Why SMEs need to make customer service a central function of their marketing strategy and management

October 2018

There’s been a fair bit written of late in the marketing trade press about a trend towards ‘chief customer officer’ (CCO) replacing ‘chief marketing officer’ in large companies, or more typically having both positions in place. Some in our profession are of the view that if the latter are doing their job, then you don’t need the former. But that clearly hasn’t universally been the case, because if it was – and was clear at boardroom level – then the subject wouldn’t even be on any company’s agenda.

I’ve long been of the mind that any position in a marketing role is ultimately about customers, and if you’re at the top of the tree and leading a marketing department then it has to be your raison d’être. I mean how could it not be? Everything we do – or should do – is about customer needs, be it trying to establish what they are to ensuring satisfaction to achieve long-term brand loyalty.

But it came home to me a few weeks back just how naïve my view on this matter is, with an absolute classic example of a marketing team in a large company – and one which is currently state-owned – completely missing the point, and indeed making clear that customers aren’t their worry at all.

The company in question is LNER – the train operator setup by the government earlier this year to take over from the failed Virgin / National Express venture. Rather than type out the whole story, I’ll instead paste in screengrabs from my Facebook Chat . . .





So basically then the ‘social media team’ (as they like to call themselves) at LNER has no interest in customers – and they’re very happy to make that plain, and to the point of openly acknowledging that they won’t even read what you have to say. Although they’re part of the marketing department and the clue should be in the term ‘social media’, they have a policy of ignoring customer comment and questions but, when pressed after a few weeks of persevering, will at least tell you why they’re ignoring you. Brilliant. I can only imagine that, as the ‘social media team’, posting pretty pictures of breakfast being served on the 8.09 York to Kings Cross is what they think they’re there for.

In any event, why wouldn’t you use the Facebook platform as a key customer service channel? Pretty much everyone else does and for good reason: it’s easy and convenient (at least for the customer . . .) and, importantly and if managed correctly, can quickly defuse a tricky situation.

I’d suggest the following would have been the sort of response a proper ‘social media team’ should have come back to me with: ‘Hi Roger and thanks for bringing this to our attention. Yes it does seem a bit of an odd decision, though I’m not personally sure what our policy is in such circumstances. If you let me have your email address, then I’ll ask one of my colleagues who will know to get back to you with a proper answer.’

And to reinforce just how out-of-touch and dysfunctional LNER are with their concept of customer service and how they manage it, when I did email them as suggested an almost endless string of standard bullshit responses ensued which had nothing to do with my simple question, however many times I repeated it, with the thrust of their message simply being to offer me compensation – which I didn’t want because I wasn’t complaining. So utterly hopeless, and I can only imagine that the LNER head office is full of little silos, with each having little or no concept of their real reason for being there – let alone a collective concept.

SMEs, thankfully, don’t have the issue of vast scale, so achieving a collective sense of customer-centricity shouldn’t be such a big challenge. However, even if you’ve successfully achieved such a culture – and one which extends from the boardroom to the office cleaner – then you still need a champion to maintain focus and momentum. That person should be the one who heads-up marketing, and if the SME isn’t of the size that can afford such a person then it must be the business owner, because they’ll ultimately be the one leading the marketing effort. And if you’re an SME which is large enough to have a dedicated customer service team, then have them report to your marketing manager, director, officer or whatever you call them.

So make all-things-customer central to your marketing function. Indeed, your reputation and therefore your business, very much depends on it.

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