Watch CBSN Live

Customer Service Is Not a Marketing Strategy

Lacking the courage or creativity to come up with something unique, a lot of businesses claim they offer "great customer service" as a point of differentiation. Well, it's not.

How many times have you seen some variation of the following statements on the side of a truck or on the logo-bearing trinkets businesses give away:

"We put our customers first."
"It's our service that makes us special."
"Where customers come first."
"Specializing in great customer service."
These kinds of statements are so overused, they are the marketing equivalent of wallpaper -- designed to be ignored. Everybody claims to serve customers well, yet few companies actually do. So not only do you have an undifferentiated point of differentiation, but nobody believes you.

Great service is defined by the served, not the server. Two people may experience the same service, and one will walk away enthralled, and the other underwhelmed.

One person's pushy is another person's attentive. One person's responsive is another person's aggressive.

In fact, the company is the only entity that should never claim to offer great customer service. Like a 15-year-old boy who tries to get a nickname to catch on so his classmates think him cool, it works only if others bestow the label on you. The moment you claim it yourself, you come off sounding desperate -- or just boring.

Here's a better approach to marketing:
Find something that meets two criteria: (1) it makes you unique, and (2) customers care about it.

It's true that customers care about the service they get, but because everyone claims great service and there is no universal agreement on what it looks like, it's not differentiating. To find a point of differentiation, you need to go a level deeper. Ask yourself what you do in tangible, concrete terms that makes your service better than your competitors'. For example:

  • Enterprise Rent-A-Car does not claim to provide "great customer service;" it offers to "come and pick you up," which is a concrete and tangible way it differentiates its service level from that of Hertz.
  • Zappos doesn't shriek about "great customer service;" instead, it has a two-way return policy. Most online retailers offer one-way free shipping, but very few offer two-way free shipping. Zappos spends its time and money proving it offers great service, not claiming it.
  • TD Bank doesn't breathlessly proclaim its great customer service; instead, it advertises that its branches are open late and on Saturdays, which, in Canada, where a banking oligopoly means competitors still keep bankers' hours, is differentiating.
  • In a crowded hyper-competitive market, it may be something very small and subtle that makes you unique. That's OK, as long as it is truly yours and customers care. For example, if you ask a staff member at a Ritz-Carlton Hotel for directions, he will not point toward your destination; he will accompany you there. Guests -- often late and lost in a new city -- tell friends about the Ritz because of the experience they receive, not because the hotel talks about great service.
Stop saying you offer great customer service. It's not doing you any favors. Figure out what it is about your service -- in concrete, tangible terms -- that customers value and start talking about that.

Read more:

John Warrillow is the author of Built To Sell: Creating a Business That Can Thrive Without You, which will be released by Portfolio/Penguin on April 28, 2011.
Follow him on Twitter @JohnWarrillow
Become a fan on Facebook