Customer Service: Dont Be Caught Without It

“I’ve got to market my new company. What’s the first step?” Such is the dilemma of start-up entrepreneurs as they begin the process of marketing their baby. Like any clean slate, the hardest part of filling it up is getting started.

But where you start is just as important as where you finish. If you read this column with any frequency, you know I relentlessly preach the importance of executing well against the basics of business. Where you begin in building your marketing program is critical to the program’s overall success because it will serve as the base for everything that stands upon it. Build a firm foundation, and the house you build has a better chance of standing forever.

Defining marketing and its role within your organization is an important first step. To some, marketing is over simplified into the core divisions of advertising, PR, and marketing communications activities like trade shows and events. To others, marketing is what drives the company. The latter is the philosophy to which I subscribe. All good companies are marketing-driven because they solve a consumer problem in a compelling way. Here are a few marketing fundamentals to help you channel customer feedback.

Start With the Customer Maybe a glimpse of the obvious to some of you, but how often do companies drift from this core principle even big, successful firms? (A recent story in Business Week told how after several missteps, Sun Microsystems redirected its entire company toward customer service and satisfaction.)

My experience with startups (technology and otherwise) shows a frequent trend of entrepreneurs thinking they “know better” and then choosing a course of product development and marketing that lacks relevance to the core customer. Customer research, including focus groups and product testing can be critical to honing a product and its features early on. Ongoing customer feedback, garnered through customer service and the sales team can foster key product improvements and future product development.

At Zircon, our customer (the retailers) told our sales team we need a version of our key product at a specific price point. We built it, they stocked it, and it sold like crazy. The key point here: Marketing isn’t just selling to your customer, it’s listening to them, too.

Test, Test, Test Some people may not consider product testing part of marketing, but giving your product the customer torture test is an important step in getting it right. In this case, many web-based products tend to do a better job than most by having customers use the product for a time period called beta-testing, prior to the product’s true release. Sometimes, however, companies don’t leave enough time between beta and final product release to make recommended changes. If you believe that you only get one chance to make a good first impression, then you may want to give your company adequate time to give your product a shakedown cruise.

Customer Service and Support Is Essential From the Start Customer feedback and how you handle it is an essential element of a successful, marketing-driven company. It provides you with a direct pipeline to the customer and can create an early warning system for real problems before they become serious.

When I took over the customer service function in one of my previous lives at a consumer products company, I was mortified to find that we only successfully answered four percent of all phone calls that came in to the company. The average customer had to call 15 times to get through. In many cases, we were turning people with minor issues into raving maniacs (who most likely told at least 20 friends how useless we were).

We fixed the problem quickly, and soon were able to use our customer calls to our advantage. For example, many calls were about how to set up the product. We reviewed the instructions and found them to be unclear and hard to use. We rewrote the instructions and subsequently received 40 percent fewer calls on this issue. Our customers were happier, and we lowered the expenses at our call center due to the reduced call load.

You may think the start-up phase is too early for customer research, testing, and customer service and support, and you may also think that you can’t afford it. I suggest you can’t afford not to have it.

Related reading