Customer Service: The New Marketing

By Paula Bernier, Executive Editor, TMC  |  March 01, 2012

This article originally appeared in the March issue of Customer Interaction Solutions

“We live in a cynical world. A cynical world. And we work in a business of tough competitors.”

These words were uttered by Jerry Maguire, the title character played in the movie by Tom Cruise. Like the couch-jumping actor himself, this fictional sports agent became a cautionary tale of what can happen when you lose your bearings, even temporarily, in the business world. But, in the end, Jerry also demonstrates what can happen when you truly dedicate yourself to the customer. That is, you get a friend for life.

The mission statement that got Jerry Maguire fired included the statement: “With so many clients, we had forgotten what was important.” And it brought to Jerry’s mind the late, great sports agent Dicky Fox’s credo: “The key to this business is personal relationships.”

Back in 1996, when Jerry Maguire was released, these ideas were considered old fashioned. And I guess they still are. Nonetheless, the ideas of personal attention and customer service seem to be making a comeback.

I say this not only because I continue to hear the refrain that customer service is the new marketing, but also because I’ve experienced it on more than one occasion in recent months. After being reminded of the theme that customer service is the new marketing, which was a quote from one of the sources in CNBC’s recent Customer (Dis)service special, I did a Google (News - Alert) search on the term and received a lengthy list of relevant results.

Probably the most interesting one was a December 2011 Forbes article contributed by Matt Mickiewicz, the co-founder of 99designs, who started his piece with the words: “Treat your customers as if they were newspapers reporters; this is the new mantra for savvy companies of all sizes.” As a former newspaper reporter, I certainly wouldn’t suggest that any company treat a customer like a newspaper reporter, but we all get his point. The point is that, as human beings, we all need our love. And, as customers, especially when we’re frustrated, a little TLC goes a long way.

As Shelle Rose-Cavet, a source in the above-mentioned CNBC report, noted: “When the customer is upset, everything changes.”

Companies that want to keep customers in those situations clearly need to jump aboard the love train and do whatever they can to calm a shaken confidence.

But whether a company is in the midst of customer crisis management or just doing its regular day-to-day business, Mickiewicz suggests that organizations should think about their long-term reputations vs. short term profit, and that they ought to identify their top customers and make them feel special. The airline industry has been successful at implementing this second suggestion. And now companies of all stripes are looking at how they can be more responsive to existing customers and win the loyalty of both prospects and those with which they already have won business.

Building trust can start with marketing, according to Mickiewicz. “As consumers, we’ve become disenchanted with advertising and marketing of all sorts, having being duped, tricked or made to feel foolish on more than one occasion,” he writes. “The last true medium that holds sway is referrals from friends, colleagues, or online reviews from the likes of Yelp (News - Alert), AngiesList or TripAdvisor. According to a survey by the American Marketing Association, 90 percent of consumers trust peer reviews and 70 percent trust online reviews. It’s the last, true, medium that many consumers turn to when faced when inundated with choice, and confused by similar-sounding sales pitches.”

Certainly, customer service these days is defined differently than it was in days of old. I marvel at the fact that my mother in law as a young woman worked in the baby section at Marshall Fields, where customers would sit in a chair and she would present them with whatever children’s goods their hearts desired. Nonetheless, today the song remains the same: It’s all about letting the customer know that you care.

Building an organization with that as a central goal is going to be very important if customer service is indeed the new marketing. That said, anyone in a customer-facing role could probably benefit by taking a page from the playbook of the late, great fictional sports agent Dicky Fox, who famously said: “I love the mornings! I clap my hands every morning and say, 'This is gonna be a great day!'” 

Edited by Stefania Viscusi