Every so often, I'm hired by a company to develop a marketing plan for its business. Yet after conducting my initial assessment, I discover that the company's lack of a marketing plan isn't the problem. The real problem is the company's poor service. For these companies, spending any money at all on marketing is like pouring fine wine down a sinkhole.

If your company's service stinks, fix that first. Then worry about promoting your company.

The Pillars of Service Cool

Without great service, your company is doomed from the start. But what exactly constitutes great service? There are three basic elements—my Pillars of Service Cool:

1. Timeliness

2. Follow through

3. Integrity

1. Timeliness

In today's "I want it now" society, timeliness can be your company's trump card. Yet, too many companies don't seem to respect their customers' time:

  • According to a recent study by Jupiter Research, 33 percent of all Internet companies surveyed took three days or longer to get back to customers who had emailed for help.

  • A study by Portland Research Group found that consumers must call a company an average of 2.3 times before having their issues resolved.

2. Follow-Through

What is a golf swing without follow-through? Accumulated energy without an outlet. A beginning without an end. Effort without results.

The same is true of a company's marketing. "You can have a terrible logo and pathetic signage, but if you are known for your incredible commitment and follow-through, you will be successful," says Jim Logan, marketing consultant and popular blogger at www.jslogan.com. "Reverse the formula and you'll fail every time."

With diligent follow through, your company will demonstrate its commitment beyond a shadow of a doubt. From this, you can expect to reap repeat purchases, positive word-of-mouth, and referrals: the trifecta of successful marketing.

3. Integrity

Today's buyers are a distrustful bunch. Is it any wonder? Just look at some of the ethical lapses in today's market:

  • In 2005, Sony Pictures Entertainment quoted praise from a nonexistent film critic to promote several of its films. For A Knight's Tale, The Patriot, and several other films, plaudits were attributed to David Manning, a film critic at The Ridgeview Press. But at the time of the reviews, The Ridgeview Press, a weekly in Connecticut, did not even have a film critic on staff. Sony was ordered to pay $1.5 million to settle a class-action lawsuit.

  • In August 2001, McDonald's and the FBI revealed that an employee of Simon Marketing, a McDonald's marketing agency, had distributed winning game pieces for the "Monopoly" and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" promotions to a network of accomplices, who then claimed prizes ranging from $100,000 to $1 million.

  • In 2005, Abercrombie & Fitch, a favorite clothing brand among teenagers, launched a T-shirt line featuring such alcohol-related slogans such as "Don't Bother, I'm Not Drunk Yet," "Bad Girls Chug, Good Girls Drink Quickly," and "Candy Is Dandy, But Liquor Is Quicker." The T-shirt line was quickly withdrawn from the market after complaints from the media and advocacy groups.

Marketers for these companies all showed an alarming lapse in ethics. To avoid blunders like these, I recommend holding your marketers to a higher ethical standard; that's why I've created the Lipe Code of Marketing Ethics.

The Lipe Code of Marketing Ethics

  • We will always be clear and truthful in our marketing communications.

  • We will never intentionally deceive or mislead our customers. If we do, we'll apologize—immediately.

  • We will fully disclose, in the large print, all pricing information.

  • We will always respect the privacy of our customers.

  • We will always give buyers the ability to opt out, quickly honoring their desire to do so.

  • We will stand behind our products if they fail to deliver on their promises.

  • We will listen to our customers' needs and concerns, and make every effort to incorporate their input.

  • We will not use strong-arm tactics to get people to buy.

  • We will always document claims, testimonials, and comparative statements.

Don't let years of creating your company identity be wiped out in an instant by an ethical lapse. Circulate this code of marketing ethics to all your marketers, and then hold them accountable for sticking to it.

The Top 7 Customer Service Mistakes

Before learning how a company can offer world-class service, it might be helpful to point out the most common service problems in business today. Fix these, and your company's reputation may well be the only marketing program you need:

  1. Not adequately training your staff. Financial services call centers in the US that enjoy the highest customer satisfaction levels routinely invest 180 hours of initial training and seven hours of ongoing training every year into each agent. Does your company take its service training this seriously?

  2. Trying to win an argument with a customer. Arguing with a customer is bad business. You may win the argument, but you'll probably lose the customer. Instead, show empathy. Tell the buyer you understand how they feel and that together you're going to find a solution to their problem.

  3. Over-relying on voicemail. Customers who take the time to contact your company want to know there's a face behind your company. Work hard to get customers talking to your company's humans, not its technology.

  4. Spending too much time with chronic complainers. Some people will never be happy with your service. If you've received at least three complaints from the same customer, it's time to get rid of them and focus on those you can help.

  5. Taking criticism personally. Most callers don't want to attack you personally. Although they may be lashing out at you, they're really most frustrated by the problem they face. Take their attention off you and place it squarely back on the problem.

  6. Not acting like you care. Some 68 percent of buyer defections take place because customers feel they've been treated poorly. Most customers don't expect an immediate resolution to their problem, but they do expect your concern. Routinely use terms like "sorry to keep you waiting" and "thanks for contacting us today."

  7. Not delivering what you promise. Because some buyers are continually misled by companies, they're understandably distrustful. For world class service, deliver exactly what you promise. Whether it's "I'll call you by tomorrow with the answer" or "I'll put that in the mail today," do it.

Concierge Marketing: How to Turn Information Into a Marketing Tool

At the root of it, a concierge marketer—much like the hotel concierge who dispenses invaluable information about restaurants and local happenings—tries to simplify a buyer's life by providing helpful information.

The first step in being a successful concierge marketer is to provide passive marketing tools, which are printed or online informational products. Using any of these, buyers can quickly get answers to their nagging questions:

  • Tip sheets
  • Booklets/pamphlets
  • White papers
  • Checklists
  • Buying guides

For example, I offer on my Web site a "Marketing Lingo" section with over 200 common marketing terms and their definitions.

Another set of concierge marketing tools are called buyer involvement tools. These are designed to create dialogues with your market and include...

  • Post-installation follow-up calls
  • Online customer forums
  • Interactive dialogue tools

One of my favorite buyer involvement tools is Amazon.com's "Wish List" program. Using this tool at the Amazon site, I can develop my own "Wish List" of books, and then email it to members of my family. That way, my family knows what to get me for Christmas without having to ask, I get the Christmas presents I want, and Amazon gets the sales. Everybody wins.

Next steps for concierge marketers

To become a concierge marketer, first identify the most common information voids your buyers face. Ask yourself these questions:

  • At which stage in the buying cycle are our buyers confused?
  • What information do they lack?
  • What customer questions does our service staff repeatedly field?

Then, design tools to address the highest-priority ones. If, for example, your buyers are confused about which elements of your service are outsourced and which are performed in-house, you could develop a PowerPoint slide that covers this topic in greater detail.

In Closing

Milton Hershey once said that quality was the best kind of advertising in the world. For your company identity to be a successful one, the service provided must be of the highest quality possible. Focus on delivering world-class service first, then (and only then) consider marketing it.

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Jay Lipe is the president of Emerge Marketing LLC (www.emergemarketing.com), a firm that helps growing companies develop marketing plans. He is the author of the books The Marketing Toolkit for Growing Businesses (Chammerson Press, 2002) and Stand Out from the Crowd: Secrets to Crafting a Winning Company Identity (Kaplan Publishing, fall 2006).