Customer Service is the new Marketing

07/17/2009

Customer Service is the new Marketing is a mantra at Mural, and something we emphasize with our clients. We always make sure that customer service is a core value of our clients marketing efforts, because we believe that it’s an essential skill set in our new internet driven economy. I was recently contacted by an old client I did some work for about 4 years ago that proves how true this is.

This company is a family owned, but multi-million dollar HVAC company in the North Texas area. It was started by the current owner’s father decades ago, and has always maintained that small, family owned, low tech quality that can be a very endearing trait. They have done a lot of things right in the history of the company that has helped them grow to such a large size. They are extremely picky in who they hire, and hold them to very high standards. There are random drug tests, weeks of training, no cursing, no smoking, and the work day ends when the job is done, and not before. If you’re going to have some strangers in your house all day, you can probably appreciate the standards they enforce. They’re a bit more expensive than the independent guys, but they’ve worked hard to establish a level of trust that’s hard to beat.

The Internet has become a huge megaphone for consumer feedback, and customers who feel slighted or cheated have a really loud voice.

That is, until the last year or so. They’ve serviced over 100,000 homes around DFW just in the last few years, mostly for happy satisfied customers who have trusted their business for years. But as you can imagine, at such scale, screw ups happen. A bad egg tech slips through and pushes unnecessary repairs on customers, people with no A/C in the Texas summer lose patience when it takes hours longer than expected to get a tech out, and sometimes they have been slow to respond to unsatisfied customers who need repeat service. These types of issues have probably been with them forever, and surely plague their competitors as well, but there’s been a shift in power over the last few years. The Internet has become a huge megaphone for consumer feedback, and customers who feel slighted or cheated have a really loud voice.

Customers for this company have started to speak up when things go wrong. Things really came to a head for them when a collection of complaints about the company’s policy of refusing to turn gas lines back on if they detect a crack and possible carbon monoxide leak in a furnace were published in a local paper, and loyal customers started calling to cancel their service. When they called me, they were interested in an agency that could help them with a public relations problem. So I started looking into it – a google search quickly turned up the infamous article, as well as a couple dozen other review sites littered with 1-star reviews from angry customers. Anyone searching for this company online would likely be turned off from them very quickly, and would probably be warning their neighbors. The reviews were scolding. It would not surprise me at all if google is costing this company millions a year in lost revenue.

It quickly occurred to me that the problem was not one that could be covered up with positive PR to compete with the negative press. That would just be a bandaid on a gunshot wound. What was needed was a swift and dramatic shift in the customer service policies of the company to make sure as few customers as possible ever got angry enough to bother writing a bad review.

I made several recommendations to the company to help remedy the situation. I consider these points of sound advice for just about any business today:

  1. The first step is always admitting you have a problem. Make the decision to change what you need to get the problem fixed.
  2. Be immediately responsive to any complaint, and give it priority over new business.
  3. Be proactive – ask customers if they’re satisfied, and if not, what else you can do for them.
  4. Online communication must be two-way. Don’t just shout out into crowds, and don’t leave your unhappy customers to do the same. Connect with them! Monitor the web for new reviews of your business, monitor social networks like twitter. Dedicate a CSR to ‘online customer service’ and empower them to remedy any complaint found online.
  5. Do it publicly – don’t try to counter-review yourself online anonymously, but post a neutral review with your Online CSR’s direct phone number and email so anyone about to write a review sees that there’s a recourse. Don’t avoid problems, embrace them, solve them publicly, and demonstrate your commitment to customer satisfaction.
  6. Get involved with online communities like GetSatisfaction.com. Encourage your customers to visit and post an honest review. You can’t avoid the conversation, so you might as well embrace it.
  7. Commit to the long haul. This isn’t a campaign you run for 3 months and then slack off. This is as important, if not increasingly more important than traditional advertising. Consumers are wary of advertisements, but trusting of honest communication. This needs to be a permanent establishment of the company.

The gears are turning over at the HVAC company, and new policies and strategies are now being drafted. If they play their cards right, in a year they could very well have completely turned the tide, and converted a liability into an asset. The brave new world we find ourselves in requires a new set of strategies for companies to effectively engage with customers online, and companies ignore it at their peril. Google can be your savior, or your executioner – it’s up to you.