Customer Service Is NOT The New Marketing

One of the blurbs in a recent Adweek/IQ Daily Briefing email posed the question: Is customer service the new marketing? According to the email:

Nowadays things are changing. Customers looking for products simply type them into Google. Assuming you can get customers this way, the hard work then begins: keeping them. That’s why, according to Andy Ridlinger, customer service is now serving the role of marketing. “Companies need to start treating customer service as an investment rather than an expense. The necessary ‘white glove’ level of service required to create raving fans is more expensive in the short-term, but in the long term you not only spend less supporting current customers,” he writes. “Their free word-of-mouth marketing will help you add more customers.”

My take: This is 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 isn’t unusual to see 40-60% annual turnover among personnel? The department that is increasingly outsourced to some offshore service provider?

I need to stop, I’m laughing too hard to continue.

The notion that “customer service is the new marketing” is the epitome of cumbaya marketing. “Let’s just be really really nice to customers and they’ll tell all their friends and we’ll make money hand over fist.”

There are a host of problems with the notion of the customer service department as a profit center. First and foremost is that it can incent service reps to focus on selling rather than problem resolution. Example: How many times have you called in to your credit card provider with a question or problem, only to be barraged with balance transfer offers? Second, the people who are trained to resolve problems often lack knowledge about the products, and typically aren’t trained in selling techniques in the first place.

I don’t mean to diminish the importance of great customer service. In the scheme of things, it’s critical to retaining customers — and establishing a reputation that helps win new customers. But it isn’t the same as marketing. And it hardly is a substitute for existing marketing functions.

I expect to hear crap like “customer service is the new marketing” from vendors trying to hawk their technology, and from people who have a year or two’s worth of business experience. But for Adweek to legitimize this notion is irresponsible. And I couldn’t help but groan when I saw a Web page recently for a conference called Customer Service Is the New Marketing (I won’t honor it with a link). It pained me to see somebody I respect on the speaker slate.

This really begs a deeper, more fundamental question: Why would Adweek put this in its daily briefing in the first place?

The answer, I’m afraid, has to do with a lack of understanding of, and often disagreement about, what marketing is in the first place. Unlike the accounting or manufacturing functions in an organization — which are well defined, understood, and undisputed — the marketing function is often interpreted differently by different types of execs and by different types of firms.

It’s what I’ve referred to as marketing’s civil war — the culture clash between the brand-oriented marketers and the quantitative-oriented marketers. The customer service-oriented marketers are just a new faction — thankfully unarmed, underfunded, and for the most part unable to participate in this war.

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June 4 Update: I’m not going to change the original text of the post, because what’s out there is out there, but I’d like to apologize to Adweek and retract the comment about it being irresponsible for including this in its email. The original email asks “Is Customer Service The New Marketing?”, not states “Customer Service Is The New Marketing.” The rest of my thoughts on the topic remain unchanged.