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Are you being served? Why customer service is becoming the most important part of brand marketing

February 10, 2014 | 4 min read

Customer service is the least glamorous aspect of brand marketing, but it’s also becoming the most important, writes Mark Lowe.

The call centre: Not glam, but a crucial brand battleground

If you want to chat to a true cross section of British society, there are two places you should go. The first is a DVLA mandatory speed awareness course; the second is the call centre of a major energy company.

I had the pleasure of attending the former a few years ago and I can attest that it included a high court judge, a Bulgarian lorry driver, several job seekers and an SEO consultant from Hackney, all of them suitably contrite.

On Tuesday Neil Clitheroe, the CEO of Scottish Power, gave me an insight into the latter. Over five million customers from every walk of life have access to his call centres, from Premier League footballers to students with power-keys. The subject of the discussion (hosted by a client, Ombudsman Services) was the effect of customer service on brands and one insight was particularly memorable.

“We do net promoter scores and brand tracking all that stuff, but if you really want to know how the company is doing, there’s one metric to look at. Ask people who haven’t spoken to you for ages if they like you, then ask people who’ve spoken to you in the last three months. If the first figure is higher than the second, then you’re in trouble.”

Forget TV advertising and Olympic sponsorship; the most important marker by which consumers judge a company is the very last customer service experience they had. In a world where brands look similar and competition in certain sectors is questionable at best, getting the customer experience right is the one truly effective way for a brand to differentiate itself.

Technology puts Clitheroe’s insight into even sharper relief. According to research released today by Ombudsman Services, more than a quarter of Britons are more likely to buy from a brand that handles complaints properly. But when they get it wrong, a quarter (27 per cent) of complainants will use social media to get their issue addressed.

This is the democratising effect of social technology, so often talked about by marketers in the context of ‘brand reputation’ or ‘driving conversations’, but most vividly illustrated through the most basic of customer needs; the desire to complain and to have that complaint listened to and acted upon. Anyone who has taken to Twitter in frustration knows just how effective this can be.

Of course, marketers have talked about the customer experience for decades and many successful brands are built on a service proposition, First Direct being an obvious example. But too few take the customer experience seriously enough, partly because it is a ‘system’ problem rather than just a marketing problem. Getting it right requires rigid hierarchies to work together; IT, call centre, marketing department, press office, legal and sales.

They may not want to address it, but as technology advances ambitious brands will have little choice because the opportunities for customers to exact revenge will only increase.

Mark Lowe is a founding partner at Third City. Following him on Twitter @markrlowe


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