Customer Service Is NOT The New Marketing

One of the recurring themes in the marketing press/blogosphere are articles proclaiming customer service to be the “new” marketing.

A Google search for “customer service is the new marketing” (with quotations around the whole phrase) turns up more than 700,000 links. The most recent article that I’ve seen comes from The Social CMO Blog, which writes:

“The democratizing nature of social media has returned power to the customer, making Brand Advocates one of our strongest marketing assets. If we want to share their power (not take it!), we need to adopt customer service as the new way of marketing.”

Sigh.  I guess we marketers are just a bunch of sniveling little powermongers constantly wrestling for “power” with customers, who once had that power, lost it, and now regained it thanks to the mighty magical powers of social media.

I’ve written about the notion of customer service as the new marketing. I said it was “a ridiculous, terrible, and misguided idea”:

If customer service is now serving the role of marketing, then who’s planning and executing campaigns? Who’s determining the allocation of marketing spend across channels and programs? Who’s figuring out which customers the firm wants as “raving fans” in the first place? The customer service department? The department in which it’s not unusual to see 40-60% annual turnover among personnel? The department that is increasingly outsourced to some offshore service provider?

The execution of campaigns and the like notwithstanding, the problem with the “customer service is the new marketing” notion is that it reduces marketing to some simplistic notion of “keeping customers, and generating WOM among customers in order to gain new customers.”

Unfortunately, this is a problem that extends to those social media fanatics who seem to think that every form of marketing that has come before is now dead, and that only social media matters.

Call me crazy, but I see marketing as a multi-dimensional, complex business function that encompasses advertising, public relations, promotions, pricing, market research, acquisition and retention marketing — and to make matters even more complex — encompasses all those activities across an ever-expanding list of channels, or points of influence.

The Social CMO Blog seems to think we can boil this down to a four-word marketing “strategy”: Guess Less, Ask More. According to the blog, the #1 question we should be asking brand advocates is “How can I serve you?” and, as far as the blog is concerned, we should be asking it early and often.

I can just imagine the conversation between a CEO and the “social” CMO:

CEO: What’s our marketing strategy this year?

CMO: Guess less, ask more.

CEO: I wasn’t guessing, and I shouldn’t have to ask you more to get you to tell me our marketing strategy.

CMO: Oh, no. I wasn’t telling you to guess less and ask more. That IS our marketing strategy.

CEO: [stunned silence]

CMO: The democratizing nature of social media has returned power to the customer, making Brand Advocates one of our strongest marketing assets. If we want to share their power (not take it!), we need to adopt customer service as the new way of marketing.

CEO: Um, ok.

CMO: The #1 question we should be asking our Brand Advocates is “How may I serve you?

CEO: What have we been asking?

CMO: How likely are you to refer us to your friends and family?

CEO: What’s wrong with that question?

CMO: [dumbfounded silence]

CEO: Never mind. So our marketing strategy is basically “gather more information from the people who already our best customers”? How will that help us convert the non-advocates into advocates? How will that help us penetrate new markets?

That conversation is going nowhere (as is the CMO).

The whole “customer service is marketing” notion ignores an important point: Just because something influences a customer’s choice of who to do business with doesn’t make that something “marketing.”

If my phone company screwed up my bill month after month, I’d be inclined to go elsewhere (but, of course, I can’t, because I’m contractually bound) — does that make billing the new marketing? A company that makes a lousy product is bound to lose customers, and maybe never acquire them in the first place — does that make manufacturing the new marketing?

Marketing is a complex business function that is deeply entwined with other functions like customer service, manufacturing, etc. Like finance and HR, it touches a lot of other functions.

But just because there’s a touchpoint between two functions doesn’t make one function the other function (nor, for that matter, does it mean that one of those functions should report to the other — as a number of people who call for customer service to report to marketing, seem to think).

When I wrote about this topic in 2008, there were a number of really good comments to the blog post, including this one from Francois Gossieaux:

“I agree that you do not want to turn a customer service department into a marketing campaign engine, but if you look at, there are companies who are *very* successful in leveraging the customer service department for sales and marketing.”

Francois is right, but his point doesn’t contradict mine. One of marketing’s roles is to identify the competitive gap, or opportunity, in the market that would enable a firm to gain an edge and differentiate itself with superior customer service. But the superior customer service — in and of itself — is not marketing.

Claiming that “customer service is the new marketing” is bound to get you a lot of blog hits, and (probably) a lot of comments agreeing with you. But you’d be wrong. Dead wrong.


10 thoughts on “Customer Service Is NOT The New Marketing

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Customer Service Is NOT The New Marketing « Marketing Tea Party --

  2. Great read and right on. To your point, I had an interesting experience this past weekend.
    I’m a Charter cable/internet/phone customer. They’ve had their issues in the past to be sure. But on Sunday our all our services went out during an ice storm. I logged on via my cell phone and tweeted to find out if anyone else in Madison WI was having issues. Within a minute I received a tweet from a Charter SM customer service rep who told me there were issues in my area, to DM him my account number and he’d check if that was the problem or if it was something else.

    A few minutes later, I received another DM that it was indeed a service issue and they were working on it. 15 minutes later, we were back online and I was posting on ALL my social networks my appreciation to Charter.

    All in all, a fascinating marketing experience.

  3. Hurrah, I am firmly not one of those who believes that ‘customer service is the new marketing’. That reduces the value, insight and contribution each of these areas can bring to the way in which a company engages with its customers.

    Having worked in marketing and customer service, and for the last few years heavily tied in with social media, there is no doubt in my mind that a company and its customers benefit when these two different disciplines, which approach the customer proposition from different angles, come together. So is this true when other areas of the business are also given a voice to contribute: ops, compliance, sales etc.

    At the end of the day, a customer is a customer to the whole organisation and not simply to one department.

  4. I want to take all of your blog posts with dialogue like this and string the banter all together and put on an off-Broadway show. Would be amazing.

    Okay, maybe off-off-Broadway, but still…

  5. This is true when marketing is construed in the narrow scope of ‘advertising and promotion’. But when marketing is taken in the larger context of all those controllable things it takes to successfully take a brand to market, it is a somewhat narrow take.

    In the now global marketplace, ‘marketing’ positioning strategies of price, convenience, location, quality, etc have become less effective as differentiators. Customer service become the dominent way to differentiate a company. Hence, I believe, the statements that ‘customer service is the new marketing’

  6. Thanks for commenting, Shaun.

    But the statement “Customer service [has] become the dominant way to differentiate a company” is not universally true. Apple doesn’t differentiate on its customer service. Google doesn’t differentiate on its customer service. The list goes on and on. There are companies that do differentiate on its customer service. It’s those firms abilities to excel on a particular business function — in this case, customer service — that that enable them to differentiate. If a firm like Apple differentiates based on product design and quality, does that make “product design and quality” the new marketing? No.

    I don’t mean to sound critical or inflammatory, but people who hold the view that “customer service is the new marketing” are harming the discipline of marketing, and doing it a disservice.

  7. I think a huge problem is that customer service has become all about writing back and forth and not based on face to face relationship building. We say social media is all about relationships, but I think these relationships have become people hiding behind text.

    2 cents

  8. Entertaining read as usual, Ron. I’m trying to get some content together for a webinar on “Social CRM” that’s proving to be a challenge from a variety of fronts. Wondering if you have any thoughts here? I started out with social data being “bolted” onto CRM data bases (the new rage before Facebook killed the Rapleaf star) and now I’m trying to think up socially-informed marketing strategy beyond…yes, customer service and call centers…

    Thanks for the read!

  9. Ron: Good points, I think. Certainly in the technology centre, the core drivers are quality and innovation. Outside of this, however, there are mountains of research identifying how consumers are making selections – and customer service is continuing to be the core driver. Hospitality, Retail, F&B, professional services – even the manufacturing sector.

  10. So true!!! Customer Service is not the “new” marketing. That seems like a ploy to justify the fact that it is a lost art, thereby qualifying it as something that, if done, should be applauded. I work for DISH Network and can attest to the fact that we take Customer Service very seriously. Not to say that there aren’t problems and exceptions to the “new rule”, but we undergo extensive CS training for just such instances, i.e. complaints. In fact, DISH is currently rated #1 in Customer Satisfaction by ACSI (2010). If anyone is shopping for a TV Provider with the customer at the forefront, check out!!!

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