Why customer service is the new marketing
And how to build a superstar customer support team
Out of every 10,000 companies that claim they offer ‘a superior customer experience’, only 100 or so are actually delivering it.
That’s one out of 100. Ouch.
And it’s estimated that in the US alone, over $62 billion in revenue is lost every single year because of this.
Surprised? I was.
After all, it’s been 130 years since retail legend Marshall field coined the phrase:
“Give the lady what she wants!”,
and we’ve had this mentality drummed into us ever since. Even if we do nothing else right, we need to nail customer service.
This matters now more than ever.
Because today’s hyper-empowered customer knows what an exceptional customer experience feels like. She’s seen it first-hand with the top dogs — Apple, Amazon, Netflix , UPS — and now, she expects it from everyone.
“I don’t compare my banking experience only to other bank experiences” says Aimee Lucas, Vice President at Temkin Group. “I compare my bank experience to my best experiences with [those of] my favorite airline, with my favorite restaurant and with my favorite retailer.”
If they can do it, why can’t you?
We invest way more trying to win over new customers than we do in keeping our existing ones happy — despite all the evidence to show it should be the other way round.
(Keeping in mind that annual $62 billion loss, the industry isn’t quite breaking even).
But really, customer service is marketing the “relationship marketing”.
And that’s why every interaction should be treated like a deal-clinching pitch.
Obviously, this is tall order.
But customer service it can be a company’s most powerful marketing weapon — if they know how to sharpen it.
Customer service as a competitive advantage
Consider the case of Virgin Atlantic.
Sir Richard Branson was tired of big airlines charging exorbitant fees in exchange for crappy service, so he created Virgin Atlantic, which went on to disrupt the airline industry forever.
“Our marketing team has defined our brand purpose with this pithy one-liner”, Branson explains.
‘Don’t just play the game, change it for good.’
His secret weapon?
It wasn’t the latest cutting-edge technology, genius marketing campaign or even a dramatically different product. Nothing groundbreaking to see here.
He simply went old-school and out-serviced his competitors by (air) miles.
It worked, and 34 years later, it’s still working.
Virgin may have billions of dollars in the bank (which certainly helps), but you need their mindset — not their money — to treat customers better than your competitors.
This mindset can be summed up as: “What is the average in my industry, and how can I consistently do better?”.
You don’t need to go to extraordinary measures to provide extraordinary customer support; you just need to consistently exceed expectations.
And for that, you need a superstar customer service team.
Here’s the good news
Millions of dollars and a huge team aren’t required when it comes to out-servicing your competitors.
Take my company JotForm as an example.
As the founder of a startup with over 3 million users, you might think I was always focused on strategic growth. Maybe you imagine spreadsheets and acquisition charts and high-level financial meetings.
We started out with a customer support team of… me.
I was doing customer support — all day long.
From the moment I sat down at my computer until the end of the workday, I answered hundreds of emails and customer questions.
And it was just me. I was a support department of one.
Without any fancy help desk software or CRM tools, I diagnosed myself the problem, looked into the root of it, chatted to the customer one-on-one.
It was hard work, and I certainly didn’t always get it right — but I was consistent. I cared so much, and customers could tell.
Of course, it’s easy to show you care in the early days. It’s when your business starts to scale that your vision for service is in danger of becoming diluted.
Luckily, JotForm grew slowly, and in turn, so did our customer support team.
We went from a team of one, to three, to nine; today, we’ve got thirty altogether. And all of those team sizes worked equally well, both when we were profitable and when we weren’t.
Because we only hired when the need became pressing; because we only hired in response to, and proportionate to, our growth; because we only hired thoughtfully.
Different stages represent different challenges. But you can build an exceptional customer support experience, no matter the size of your company — or the tightness of your purse strings.
Here are some of the things I’ve learnt:
Looking for a developer? Look at their degree and programming experience. Need a designer? Scour their digital portfolio.
Hiring a member of support staff is a little different, and in many ways, far more complex. Yes, previous experience is important, but it boils down to a certain personality type that’s elusive and hard to summarize.
That’s why so many managers have a free-form interview and rely on their gut instinct. But according to Eileen Naughton, Google’s VP of People Operations, this is the worst way to hire.
She argues that this makes us susceptible to our own biases, meaning we choose people who are similar to us rather than the person who is best for the job (clearly we’re all a bunch of narcissists).
It’s not rocket science, but I suggest a Rubik’s cube approach: a ‘dream profile’ that can be slotted together. Chat to your existing members of support and develop a formula to follow, such as:
- Identify the key traits you’re looking for (e.g. empathetic, kind, curious, intuitive, conscientious, strong communicator, problem-solver, …)
- Then add the ‘must-haves’ in relation to your business — for instance exceptional written abilities, or the ability to work certain hours, or advanced knowledge of a program…
- Finally add the cherry-on-top ‘nice-to-haves’ that can act as bonus points.
Taking a methodical approach will stop you from acting on a whim. Initially there may be some trial and error involved, particularly if you’re hiring from scratch. But over time, you’ll be able to generate a reliable profile to follow and a set of tactics to match.
Because being ‘great with people’ doesn’t necessarily translate down the line — you need someone who’s a perfect match for your customers, who’s aligned with the culture of your business.
Remember: technical skills can be taught, but a mindset is almost impossible to change.
Customer service is often seen as a bottomless drain on a company’s finances.
If only those pesky customers would just stop having issues, our profits would be skyrocketing…
Perhaps. That’s why many startups respond to growth pressure by reducing the amount they spend on support.
But, despite seeming counter-intuitive, providing exceptional customer service and being cost-effective aren’t mutually exclusive; many large and small businesses manage to be both.
Professor Jochen Wirtz of Forbes describes this winning technique as:
“a dual culture strategy, taking an ambidextrous approach to business challenges and embracing — rather than avoiding — what others might see as contradictions.”
Put simply: investing only in areas that add value for the customer, while cutting costs in areas which don’t.
It’s a tricky balance to strike, but it’s strike-able.
Customer service kings Amazon agree, avoiding any spending on things their customers don’t care about:
“Frugality breeds resourcefulness, self-sufficiency, and invention.”
Splashing out on the latest tools to calculate vanity metrics? Customers don’t care.
Paying sky-high rent for a fancy office in a major city? Customers don’t care.
Investing in hiring and retaining the best people? Customers definitely care.
But do those fantastic people all need to be under the same roof? No.
If you think creatively, there are plenty of tactics to keep costs low while maintaining excellent service. Outsourcing awesome staff is a good place to start.
Leave them to it
We can all agree that customer support is inherently stressful.
99% of the time, customers get in touch to vent, complain, express their confusion; there is rarely a sense of let up. It can feel never-ending, like a relentless tide of negativity.
And yet, customer support agents (hopefully) love what they do and enjoy figuring out solutions to problems. It’s what they’re good at, the area they thrive in. It’s why we hired them.
That’s why breathing down their necks or trying to implement a strict process is guaranteed to diminish returns.
We need to, for lack of a better phrase, let them get on with it. Trust them to do their job. Encourage total autonomy.
Because customer support is far more nuanced than the following of a call script or company protocol allows.
Yes, a bit of automation can be helpful, but at the end of the day, successful interactions rely on intuition, empathy, the right words uttered at the appropriate moment — elements only an unscripted human being can provide.
Problems with our product, both existing and potential, are far-ranging and unpredictable; we can’t change this by making our response more predictable.
This human input is what customers crave in an area that sorely lacks it. The more trust we invest, the more independence we allow, the more mutual respect will flourish.
Here’s how to empower your customer support staff and skyrocket their service:
- SAY THANK YOU. Reward them. Treat them. These people are life-savers. Sounds simple, doesn’t happen enough. Go do it now. Reciprocity is a powerful thing.
- DON’T make them ask permission to bend the rules, waive fees or issue a refund. Encourage discretionary power.
- GIVE them more power to use their own initiative to delight and surprise customers, whether or not there is an issue at hand. They probably have awesome ideas that never crossed your mind; I know my support staff do.
- DEVELOP a solid knowledge centre to allow customers to find certain answers on their own and reduce the strain on your staff.
- CREATE feedback loops to ensure feedback is actionable, and staff aren’t banging their head against a wall.
- REVIEW and adjust customer support processes whenever necessary, especially during times of growth. Different team sizes require different approaches.
- ORGANIZE daily/weekly rituals to update one another, discuss issues, read positive feedback and generally share the love.
When staff feel empowered, they will respond by making sure their performance exceeds expectations.
And by tapping into their passion and talent, losing the script, allowing them to think creatively, you unleash the potential for the most extraordinary kind of customer service possible.
It worked for us — that’s how we’ve been able to attract over 1 million new signups in a year.
And I hope it can work for you, too.