employees. If a company can demonstrate that they value their employees and give them the tools to work with customers then the basis of their company will be solid.

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  • http://www.service-management-software.org/ free customer service software

    Good sharing. Email marketing is still very efficient now.

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ABOUT ME

Brian Solis is a digital analyst, anthropologist, and also a futurist. In his work at Altimeter Group, Solis studies the effects of disruptive technology on business and society. He is an avid keynote speaker and award-winning author who is globally recognized as one of the most prominent thought leaders in digital transformation.

His most recent book, What's the Future of Business: Changing the Way Businesses Create Experiences (WTF), explores the landscape of connected consumerism and how business and customer relationships unfold in four distinct moments of truth. His previous book, The End of Business as Usual, explores the emergence of Generation-C, a new generation of customers and employees and how businesses must adapt to reach them. In 2009, Solis released Engage, which is regarded as the industry reference guide for businesses to market, sell and service in the social web.

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