Keeping It Real: Customer Service As Interactive Advertising


oldguy2.jpgThe three days of waiting were finally over.  The oblong box lay diagonally on our porch.  Inside, the special-ordered frame for my wife’s new poster waited for her to unwrap and mount it in our living room wall.   I heard my wife sigh over the slam of my car door. She was already on the porch, examining the damage to the package and the twisted frame beneath.  This was not what I would have considered advertising.

It is easy to talk about interactive advertising. SEO algorithms, flash ads, and product placement – all of these things are quantifiable, cheap, and easy. But they are not the most effective advertising techniques at our disposal. 

Wal*Mart’s recent decision to steer their online customers towards self-service solutions shows how their reliance on price and availability alone to sell their products.  Attitudes like theirs say that the concept of personal service is quaint in these days of Internet storefronts.  That belief is a mistake.   In this age of media saturation, genuine conversations about trusted relationships will be the most effective form of interactive advertising possible.

The last time my wife returned an item to a big box store, it was an ordeal of long lines, horrid lighting, and suspicious clerks.  She was not looking forward to returning anything the broken frame to a store that only existed on the Web.  She thought it could only be worse dealing with someone she had never seen.  Regardless, she called the online store’s 800 number, and left a message on their after-hours voicemail.

They called the next evening.  We had not replied to their e-mail from earlier that day, were we okay?  How was the item?  No, we did not need to send it back – they would just ship out a new one, or refund the money in full.  The conversation took less time than it took to drive to our local grocery; the new frame arrived intact in two days.  We had not worried during those two days.  The woman on the phone had sounded happy, confident, and satisfied – and soon we were too.

There is a strong correlation between employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction.  When employee satisfaction is high, customer satisfaction is also high.  There is also a strong long-run positive correlation between customer satisfaction and higher stock prices.  It is sometime difficult to see the connection between these two due to short-run fluctuations in the market.  Companies and advertisers must look beyond those short-run changes.  The long-run connection stretches clear and strong. 

That connection is a bridge built of trust.

I bought my Halloween decorations online this year.  There were dozens of storefronts to choose from.  Many had discounts, blinking ads, and fancy logos.  I chose one that had customer feedback on each item in stock.

Some items showed glowing recommendations, but I was sold by the negative reviews.  One item had scathing comments:  “This is cheaper than it looks – and it looks cheap!”  “This is worth a quarter, not the six bucks they want.”  “This product is a rip-off.  They should be ashamed.”  These negative comments told me these reviews were not just ad copy.  There were genuine people giving their honest feelings.  That also let me know that I could trust this company, and trust the good reviews I saw there.

It is not just common sense that a customer’s trust is good for business.  In 2001, a study was published in the International Journal of Service Industry Management.  That study showed that customers who trusted a company not only think more favorably about it, but they began to talk about that company to their friends.  Customer trust leads to both future sales and honest word-of-mouth advertising.
It has become relatively easy to create sophisticated Web advertising.  In that sea of ads, genuine conversations between customers and companies stand out.  When those conversations are about good products and customer service, there is not a more effective ad campaign out there.

This is a difficult challenge for online advertisers.  It means that successful advertising is not simply creating a catch phrase, choosing the right social network to advertise on, or creating a neat monkey to punch.  Advertisers and businesses will need to work more closely together, being honest with each other and their customers.  It requires developing customer relationships, and realizing that long-term gains are built from real customer experiences.  It requires advertisers to bring the meaning of “interactive advertising” back towards the messy, unpredictable push-and-pull interaction of real life.

I recently purchased a few art posters for my home.  When I want to buy frames for them, I will not reach for my keys; I will launch my web browser.  I want a retailer I can trust, even though I have never seen a single employee’s face.

You see, I was swayed by their compelling advertising campaign.


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