It Takes Two to Tango
Direct marketing prides itself on its penchant for analyzing, modeling, tracking, testing ... and a whole other slew of gerunds that help marketers develop aggregate customer profiles. "Marketers all know who their average customer is," says customer service and management consultant Liz Kislik, "but the truth is, this person doesn't exist."
The customer profile based on compiled and analyzed data is essential, she says, but if it's where you're putting all your eggs, you're missing out. "You need the data, you've got to have it. But if you're relying only on the data, you're going to develop a very flat view of your market."
The alternative to data-crunching analysis is to reach out into the marketplace. Some marketers do this via focus groups. But there is another
resource that many marketers either are overlooking or are unaware of how to tap: Customer service.
"The reality is that the customer service department has more interaction with customers than anybody else," says Greg Gianforte, CEO of RightNow Technologies, a software company that helps some 1,000 clients worldwidethe likes of Ben & Jerry's, Sketchers, British Airways and the Social Security Administrationmanage customer service efforts.
Kislik agrees. "Customer service reps talk to customers all the time. They know what customers complain about, what they're fed up with and what they like," she says.
"As a resource for marketing," stresses Gianforte, "it's the best place to turn for accurate information."
RightNow has seen such a need for assistance in connecting the customer service and marketing departments that it has created a product, called RightNow Outbound, to automate processes that will harmonize the two.
For starters, Gianforte explains, "Customer service people tend to have a ton of bricks dropped on themmarketing will drop a 2-million piece mailing, and customer service won't even know until customers start calling and referencing it."
Marketing efforts would be significantly aided, he says, if customer service reps were more informed and prepared to assist customers with their questions. This can help avoid potential problems that can arise from lack of communication.
Among other capabilities, RightNow Outbound enables call center reps to click on a customer's name and determine which mailing that customer should have received, complete with a picture of the package. Certainly not all companies need this level of integration. But the success of RightNow Outbound's launch is an indication that at least some marketers are recognizing the benefits of a harmonic relationship, to the extent of making quite an investment in that direction. "We started selling RightNow Outbound last December; so far, we have about 20 customers using it. It's the fastest-growing product we've ever done as a company," Gianforte notes.
Another company that works with Fortune 50 companies also has seen its share of customer service and marketing tangos: The majority of clients at The Verde Group, a global customer research company based in Toronto, are the marketersnot the customer service executivessays The Verde Group President Paula Mateus. "In our experience, the most successful projects are usually those sponsored by the chief marketing officer," she notes. "This could be partially true because these are companies that obviously
realize that strong retention strategies lead to strong acquisition strategies."
One of the reasons more companies don't take advantage of customer service as a major marketing resource might be that they don't believe it's practical for them in terms of time, suggests Kislik, who has worked with such clients as American Red Cross, American Express, Girl Scouts of America and Staples. "Do you know how many companies don't even use the research they pay for?" she poses.
But for those who cower at the thought of trying to merge customer service and marketing through reorganization, the introduction of software, or even the location of department staff, taking advantage of what customer service can offer can be almost ridiculously simple. "You only need to pay attention," Kislik says. "The most basic way you can do this is to go listen to some of the phone calls that come in, to hear the voice of the customer. Customers say things in interesting ways, about things you wouldn't have thought of, in their own words and their own tone of voice. ... You have a very visceral response to live customers; you'd be amazed at the brainstorming insights that can come out of this."
If using a familiar voice is a sure way to relate to a consumer, where better to discover words and phrases that truly appeal to consumers' sensibilities than other consumers who buy your products or use your services?
RightNow analyzes clients' customer data and summarizes the topics most commonly asked about or mentioned. It also will note key words used, which, Gianforte says, "helps clients identify customers' language to avoid 'marketing speak.'"
If your call center is offshore or cross-country, you may be able to do some remote monitoring, says Kislik, or at the very least, review recordings or e-mail correspondence.
"It's also worth trying to meet with your phone reps," Kislik suggests. Doing this can have a tremendous effect on your marketing and your customer service. "You can get unfiltered information about your customers from customer service reps; they may not have a business education, but they have the knowledge on the ground." The other benefit, says Kislik, is that "if your reps think of you as someone who is interested in them, they [will be] more likely to take a personal interest in your marketing efforts."
"Differing Time Horizons"
Another reason many marketers run like the dickens when there is talk of merging customer service and marketing is that the two departments are on "differing time horizons," says Mateus. For example, she explains, "Fixing customer service issues takes time, and there is a lag effect on customer perceptions; customers don't forget easily about problems they've had with a company. Marketers tend to be on a short time horizon. [They] want to see an immediate response to a direct marketing effort. That's one of the primary reasons they are not in sync. ... Is there an opportunity to synchronize them? I absolutely think so," says Mateus.
In fact, Mateus has seen it done. She cites an example of a grocery chain that once conducted a study of customers' likes and dislikes about their grocery-shopping experiences. "One of the key issues [consumers cared about] that came out of [the study] was the freshness and quality of meat. So, the grocery chain launched a huge marketing campaign around the freshness and quality of their meat. ... That idea even became part of their tagline," says Mateus. Many companies can benefit from leveraging this type of customer insight, she suggests, "as long as what you're leveraging isn't something the competition is already leveraging!"
Other Ways to Benefit
Companies also could use the information they garner from customer service to create customer-relevant scripts for upselling and cross-selling. Marketers often are so interested in acquisition that they overlook the revenue potential for maximizing their upsell and cross-sell opportunities, suggests Mateus. "Customers who call in to report problems are two-to-three-times more amenable to be upsold or cross-sold if their problem is solved to their satisfaction," she says. "That's huge revenue potential."
RightNow Technologies uses customer data to create highly personalized outbound e-mail communications that are both targeted and timely. In today's day and age, says Gianforte, "If your messages are not highly personalized, they're not going to get read."
As an example of how marketing and customer service can dance beautifully together, Gianforte says, "If you're a parent, and you call a toy company's customer service department in January about a toy you bought your two-year-old son for Christmas asking how to replace the batteries, that company now has a record of the fact that you have this product and a two-year-old son. Next October, wouldn't it be helpful to that customer if the company would send her some suggestions for toys that happen to be appropriate for three-year-olds?"
It's important to keep your use of such personal information in check, though, experts suggest, and to use this type of data solely to provide the right offer to the right people at the right time, not to reference this information in communications with the consumer.
A Catch 22
Even though linking marketing and customer service can be as simple as lending an occasional ear to customer communications, Kislik empathizes with the many marketers who remain wallflowers and watch others from afar. "It's amazing how hard it is to not do what you always do," she says. "A lot of this kind of attentiveness gets lost when everyone is so strapped for time and money ... but it is often [this kind of attentiveness] that could save you" time and money in the long run.