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Servicing Search: A Better Ad Model?

  |  March 20, 2007   |  Comments

You are what they search.

Does search magnify customer service's results?

Let's take a look. If you search a typical wireless provider on Google, you'll receive 40 million or more search results. If you filter the query and add the word "service," you'll get roughly half as many results. If you add the word "customer" to the string, the number is more or less halved again. On top of this, you'll find 25 to 40 percent of all the indexed content is in the first person, which means it's a form of CGM (define).

These are big numbers. Results are similar in other categories, too, such as electronics and travel. For some individual brands, like Ford, CGM using the terms "pissed" and "service" show up over a million times in Google results.

A couple important things are going on here. First, the customer service topic drives a disproportionate amount of CGM content creation. Second, these comments represent a significant percentage of the brand search results. This service-centered commentary reroutes itself to curious, unsuspecting consumers via search. It acts like media. In some cases, it may bring consumers closer to the brand; in other cases it pushes them away.

Viewed in this light, it becomes obvious that customer service is about far more than just satisfying consumers. It's equally about priming, positioning, and ultimately painting the brand's public billboard. It's not only about lifetime value and buyer power but also amplification and so-called viral power.

In this era of word-of-mouth and search, the stakes for getting the customer service equation right are enormously high. Consumers love to talk about service, and they leave a digital trail in the process. As we ponder media's future and optimizing marketing spending, we'll benefit from revisiting customer service's role and results. It may well prove a far more efficient, high-return investment than pouring more money into paid media.

Understanding the Talk Drivers

Consumers today communicate using a wide array of tools, and they just keep saying and getting louder. While consumers are driving the newest communication vehicles, however, most companies are still managing consumer relationships with buggy whips. Some companies still don't even accept e-mail feedback through their Web sites. Still others turn off the call center after 5pm or on weekends, preventing consumers from engaging the company at all. In the process, we reinforce the perception we aren't listening or simply don't care. All this sends mixed signals to consumers and ultimately shapes the identity, equity, and perception of the brand in their eyes.

Consumers have every right to bring high expectations to the table. Their experiences with fellow online consumers have already raised the bar. Consumers are actively listening and responding to one another online: answering questions, providing guidance, creating how-to videos, and more. There's a genuine sense of intimacy and empathy in these feedback loops -- and an unmistakable trail of consumer-to-consumer loyalty, even around acrimonious topics. Social networks reinforce this sense of intimacy and put feedback loops on steroids.

Brands can obviously learn from staying close the conversation. Consumer conversation is like a massive cheat sheet to help brands make better, more informed decisions, especially on how to wrap meaningful service experiences around the core brand proposition. Although there are many levers or activities a brand can pursue to have a material effect on service perception, you should first home in on what I call the I's of customer service: the invitation, the interface, and the interaction.

Get these right, and Google search results may take a favorable turn:

The Invitation

The invitation is about the right first impression. Does the brand care enough to hear my voice? Does it really want my feedback? Is my voice valued? With brands like Gerber and Zappos.com, there's absolutely no question: the contact information and buttons are clearly visible. Even with American Express, the toll-free numbers are easily found.

The invitation is important for a number of reasons. Beyond just providing a level of respect and comfort for those with genuine issues, it also signals to everyone else (the 90 percent or so who don't have questions, complaints, or other forms of feedback), the company is listening. In the end, this has advertising value. When a consumer posts hostile CGM along the lines of "this brand doesn't give a hoot," it usually stems from brands that aren't terribly forthcoming with the welcome mat.

The Interface

The interface gets to the heart of usability, simplicity, and a sense of genuine empowerment. In an age of iPods and small-screen interfaces, this, too, is an area where expectations are dramatically changing. Is it easy to provide feedback? Can I get through the process without a hitch? If I'm using touch-tone buttons to get to the right call agent, is it a bearable process, or will it make me want to record the endless finger dance on tape and post it on YouTube?

Sometimes, companies invite consumers to provide feedback, then send them to an unbearable FAQ engine that either fails to provide answers or else has the wrong answers. On the flip side, airports have improved their buzz factor with a welcome battery of automatic ticket machines. The interface is warm, friendly, and highly respectful of consumers' time. In "Best Face Forward," Jeffrey Rayport, principal at Monitor Group's Marketspace and my former professor at Harvard Business School, and his colleague Bernard J. Jaworski make a strong case that competitive advantage will accrue to those who deploy the right mix of interfaces, whether they are human, automated, or both.

The Interaction

The actual interaction hits deeper consumer-brand connection drivers. Did the service interface or representative actually address the issue? In what way? Was it good enough to drive advocacy? Here, it's critically important the brand has a handle on emotion. A good interaction matches a solid read on consumer emotion with the right response. A consumer who enters an interaction feeling betrayed is a huge viral risk. On the flip side, a consumer feeling exuberant about an experience may well be your best brand advocate, provided you manage the interaction properly. Intuit facilitates great interactions through its online community, where 75 percent of questions are answers by other consumers. The brand interacts by facilitating participation.

Each of these key dimensions of the service experience affects consumer attitudes and feeling toward the brand. Those feelings, in turn, drive varying levels of advocacy and CGM creation, which in turn finds new audience via search.

If you want a better, more inviting billboard when consumers search your brand, think hard about your own welcome mat.

Remember, you are what they search.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Pete Blackshaw

Pete Blackshaw, whose professional background encompasses public policy, interactive marketing, and brand management, is executive vice president of strategic services for Nielsen Online, a combination of Nielsen BuzzMetrics, a firm Pete helped cofound, and Nielsen//NetRatings. One of Pete's key focuses is helping brands interpret, manage, and act on consumer-generated media (CGM). A former interactive marketing leader at P&G and founder of consumer feedback portal PlanetFeedback.com, Pete cofounded the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). He authors several blogs, including ConsumerGeneratedMedia.com, and is the author of an upcoming book from Random House, "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3000: Running a Business in Today's Consumer-Driven World."

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