From the manufacturing process to the layout of the company website, every aspect of a brand sends signals to consumers that constitute the brand image inside their minds. If even one of these elements is not in line with the brand strategy, it can weaken its integrity. For many companies, particularly those based online, the customer service department is the primary point-of-contact with the public. As such, a major question brands should be asking themselves is: "Does our customer care reinforce, or undermine, our brand?"
Prior to the rise of the Internet, companies could be insulated from bad customer service incidents with their customers. However, in today's social networked-world, a single bad customer service story can go viral within hours. Wireless carrier Verizon experienced this earlier this year when a customer service agent named "Wendy" began mocking a customer about his choice of cell phone. The story spread like wildfire online, and was eventually picked up in the news. "This conversation is not consistent with how we train our employees, or how we want to interact with our customers," Verizon spokesperson Audrey Lundy told an NBC affiliate. "This is totally inconsistent with our core values." The incident was another setback for an industry with a reputation of deplorable customer service.
But, brands should embrace customer service for more than just avoiding a bad reputation. Jim Bush, Executive Vice President of World Service at American Express, wrote in a Nov. 2010 article at Forbes.com that a study AMEX commissioned found American consumers were willing to spend 9 percent more at companies who provide excellent customer service. That same study also found that more than 25 percent of consumers believe companies have either neglected to focus on customer service, or now focus less on customer service.
The findings of this survey indicate that customer service can be a powerful advantage over competitors if leveraged correctly. One company, Zappos.com, discovered this early on. Founded in 1999, Zappos leveraged their customer service to become the top online retailer of footwear, and was bought by Amazon.com in 2009 for $1.2 billion. "Over the years, the number one driver of our growth at Zappos has been repeat customers and word of mouth," writes Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh in a Huffington Post editorial. "Our philosophy has been to take most of the money we would have spent on paid advertising and invest it into customer service and the customer experience instead, letting our customers do the marketing for us through word of mouth."
This word-of-mouth marketing costs Zappos nothing. Yet, its volunteer army of brand ambassadors reinforces Zappos' brand signal of exceptional customer service, which in-turn drives sales. "Customers today have unprecedented power to broadcast their experiences — good and bad — to a virtually unlimited audience," says Bush. "This new and growing power raises the stakes for every single service interaction a company has with its customers."
Looking at a Zogby International survey on customer service commissioned by MSN Money, it's clear which industries aren't leveraging customer service. The 15 companies ranked the worst for customer service includes six financial institutions, four Internet and cable providers, and three wireless companies. For people who have interacted with these types of institutions, the results don't come at a surprise. In turn, the 15 highest ranked companies include brands such as Google, Apple, and Amazon.com. It just so happens that these are also one of the three strongest global brands in the world.
The lesson here is that in a market where consumers are demanding more from the total "brand experience," customer service can be an incredibly powerful brand signal that should not go ignored. Not only can good customer service keep your company's name out of the headlines, it can turn customers into online salespeople, which will generate first-time and repeat business that you would otherwise have lost.