Digital technology was supposed to make customer service quick and convenient for customers. Instead, most people brace for a frustrating, never-ending, impersonal experience. Although the concept of using customer service as marketing is decades old, most digital companies, are clumsy, at best.

But they should try. Acquiring a new customer is five to 25 times more expensive than keeping one, depending on which studies you consult. For marketers, it makes more sense to keep hard-earned customers than endlessly replace the ones chased off by bad service. Let’s talk through what has changed, the evolving principles of good service, and strategies that turn digital support into marketing.

A human powder keg

Consider the differences between in-person and online service. At the grocery store, if I can’t find smoked salmon, I can ask for help from a storekeeper. Easily. If that salmon turns out to be spoiled, I can bring it back and get a free replacement. There’s no complexity.

In contrast, if I’m doing my accounting online, and the system isn’t working, getting help and giving help is hard. First, I might try to troubleshoot the problem. Even if I’m tech-savvy, I might not Google the right terminology, or find it in the company’s knowledge base.

If I fail to solve my problem and contact support, I’ve already wasted lots of time. A support rep might not respond to my email for hours or days. If I call, an annoying call-tree robot might ask 20 questions before connecting me to a real person who will ask the same 20 questions.

By the time I talk to a human being, my frustration level is starting to boil over. The support rep doesn’t get what I’m talking about. We try ten things, then I’m told, “I’ll send your ticket to our engineers for further investigation.” Meanwhile, my accounting is left undone, and April 15 is looming over my head.

Some rules

How could anyone be pleased when an expensive, essential software product fails, and the three-hour attempt to fix it also fails? No wonder brand’s Facebook pages have turned into rage-venting chambers. Face-to-face customer service was a cakewalk compared to serving thousands or millions of users remotely. However, the qualities of good service experiences haven’t changed. We can distill them to a few rules.

Rule #1:

If the customer spends more time getting help for a problem than the company spends solving it, the service is subpar.

In December, a friend of mine had foot surgery and called the hospital to schedule a follow-up appointment. They put her on hold for seven and a half hours. No joke. Why couldn’t she just schedule an appointment online or get a callback?

Rule #2:

If the customer must convey the story or problem more than once, support is failing.

If I bring my car to the mechanic for repairs, and it still drives poorly, I can go back and talk to the same mechanic. She probably remembers our conversation and has a record of what the shop did.

That’s not necessarily the case online. If one service rep fails to the solve the problem, usually the next one doesn’t have a clue about what happened. It’s Groundhog Day service. Support teams need a CRM or other recordkeeping system to provide continuity.

Rule #3:

The quality of service is relative to what people experience in similar contexts.

In what might be an apocryphal story, a million-mile flyer calls his airline for help with an itinerary change. They can’t help. The million miler vents on Twitter. Still no help. So, a competitor airline CEO is alerted to the situation and tweets, hey, we’ll transfer all your miles to our airline and honor your flyer status – for free. The million miler switches airlines and flies happily ever after.

One airline must beat the other airlines to have good service. Restaurants must outclass other restaurants. A business app must outdo comparable business apps.

What next?

Target one or two service metrics. For email, I suggest Average Response Time (ART), which can help you with Rules 1, 2, and 3. To illustrate, let’s look at ART on March 18, 2018 at JotForm, where I serve as CMO:

JotForm has over 3.5 million users, so 96 support interactions is a healthy number. The blue line shows our tally of unanswered questions. Overnight, we see the questions pile up while most of our team is sleeping. When they start working in the morning, the tally drops. Around 10, after users start working, the questions pick up.

Essentially, we answer two-thirds of our service messages within two hours. That, we suspect, is relatively strong for our category (Rule #3). If our competitors invented chatbots that resolve two-thirds of questions in 20 minutes, we’d have to evolve.

The ART data suggests a few experiments:

  • Scheduling: Could we reschedule service reps to bring more answers within 2 hours (and thereby optimize Rule #1)? We could beef up our numbers overnight and in the afternoon when volume spikes. However, there might be a better fix.
  • Recurring problems: In the March 18 data, we found that a disproportionate number of tickets were related to integrations with our platform. Per Rule #2, we record those problems in user profiles so that support has context if a user sends another email about integration issues. Repeat problems could mean our developers need to fix the integrations or build better workflows.
  • DIY?: Perhaps the integration questions reflect a lack of knowledge. If we publish service tickets on integration problems, create a knowledge base article, or publish a how-to guide, can we tame the numbers? The marketing team could produce the missing content.

If you provide quick, consistent service, address reoccurring problems, and retain more customers as a result, wow. What a marketing win. Again, that’s five to 25 times cheaper than replacing disgruntled users.

Digital technology can make support more challenging and impersonal. However, the medium doesn’t change a simple fact: it’s easier to market and grow a business that isn’t hemorrhaging customers.

About the author: Steve Hartert is Chief Marketing Officer at Steve has more than 30 years of B2B and B2C marketing management experience. Steve holds a bachelor’s degree from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona and an MBA from California State University, San Bernardino.