Last updated: 7/29/2002; 6:43:42 AM

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Marketing 101: Great Customer Service is Great Marketing

There is a growing trend in American business, if not worldwide business, to treat customer service as the poor step child, the ugly sibling that no one wants to acknowledge.  Witness the huge number of companies with those awful dial by number systems that claim to give better customer service but we all know just cut a company's costs.  Just think about it -- when was the last time that a real live person answered the phone at a business of more than 50 people? I strongly doubt that companies understand just how poor the service provided by these automated systems is and how much it alienates customers.

While most company's today seem to give customer service as a drawback, something they'd rather not do at all, smart companies know that great customer service is a fantastic marketing tool.  Here are two case studies, one of a big multinational company and one of a little tiny outlet for a national chain.

American Express: I Still Love You After All these Years

I've been an American Express cardholder since 1989.  That's 13+ years and it's the only credit card I've had that long.  It's also the only brand that I'm loyal to for financial services.  I use an American Express card, buy American Express traveler's checks and recommended their financial services
to my mother when she changed brokers a number of years back.  Why? While there are lots of reasons not to use American Express, the service is so outstanding, so extraordinary, that I suspect I'll be a customer for another 13 years.  People that aren't American Express customers often just don't understand why Am Ex customers love them so.  Perhaps this will make it clear.

Here's an example: I was about to leave for a business trip in two days and realized that I felt my credit card #s had been compromised (don't ask but this stuff really does happen).  Sure American Express, like all the other vendors, covers me for everything except the 1st $50 but I still wanted a new card and a new number.  So I called American Express, got through close to immediately to a real live person (I did have to punch my card # into the phone) and explained the situation.  The customer service person, and I unfortunately don't remember her name, took great care of me and was going to mail me a card by U.S. mail.  When I told her I was about to go on the road, she said something like "That's ok Mr. Johnson, I'll overnight it to you and you'll have it tomorrow".  And, when tomorrow came around, like magic, I had a new card.  No fuss, no muss; it was just easy.  I love that.

I had a similar experience when I also recently needed to move some transactions between multiple American Express accounts and even though the  person needed to reach their supervisor to approve it, they still took charge of the issues and I was taken care of in about 10 minutes.  That's just plain wonderful.  These experiences, more than any of the different "features" of American Express, are the reason that I'm such a fan.  American Express can send me marketing materials until they are blue in the face and, you know something, this customer service is the only marketing that I'm really paying attention to.

Kendra: Why I Returned to Shopping at Walden Books

For those not familiar with it, Walden Books, www.waldenbooks.com, is a small to medium size chain of U.S. based bookstores that have lost favor in recent years due to the growth of Borders and Barnes and Noble. Now I grew up shopping at Walden Books and did so for years.  And I don't change brands easily (example -- I am still using the same toothpaste since I was about 6).  Even though the closet bookstore to my house, is actually a Walden Books, I had shifted almost all of my real time book shopping to Barnes and Noble -- until I met Kendra.  Kendra is the assistant manager at the local Walden Books and her absolutely outstanding customer service has brought me back to the fold.  It started when she tried and succeeded at selling me their discount card.  There wasn't any pressure, just the honest observation that with this many books, I pay for the card with the savings alone.  The next time I shopped there when I didn't have the card she was able to look it up for me.  On another excursion into book land, she noticed the dual purchase of MacWorld and MacAddict and commented that she's a rabid Mac fan.  We talked Macs for a while before I had to run.  When I grabbed books before OSCON, she was equally helpful.  And, not only is her customer service outstanding, she's just plain delightfully pleasant.  All too often customer service staff may do their job but the customer is made to feel that they just hate their job.  I happened to overhear her talking to a co-worker or customer once and heard the comment that she just fell into this (she is actually a teacher but the bad economy...) and is already assistant manager.  That's just fantastic -- someone who doesn't necessarily even want to be there -- is still doing a rocking good job.  That's rare and it's awesome. 

Conclusion

Some people may take issue with the notion of my equating customer service with marketing.  And, classically, they are correct.  There isn't a direct link between the two separate functions and by classical organization standards they are totally separate.  Still if you back up to the big picture and recall the definition of marketing:

Marketing is the creation of demand for a product or service.

In both these situations, Walden Books and American Express could have done all the marketing to me in the world and it wouldn't have made a difference.  I am a busy, skeptical consumer who just tunes it all out.  The only way to really reach me is by providing an excellent experience -- and both these organizations did.  I now have demand for both these products.  And think about it -- I wrote this essay and am now doing marketing on behalf of these companies....  That's the power of great customer service.

About the Author

J. Scott Johnson is a, well, serious geek, software engineer and entrepreneur.  He is the co-founder of The FuzzyGroup, Inc. as well as Vice President of Marketing for Evectors North America, a provider of cutting edge content management software -- the IdeaTools family of products.  Despite working in marketing, Scott codes every single day (generally PHP server applications although the occasional excursion into Python and Perl is common) and seems to just plain really like "programming languages that start with P". He lives in Nahant, Massachusetts with cats.





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