Customer Service Is NOT The New Marketing

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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 zappos.com, 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.

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