ORLANDO, Fla. -- With the Internet providing a powerful and far-reaching communication channel, consumers now trust the opinions of people they’ve never met far more often than the makers of brand products.
That was the news delivered to companies Wednesday at the Gartner Customer 360 Summit, an annual CRM conference hosted by the Connecticut research group and held here this year.
But businesses already seem to recognize that increasingly, their brands are being determined by customer satisfaction, according to Gareth Herschel, a Gartner research director.
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Herschel and Michael Maoz, a Gartner vice president and analyst, shared the stage to discuss how marketing and customer service departments need to become “BFFs,” popular texting shorthand for“best friends forever,” as their seminar was titled.
It’s not a new concept. Forrester Research of Cambridge, Mass. was making the case for marketing to take ownership of the call center as far back as 2004, but new trends are bringing the need for cooperation into sharper focus. Traditional marketing and customer service strategies are now unsustainable, Herschel and Maoz said. Companies need to prepare for change by building connections between those two functions, they said.
A proliferation of communication channels -- among them, Internet sites and social media tools -- is overloading traditional marketing messages, Herschel said. Customers are thus overloaded with messages, meaning typical, relevant marketing messages by companies are being lost, he said.
On the customer service end, companies continue to follow best or traditional practices, mostly because they eliminate the chance of poor employee performance, Herschel said. “But it also eliminates the chance of outstanding customer service,” he said.
Now is the time to change practices and merge marketing with customer service, the analysts said.
Traditionally, marketing hasn’t been tied to the call center. Marketing departments like “shiny objects” and would rather go to the dentist than deal with customers, according to Maoz.
Yet the two departments need to merge to harness the company’s customer data and provide better customer service, he said.
An explosion of data is what concerns companies most, according to Maoz. An IBM survey of chief marketing officers showed that 71% of them aren’t ready for the data explosion, and 68% of them aren’t prepared for the impact of social media.
Additionally, Maoz cited a Deloitte survey which found that customer service managers feel less prepared for social media than their marketing counterparts do: More than 75% of marketing people use it, but only about 20% of customer service departments do.
Those sentiments come at a time of a profound shift, according to Herschel. Companies have long been proactive marketers, but now with the customer controlling the experience, businesses must become reactive.
Companies have an advantage in that their customer service departments know when problems arise and have the capabilities to react, Herschel said. It makes sense for customer service and marketing to meet.
Many communication channels -- such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube -- that are used for marketing can be used for customer service as well, Herschel said.
Many already do. For instance, utility companies transmit messages about power outages and restoration updates using Twitter, he said. And Ikea places product assembly videos on YouTube.
Maoz, too, pointed to the successes of those that mix marketing and customer service but also to the failures of those that do not.
His cable television provider, for instance, found out about a widespread outage long after its customers had tweeted about it. Maoz didn’t name the company.
Meanwhile, General Mills learned the value of listening to its customers after they complained the company had no offerings that were free of gluten, Maoz said.
So General Mills made a gluten-free Rice Chex, Maoz said of the company’s 2008 move, and then used social media to promote the product. The company didn’t spend a dime on marketing, but rather allowed its Facebook fan page and Twitter feed launch the product, he said.
As seen with General Mills, an engaged call center deals with negative feedback, but the reward is a genuine connection with the customer, Maoz said.
Herschel added that while companies should consider creating a cross-organizational team that integrates customer service and marketing, more often than not, that sort of department is already there: IT.
“IT is in this picture,” Maoz said. “You can’t do it without IT and you can’t do it without marketing. IT can be your very good friend. They want to.”
But without question, marketing and customer service should join forces, Maoz and Herschel suggested.
Marketing can extend its reach into customer forums and identify key entry points that customer service can then work, they said. To do this well, companies must track and listen to their customers.
Alex Outwater, a senior marketing manager for IBM who attended the conference, agreed with Herschel’s and Maoz’s call for action.
Many business applications are still specific, but there is a budding integration of marketing and customer service, Outwater said. Merging is important, especially when the relationship is now owned by the customer, he said.
“It’s all about data,” Outwater said. “So how do you get that view of the customer and have it flow seamlessly between marketing and customer service?”