Building a Brand On Customer Service

Zappos are held up on a pedestal for a very good reason. There are very few companies who have built a brand upon amazing customer experience, and fewer still who have become as successful as Zappos.

Whilst they may be great to point to as a shining star, it’s easy to dismiss them as being too hard to reproduce when your product is software. However, some software companies have followed the Zappos ethos, and achieved similar results. WooThemes are one example.

What follows is a guest post by Adii Pienaar, the author of Brandiing, co-founder of WooThemes, and now founder of PublicBeta, a learning platform for entrepreneurs by other (very) successful entrepreneurs.

Customer service gets a bad rap. It seems that everybody in every company hates it, and that every customer loathes that point where they realize they’ve no other choice but to contact support.

There are so many ironys in that mindset. Every entrepreneur would agree that customers are the lifeblood of our businesses, and that interacting with those customers (in some way) is something that you can’t avoid. (I’ve yet to see the kind of cloud-based, automated business model that requires zero interaction with customers. Imagine robots providing customer support to humans!)

Why don’t we flip this perspective and turn customer service into a profit center? Let me describe how.

In The Trenches

When I was CEO of WooThemes, I loved joining our support team in the trenches. Some days I could easily lose myself in the helpdesk for hours before I got any “real” work done.

Even though I had other, more important, CEO-type tasks, helping customers one of the most rewarding things that I could do. I regularly got e-mails that read something like “Wow! A response from the CEO himself. Thanks so much for helping out!” That obviously made me smile, but it also had a major influence on WooThemes, as a brand and as a company. Your brand is what your customers say about you. It’s not your logo, your website, your copywriting or even your messaging. Sure, those things matter, but if you fail at aligning your brand’s intention with your actions, even the best logo in the world won’t save you.

Service and support are the most important interactions you’ll have with your customers. How you approach these interactions is representative of how you do things, which influences what customers say about you, and in turn, what your brand is. Having a CEO help a customer sets the tone for the company. It communicated to customers that WooThemes was a brand that genuinely cared about its customers enough that C-level execs get their hands dirty. Not just dipping in to say “Hi”, but actually working to troubleshoot, identify, and apologize for any shortcomings in the product.

Why Does This Matter?

Tom Tunguz writes that branding is the next essential competency for startups. That makes total sense, because most technology is ultimately generic, making it really difficult to compete on features.

Customer service is your primary communication channel with customers. Use it to craft the best perception of your company and your brand. Doing this builds sustainable, profitable relationships with your customers. At WooThemes this was paramount. We had no competitive advantage or defensible moat, as all our code was open source. So we invested heavily in our branding and specifically how our interactions with customers shaped our brand.

Our competitors could copy our code, copy our products, and copy our website. But they couldn’t actually be WooThemes. That opportunity was only available to us, and our customers accepted no substitute.

A loyal customer base, where individuals have attached and associated themselves to your brand, becomes a massive asset. The easiest way to measure the return on that investment is through word-of-mouth, where your customers wax lyrical about their experiences with your brand and your company.

And that’s how customer service, through the medium of brand building, becomes a profit centre instead of an area where you try to minimise expenditure.

Brand Building By Great Customer Service

With my new startup, PublicBeta, I wanted to use everything I’ve learned so far. Here is my blueprint for doing so:

1. Figure out who you are and what’s important to you.

The first thing I did, inspired by HubSpot was write a culture code. This would be the foundation for everything I planned to do with PublicBeta. I wanted a barometer to measure myself and my team against once we got stuck into the inner-workings of a startup. Our culture code defines how we will go about the things we do and ultimately the type of brand that we create.

2. Setting the tone on Day One

PublicBeta is currently just a landing page, but I still wanted a way in which I can start crafting the perception of the brand with those who register for updates. I hooked Intercom into the landing page to capture leads and to build a mailing list. Over the past 2 months, I’ve used this channel to build a mailing list of 1600+ users, which in turn sparked 200+ one-on-one conversations with customers. In addition to the regular mails I send out (that form part of my messaging schedule), these one-on-one conversations has been a fantastic opportunity to expose PublicBeta – as a brand.

3. Angry Customers Represent Opportunities

Don’t ever sigh or curse when you receive an angry e-mail from a customer. See it as a challenge to win a new fan. The customer here wants a response. They’re giving you an opportunity to make things right and give them a better perception of my brand.

4. Make customer service a priority

I love how Zappos coined the phrase “delivering happiness”. It emphasizes how fanatical they are about their customer experience. You can buy their products anywhere, often cheaper. Customer experience is their competitive advantage, their most loyal (a.k.a. profitable) customers return because they’re addicted to the Zappos-delivered happiness.

Using customer service as a branding exercise shapes how your customers perceive you and your service. Your customer’s emails are not interruptions, but opportunities to learn about pain points, and to find new ways to delight. No customer wants robotic responses; they want open and honest answers to questions. By providing a personal service, your customers walk away knowing you care, guaranteeing that they’ll return and recommend your product to others.

More from Adii

Adii’s new book, Brandiing, is out today. If you buy within 24 hours you’ll get a 20% discount. You can follow Adii on Twitter, or read more of his writing over at Making New Mistakes.