The Indirect Force

Quick Summary: Think of customer service as a force multiplier that can help generate sales.


An all too common notion held by most companies is that the sales organization is responsible for generating revenue while the customer service organization is responsible for fixing problems after-the-fact.  Involving customer service personnel in the sales process can dramatically increase sales.  It needs to start by thinking of customer service as key contributor to revenue as opposed to a necessary cost center.

Sun Tzu, the great Chinese military strategist and the author of The Art of War (circa 500BC), said, “Attack with the direct force but win with the indirect force”.  This advice can easily be applied to sales.  The sales team, with their direct customer contact, can be thought of as the direct force.  Other elements in the organization - including marketing, public relations, field engineering, and, certainly customer service - can be thought of as members of the indirect force.  The actions of individuals within these groups can easily provide differences that can help a sales team win over prospects. Or, based on bad experiences, totally stymie the entire sales process.

Some companies have bridged the gap between their direct and indirect forces quiet effectively.  Some credit card companies and banks regularly introduce customers who have called customer service about a specific issue end the call by discussing other products and services that the customer might be interested in.  Customers who have just had their issue successfully resolved are likely to listen to other offers.  Clearly, this “add-on” discussion is far more effective than companies that simply cold call their customers offering the same services.

The way that Apple, Inc. has blended their direct and indirect forces together is remarkable. If you have never visited an Apple retail store, you have missed an unparalleled experience.  Over the years, I have suggested that company’s senior management teams visit an Apple store and just watch.  My personal experience graphically illustrates Apple’s effectiveness in blending sales and service.  I have owned a cellular phone for over 27 years (starting in 1989).  Over that period, I had phones from Motorola, Ericsson, Nokia, and Research in Motion (Blackberry).  As companies introduced new features and functions that appealed to me, I jumped on board; that is until I purchased an iPhone 2.  The phone was amazing; a term I use to describe customer experiences with products and services that have far more capability than was known at the time of purchase.  Although quite intuitive, I had a number of questions, so I decided to visit an Apple retail store for the first time.  (I had purchased the iPhone from a carrier’s retail store.)  As an older, conservative engineer, I was quite apprehensive, to say the least, when a young lady with purple hair, face jewelry, and a number of tattoos offered to help me.  I was shocked with her knowledge, can-do attitude, and willingness and patience to work with me.  Since then, that same experience has been repeated every time I step foot into an Apple store.  Sometimes I visit with an issue, sometimes to buy something, and sometimes just to watch the interactions and marvel at the process.  I have never seen a customer walk out of the store angry.  In fact, after having my issue resolved, I find myself wanting to buy something else!  Often, I see the store full of prospects and customers waiting patiently for their turn.  In all cases, every employee, independent of the color of their hair or amount of face jewelry, is calm, smiling, and willing to take as much time as needed to help.  Apple’s retail success was no accident.  A June 17, 2011 article in Forbes, “Apple's Retail Success Is More Than Magic”, describes the multifaceted approach that Apple took and the heavy investment in people, property, and process that led to their success that continues today.  During Apple’s extensive new hire training program, new employees are told how not to sell.  Instead, they are told to focus on resolving the customer’s issue.  That approach is a very powerful method of selling!

Compare and contrast Apple to those stores that have a separate customer service desks with signs prominently displaced that say “No returns after 30 days” or “No returns without a receipt” or “Exchanges only”.  These companies do, in fact, have an “Indirect Force”; one that keeps customers from ever coming back!  There are many companies that do have liberal return policies and work hard at satisfying the customer after-the-fact as issues arise.  However, few have integrated sales, the direct force, with customer service, an indirect force, like Apple.

I understand that there are now other cell phones that equal or exceed Apple’s iPhone.  When those companies can mimic Apple’s integrated retail experience, I may consider them; maybe.

As discussed in other articles in this chapter, think of customer service as part of the revenue generating “top line” organization instead of an unavoidable cost center.  Make them an integrated part of the Direct Force.

Although the comments about Apple are clearly applicable to business-to-consumer companies, business-to-business companies can mimic many of the fundamental characteristics that Apple has so successfully used.  The articles in this collection, “Head or Heart” and “If We Only Knew” list some pragmatic steps that a company can take to improve the relationship between customers and customer service.  The result can easily be that business customers develop and maintain the same feelings as consumers develop when interacting with Apple.  In addition to the recommendations made in the articles referenced above, other simple processes can be implemented to further cement a positive relationship.  Those activities will vary from one company to another.  Here are a few examples:

  • Have customer service reps tag along on sales calls.  Prospects understand that once a sale is made, a sales rep will turn over the order to “someone else”.  Introduce the prospects to that “someone else” upfront.  Rarely do customers or, for that matter, customer service reps have the opportunity to meet each other face-to-face.
  • Rotate field engineering personnel into customer service.  Clearly, field engineers have different skill sets than most customer service reps, however, their different perspective, with their ability to relate to customers because they “have been there and done that,” will be appreciated.  Also, some in-office time may be a welcome relief to their constant travel.  Finally, their “real world” experience can add a degree of realism to the regular customer service reps.
  • Most customer service reps hear the same issues over and over again.  Of course, those same issues are new to the person who is calling.  Give customer service reps the opportunity to create informal videos on these issues.  Keep them very informal, perhaps with the person sitting at their desk with others “working the phones” around them.  Post them on YouTube and in a repository on the website.  After discussing the issue with a customer, send them a link to the video to act as a refresher.  Seeing the customer service person in the video will help to create a deeper bond with the customer.

Each company can develop their own methods to deepen their customer service indirect relationship.  Starting with the notion that customer service function needs to be an opportunity creator not merely a problem solver.  The goals should be to build a stronger relationship instead of merely resolving the immediate issue.

Article Number : 6.010203   

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