Customer service has had a pretty rough ride over the years, often finding itself marginalised and under-appreciated. Customer service has traditionally had no representation at board level, it has typically been dismissed as a “cost centre”, and has tended to be short-changed when it comes to budget.
Yet there is a growing realisation that there is tremendous value within the service department if only it isn’t isolated from the rest of the organisation. This is particularly the case amongst those organisations that appreciate the competitive differentiation that excellent customer experience delivers.
And if an organisation is to truly embrace customer-centricity, it needs to drive a service philosophy through the entire business – something that can only be achieved if the customer service department has greater internal participation and influence. While in many cases, this is a result of the leadership buying into the concept of customer-centricity, there are many examples where it is up to the service department to seize the initiative.
“Customer service teams need to work hard to maintain and build relationships across the business to champion the cause of customer service,” notes Paul Beesley, senior consultant and trainer at Beyond Theory. “I once saw a slogan that said, ‘customer service is not a department, it’s an attitude’. How true.”
At a departmental level, service leaders and the service team as a whole can exact change and drive benefits within its own discipline and beyond by working to improve alignment and integration with the rest of the business. And one of the most important departments that the service team should be building bridges with is marketing.
“It is very important for organisations to change the policies of old and have marketing and customer service work together, as each department can make the other’s job easier and achieve goals faster,” emphasises customer service trainer/coach, author & speaker Steve DiGioia.
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Colin Taylor, CEO & chief chaos officer at The Taylor Reach Group, explains some of the specific departmental benefits that alignment between service and marketing can bring.
“In the case of marketing, it is customer service that deals directly with the customers. Customer service has insights and knowledge that could benefit marketing efforts and activities if it were shared,” he says.
“Similarly, marketing has valuable insights that can help customer service be more effective, efficient and better deliver the desire customer experience. For example, marketing will know events such as changes to return policies and upon the department as a whole, new promotions, product releases or flash sales, in terms of volumes, and/or distribution of contacts. This allows for improved planning and preparation so that the proper resources are in place [for the service team] when and where required.”
However, despite these benefits, traditionally collaboration between service and marketing has been limited. “Marketing in many organisations has historically had an arms-length relationship with customer service,” notes Taylor.
So how can collaboration be improved? What can the service department do to help improve alignment with marketing? And how can the flow of information both to and from the service department be supported?
Obvious first steps include ensuring that the respective team leaders are in regular contact; that staff understand the value of collaboration; that communication is supported via processes and metrics; and that the service team is aware of the kinds of information they should be sharing with the marketing department. Barriers to better communication also need to be identified and removed.
Growth marketer and entrepreneur, Sujan Patel believes that a traditional obstruction to closer collaboration has been the failure to prioritise meetings and not providing teams with the time to foster initial conversations.
“If support teams are catching wind of a problem with a product via, say, their contact centre, are they empowered to reach out to marketing to ask for help in providing a written or visual solution that the support team can share in the future?” he asks.
Marketing in many organisations has historically had an arms-length relationship with customer service.
“With clients I’ve worked with, we often found examples of the support team coming up with ideas for the marketing team based on the issues they’re facing with customers. That’s such a useful resource for marketing. At the very least, meeting weekly, twice a month is the only way to ensure leaders in both departments are on the same page.”
While a structured programme of meetings is important, it is vital that attendees have commitment to this collaboration process, rather than being reluctant participants who will add little to the discussion. To achieve staff buy-in, Colin Taylor suggests that leaders educate the teams about the benefits they can expect to experience with better collaboration.
“With the realisation that we are ‘all in the soup together’ and that cooperation and collaboration is not just a win/win, but is more accurately characterised as a symbiotic relationship, both parties can come to the table equipped and prepared to help and learn from the other,” he says. “This is not a quixotic dream, once both parties realise that the other party holds some of the key element required for success.
“Best practice organisations have seen the benefits and have formalised a structure to ensure that both departments benefit from this relationship. Common elements of such a process include; establishment of regular, weekly or monthly meetings between the leadership teams to understand upcoming initiatives or changes that can impact on the other, lessons learned from previous initiatives, feedback from customers on marketing campaigns and messages and better information for the customer service department to plan their activities and schedules.”
At these meetings, the service team needs to:
- Share customer complaints about products/services. This could be a results of marketing setting customer expectations unrealistically high, and so service teams need to share this information ensure that advertising campaigns set realistic expectations for customers.
- Share examples of customer successes. The service department is likely to be the first to be aware of success stories, and should be proactive in highlighting these positive testimonials that marketing may be able to use for case studies and other promotional activities.
- Share feedback from customers about how they are using the products/services. As the service team is in constant contact with the customer base, they will have the best understanding of how customers are actually using them – and it may not be how it is being marketed! This feedback can help marketing from promoting features that aren’t being used.
The meetings are also an important opportunity ensure there is alignment. The service team needs to ensure that marketing is keeping it up-to-date with all the promotions and activity they are undertaking. If the marketing team is promoting an event, it is likely that customers will call the support team if they have a query. But if the customer calls and reps are unaware of the event, it will reflect badly on the brand. By holding regular meetings to keep service in the loop, it means customers will always be greeted by a knowledgeable agent who can answer their questions. This might be when and where an event is taking place, where on the site a report can be found, or how to enter a competition.
Patel also believes that it could be necessary to change the KPIs for customer support to encourage collaboration time, taking into account that meeting time will eat into their day job and could therefore impact on their traditional performance metrics.
“For support teams, the performance is often measured by response rates, satisfaction ratings and other similar metrics, and so adding more work means losing time and potential reward,” he notes. “Therefore, the leadership teams in both departments need to ensure the employees are empowered to build this relationship in the first place.
The leadership teams in both departments need to ensure the employees are empowered to build this relationship.
“Some of the companies I’ve seen that have bridged this gap between the two departments most successfully are those that have used NPS with both departments and have measured how many customers have ended up with a positive experience with their brand having initially registered a negative one. That’s the most fundamental proof that you’ve managed to get marketing and service working in tangent. You’re reinforcing the belief that employees aren’t just there to do one role but to be part of a business that can deliver good customer experiences or turn less favourable experiences around.”
Finally, if service is to truly take responsibility for pushing a service philosophy throughout the wider organisation, it will need to see the bigger picture – something that applies to its interaction with all departments and not just marketing.
Beesley notes: “Focus on the goals and behaviours that will make your company a success. Become the ‘service champions’ to define and then model the behaviours required so that the concept of internal customer service become as important as external customer service. Take time out to influence and build relationships. Develop analytics and measures that provide the logic for the customer service argument. Gain a seat on the board, so that customer experience (and not customer service) drives your business forward.
“With respect to working closer with marketing, our specific advice is to work with their agenda yet see how customer service can be seen as part of the brand. If the vision and behaviours (particularly of the sales team) are aligned then there should be no argument. If disagreement still persists then revisit the vision, values and behaviours until these are fully aligned.”
If this seems like a lot of additional work for the service department to shoulder, that’s because it is! For this reason, the service team shouldn’t try to tackle everything at once, but instead work out a strategic programme of activity going forwards.
Patel concludes: “Don’t try and boil the ocean. Companies often fail to bring these two components together because they don’t take an iterative approach.”
About Neil Davey
Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 15 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined Sift Media in 2007.