How Marketers Can Better Serve the Customer

Marketing and customer service are both dedicated to understanding customers and to building deeper relationships. Yet in many organizations, the two groups have little connection with one another, or have done little more to bridge the worlds than telemarketing or cross-sell campaigns. The artificial wall between marketing and customer service curtails opportunities to capitalize on customer insights, purchase signals, and conversations to become social media leaders, and to make more timely and targeted offers to existing clients.

Creating a strong and durable partnership between marketing and customer service requires collaboration to find common ground, and to establish a culture that values expanding the relationship. “Remember that contact centers many times focus on operational efficiency—measuring performance based on talk time and how quickly agents get to the next call,” says Matthew Storm, director of innovation and solutions at contact center automation vendor NICE Systems. “Customer service agents may need promotions or incentives to stay on the call and make the right offer.”

The first step in building the bridge from the marketing perspective is to realize that customer service is already involved in marketing’s mandate. Sitting as they do at the front line of the organization, they see and hear much of what customers tell the company, and that gives them a unique perspective on how well marketing’s messages are received—and when they need to be refined. “Marketing makes the brand promise, but when the customer talks to the contact center, it’s often because that promise was broken,” says Eric Head, senior director of sales at customer experience analysis firm ForeSee. “Working together provides a great opportunity to understand what has happened between the brand promise and the execution on that promise.”

Teamwork requires a team

Marketing and customer service leaders must share common goals to make their partnership work, and that begins with having the right personnel in place to guide and support the collaborative mission. New executive positions are being created in customer-centric organizations to take total responsibility for all customer contact, outbound and inbound. In April JEA, the electric and water utility in Jacksonville, FL, hired its first chief customer officer, Monica Whiting, to unify marketing and customer service efforts. Whiting oversees all customer-facing functions from brand management to bill paying.

The utility now has weekly meetings between group directors across marketing and customer service functions. “There’s a tendency to build silos in larger organizations, especially in utilities,” says Paulette Marino, manager of corporate research at JEA. “Now that we meet regularly and talk to each other about customer issues, we’re much more in tune with what the other areas of the business are doing.”

Online food-ordering service GrubHub attributes its success in linking marketing and customer service efforts to a new type of call center agent, with the right balance of customer advocacy and professional efficiency. “We’re irreverent and not script-driven, so we don’t recruit on call center experience; we recruit on communication experience,” says Todd Provino, GrubHub’s VP of customer service. “Someone with 20 years of experience as an airline rep is not as interesting as someone who won’t want to rush you off the phone, and isn’t focused on handle-time metrics and the need to move on to the next transaction.”

The marketing opportunity within customer service

Businesses that treat customer service as a chore—something performed begrudgingly and quickly—are missing out on a prime marketing opportunity. When customers are on the phone, they’ve made it clear that they want to speak with you. And that opens up a tremendous opportunity for marketing and customer service to work together on expanding the business. An oft-quoted Gartner Inc. statistic claims that customers are up to 10 times more likely to convert on an offer made when they initiate contact with the brand.

JEA partners with retailers, builders, and government agencies on a variety of energy-efficient products and services, but the offers can easily be overlooked in the course of normal business. To improve the exposure of the offerings, JEA has trained its agents to present some of these services when customers call in with questions or complaints about high energy bills. Even if the initial offer is not accepted, the customers become more aggressive about seeking out new services in the future. “Most customers don’t look at the content on the website beyond reading the bill, but when we point out these programs they go back to the site and investigate more offers,” Marino says.

Targeted offers can provide a revenue-generating alternative to shorter calls. When San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) achieved its initial goal of reducing talk times by 20%, rather than cut further the utility took the opportunity to generate more business on new service calls. When a new customer account is established, agents now proactively cross-sell hook-up services for telecommunications, cable, satellite, and home alarm systems.

But collaboration extends beyond simply queuing up the right offers for well-qualified callers. When GrubHub launches new promotions, agents are always given a full briefing on the offers, including images of physical collateral or display ads. The briefings are sent through the agents’ online portal or via email, or are held live on the floor, depending on their urgency and complexity. Because GrubHub uses a virtual contact center solution from Five9, Provino can easily add remote agents if call demand seems likely to spike due to a new promotion. “We have a lot of real-time communication across departments on the day of a launch, and we will debrief after particular events to see how we can plan better and learn from mistakes,” he says.

With real-time dashboards, marketing can also tactically hold fire on a new offer until the customer service group is in position to handle an influx of orders and inquiries. GrubHub’s marketing group constantly monitors the service quality and average speed to answer in the contact center, and can delay releasing new campaigns until volume falls. “We debate whether certain transactions are the right thing to do given the state of the business at the time, such as dropping an email to 500,000 people at a busy time,” Provino says. “We don’t want to drive people into the contact center for a bad experience.”

A data-driven partnership

GrubHub’s approach requires data. But not all marketing teams are as data-driven as GrubHub’s is, especially when it comes to collaboration with customer service.

Marketers need to realize that the wealth of data housed in customer service makes the organization a valuable, potential partner for future campaigns. And that data is more than just broad averages and vague trends. Some contact center management systems can analyze calls to identify key words or phrases that point out opportunities, like an important life event such as a marriage, as well as listen for vocal stress patterns that warn of issues like propensity to churn. “Real-time speech analytics gives marketing the diagnostic stats they need to know which campaigns are working, and when,” says Jon Arnold, principal at J Arnold & Associates. “And they give the contact center tools to escalate a call before it becomes a bigger problem.”

 

Self-service via phone and Web is a common point of collaboration between marketing and customer service—marketing wants to portray the brand as helpful and easy to do business with, while customer service wants to satisfy needs and deflect costly, low-value calls from the contact center. JEA works with ForeSee to develop integrated insights across marketing and customer service. The resulting research has revealed just how important collaboration between marketing and customer service can be. JEA’s marketing department owns the utility’s website, and redesigns and changes in functionality are a leading driver of calls to customer service—and ensuing dissatisfaction.

In fact, customer satisfaction in the contact center dips as much as 20 points if a caller reports being unable to handle their issue online. JEA’s customers may be captive, but that does not make them powerless, and both teams are well motivated to eliminate the root causes of dissatisfaction. “For municipal [utilities], if a customer is really upset they write a letter—to the mayor and their council person,” Marino says. “We are very visible to everyone in Jacksonville.”

Often, businesses need to go beyond a single department to fully understand why a marketing campaign or customer service initiative isn’t working. SDG&E worked with customer experience analysts ClickFox to track the path customers take through all touchpoints with the company, and learned that some jargon-heavy offerings were being ignored because customers didn’t understand the vocabulary.

“Customers don’t know what ‘payment arrangement’ means—they know they have trouble paying their bill, and they want to do something about it,” says Michael Schneider, VP of customer operations for SDG&E. New, plain-language offers replaced the industry terminology, and the uptake of self-service for complex tasks increased considerably.

By comprehensively analyzing customer activity through campaigns, self-service channels, and live customer support calls, SDG&E also reduced talk time by 20% and reduced call center staffing by 20%, all without sacrificing customer satisfaction ratings.

Getting social with service and marketing

Social media has added a new wrinkle in the collaboration between customer service and marketing. A channel that’s proven a benefit to one can be a potential disaster for another.

“Social media is a dream for marketers—it’s a fast, efficient, high-end way to create community and dialogue,” J Arnold & Associates’ Arnold says. “But it creates a huge nuisance for the contact center; it’s unstructured and unfiltered.”

Fortunately, new tools and techniques are emerging to make social media monitoring and response much more manageable. These solutions can automatically filter both incoming direct messages to the brand, as well as third-party discussions, into manageable doses, categorized by topic, severity, and the urgency of response. Brand questions go to marketing, while action items are sent to the customer service team. “And if someone is complaining about their airline because there’s a snowstorm and a two-hour delay, that’s not actionable and doesn’t need a response, but the airline can still store it and stay in the loop,” says Nancy Jamison, principal analyst of customer centers, at Frost & Sullivan.

Not all social media programs require bleeding-edge technology to be effective. High-end home audio maker Emotiva relies on an open Internet forum, powered by ProBoards, to keep lines of communication open with more than 12,000 customers. Because Emotiva is an e-commerce company, the forum acts as a gathering place for customers and employees. “We don’t have a retail space where customers can come by and talk to us, so we created the forum as an experiment to provide a place to hang out and talk about audio,” says Jessica Gordon, Emotiva’s director of marketing.

Emotiva’s highest-end products are computer powered, so they can be improved over time through firmware upgrades. Hundreds of customers visit the forum every day, and new feature requests are a hot topic of conversation. Gordon and her team monitor feature discussions and requests to identify the capabilities most important to customers, and that information goes directly to the programming team. Rather than guess about valuable product improvements, Emotiva can focus on gaps and enhancements recommended by paying customers who visit the online forum.

Social customer service is tricky because detailed complaints involve the exchange of confidential information, such as account numbers, payment cards, and addresses. Twitter and Facebook both allow discussions to be taken private, but the best strategy for brands is to bring the final, positive outcome back into the public eye. “You try to take it public so people see it was resolved and you hopefully get a ‘thank you’ from the customer, which has huge value for a brand,” says Joshua March, cofounder and CEO of social media customer service platform Conversocial.

At Hertz, social media is still the domain of the PR and marketing team. Specially trained customer service reps act as the face of the company on its official customer service Twitter feed, which was established to address volumes of social content too high for the marketing team to manage. “We realized it was an opportunity for us to not only improve the customer experience, but also further engage with our customers,” says Lemore Hecht, manager of communications and social media at Hertz. “Customer service has access to customer data, and it was easiest to train them on social media and be prepared to respond to any inquiries.”

Thirty of Hertz’s top customer service agents rotate through Twitter duty, handling all manner of account and rental inquiries from more than 22,000 Twitter followers. Issues that have greater brand impact are tagged through the company’s Conversocial platform for further marketing review. “Those action items are immediately sent to us in email, which promotes a great two-way street between marketing and customer service,” Hecht says. “The results are an increased level of brand advocacy, and there’s nothing better than peer-to-peer referral on a social site.”

Social media’s status as an emerging contact channel often leads to inconsistencies of service. Many brands struggle to find the right blend of rapid responses via social channels without treating customers on traditional channels as second-class citizens. GrubHub grapples with this issue in times of high contact volume, when customers can avoid longer hold times by moving to Twitter for a response with half the wait. “Should people who tweet us be able to cut in line just because that communication channel is considered real time?” Provino says. “It’s a big question, and we’re going to be spending a lot of time talking about it, but I don’t think there’s a right answer yet.”

Experts agree that although there are good reasons for social media projects to begin with marketing, customer service must have a significant ownership stake. “There’s a massive brand benefit because customer service agents are trained to resolve issues properly before they spiral out of control, and they provide 24-hour coverage, which marketing teams aren’t usually able to do,” March says.

Ultimately, enterprises must choose the right people for the job of customer engagement—and those professionals are already in the customer service field. “There’s a lot of awareness that social media belongs in the contact center,” Jamison says. “You don’t want somebody in marketing replying to banking customers with sensitive information. You have to train people how to respond.”

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