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How direct-to-consumer brands turn customer service into word-of-mouth marketing

CX Best Practices

Word-of-mouth buzz as a marketing tactic can be a game of chance unless brands strive to consistently give customers something to talk about — and genuinely stellar customer support is always a favorite topic of conversation.

One of the main reasons companies such as Warby Parker, BarkBox and Bombas are so successful is because they are masters in this regard, providing support across channels, answering queries quickly, experimenting often and finding meaningful ways to encourage conversation. Known as direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands, these companies remove traditional intermediaries, like retailers, enabling them to simultaneously reduce costs while taking more control of the end-to-end customer experience.

Diffusion's 2018 Direct-to-Consumer Purchase Intent Index says 81% of Americans intend to make a purchase from a DTC company within the next five years. With many DTC brands selling both a product and an experience, they are well-positioned to deliver an exceptional overall customer service experience — and that's a winning proposition for many customers.

Here are the primary fundamentals guiding DTC companies' customer service strategies.

Look beyond traditional channels to find your customers

DTC companies are often successful because they see an opportunity to treat consumers better, says Jeannie Walters, a global customer experience consultant, trainer and speaker. "It's a part of the culture, and it's what drives things like speed to response, being authentic [and] closing the loop with customers."

For example, DTC makeup retailer Glossier communicates with customers on their channel of choice to develop a stronger rapport. The company offers support by traditional email and phone, but also uses Instagram direct messages and FaceTime.

Letting customers set the expectations on where and how service is delivered has helped make Glossier such a success, says Rick Petry, CMO of client services at direct response agency DirectAvenue. “It's an acknowledgment that today's sophisticated [brands] have to meet the consumer at the time and place of their choosing, at every level of the sales funnel and beyond," says Petry.

Resolving queries where they originated lets customers direct the exchange, while also eliminating unnecessary steps from the interaction. According to Petry, effortless interactions like these stand out distinctly from conventional customer service, and these types of augmented experiences lead to better word-of-mouth.

Speed matters

Thanks to their direct relationship with customers, many DTC companies have more proprietary data about purchasing behaviors than traditional brands.

This level of insight allows organizations to better align with customer expectations while also delivering faster service. The advantage matters immensely, considering 66% of consumers state that a company's respect for their time is the most valuable part of an online customer experience, according to the Forrester report, How Operations Become Faster, Cheaper — And Yet, More Human.

Bonobos, a DTC apparel brand, has a 90%+ rate of answering all customer service calls within 30 minutes and responds to email in less than 24 hours on average, according to CB Insights. By resolving customer queries quickly, brands can showcase their devotion to the customer. "Creating that relationship [encourages] people to be brand ambassadors," says David Schwarzberg, COO at the dtx company, an organization investing in and advising DTC brands.

Automation — especially automation that is friendly and conversational in tone — also plays a key role in speeding up support for DTC companies. Training customer service agents to collaborate with automated tools is especially important, because DTC companies' teams are often small. Schwarzberg says one way to save time is by using automation to prepare base responses, then personalizing as needed.

Schwarzberg also advocates for training customer service agents to be product experts. This enables the kinds of personal touches that form the bedrock of modern brand interactions.

“By creating these moments that feel very personal and special to the individual customer, people want to share that and tell the story," adds Walters.

Experiment continually to meet changing expectations

A major challenge to providing exceptional customer service and a one-of-a-kind experience is keeping up with the evolving expectations of consumers. “It's about making sure that you're willing to stay one step ahead, “ says Walters. “Like it or not, competitors of yours are setting expectations for your customers."

DTC companies consistently question how things are being done and experiment with ways to improve quality of service. For example, the DTC apparel brand Everlane was an early adopter of Facebook Messenger, and previously used a private Instagram account to test new products. It also frequently re-calibrates its customer service offering based on demand.

Not all experiments will have a tangible impact, but having the courage to innovate will keep people talking about your brand. And by collecting that feedback and input from consumers, you'll be better positioned for future experiments, adds Walters.

Identify a talk trigger to encourage sharing

Coined in the book, Talk Triggers: The Complete Guide to Creating Customers with Word of Mouth, the term refers to a “bold operational differentiator that creates customer conversations."

Integrating a talk trigger as part of the customer service experience is one technique DTC brands have widely embraced, in particular because they have such intimate understandings of their customers' niche needs.

Talk triggers aren't always spoken. For instance, Commodity, an online fragrance brand that started as a DTC and has since incorporated wholesale, sends free samples to customers as a way of maintaining their loyalty. To the company, it's a low-cost way to promote customer loyalty; to the customer, it's a generous gesture that inspires online and offline word of mouth. “Recognizing your consumers as your best advocates extends far beyond word-of-mouth as it can become your actual marketing strategy," says, Nicole Reyhle, a retail veteran, author of Retail 101 and founder of industry publication Retail Minded.

Regardless of whether you are a DTC or not, all brands can take a page from their best practices playbook to improve their customer service. Whether that means letting customers direct where and when interactions occur, picking up the pace on response and resolution times or experimenting with innovative and evolving customer service techniques, you may find a new ethos for your own customer support offering.

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