It seems that my piece on customer service has been made topical by Toyota who last week received all the wrong kind of media attention as they struggled to make the best of, not one, but two, recalls that seem to have miss-fired on them.  But it does give me an opportunity to quickly revisit the subject, which I feel is too-often paid lip-service and nothing more by organisations that should know better.

The squeaky-clean Japanese may have been undermined by nudges and winks to the media by their competitors, but with the markets being as they are, they are bound to have been looking for any opportunity to snipe away at a competitor like Toyota and the Japs should have seen it coming.  I can imagine the Toyota folks in their war room planning their strategy for these recalls, considering the merits and demerits of holding back while their suppliers manufactured accelerator pedal parts, getting them to their dealers and priming their dealers to undertake the upgrade.  The same with the brake software.  You don’t solve these problems over night and they must have been only a matter of a week or so away from fixing both of these issues in their usual efficient and quiet way when someone spilt the beans and wound up a journo or two, but shit happens and they should have been expecting it.

There is no doubting Toyota’s internal marketing skills though and when your back is against the wall like this its internal marketing that can save your arse.  As I have said many times before you can run a business with a strict set of rules, rigid processes, a stick and a carrot – Communists have run entire countries like this for decades, but we all know where they ultimately ended up and why.  When something comes out of left field the team that wins is the one comprising real experts with a clear vision of what they are trying to achieve, total commitment and license to make decisions and apply their skills how they see fit – that’s what internal marketing gives you.

On a smaller, but still global scale I have been involved with another sports equipment manufacturer recently, who it seems has a problem with one of their products that they have chosen to take a softly-softly approach to.  In this case they appear to have got away with it, but maybe only because their competitors aren’t as smart or blood-thirsty as Toyota’s.  They fixed the problem with a small change in the spec of the product in subsequent production runs, which was easier for them to achieve than a car manufacturer.  If customers spotted the problem with the early examples, they replaced them swiftly with interest.  An approach like this is only possible if you have good internal marketing.  It only takes a few retailers or distributors to short-change a customer with a grievance and you are stuffed.

Meanwhile, in the same week I had a run-in with my bank and received a £100 cheque in the post by way of an apology.  If a bank can get it anybody can, so maybe we are finally beginning to understand the relative value of existing customers and the two in the bush and the part that internal marketing and customer service play in the future of a business.

This brings me to my real point.  I’m still amazed at the scarcity of marketing services firms that recognise the opportunity that this represents for them to buck the trend to declining revenues.  On the most basic level any proposal that an agency puts together in response to a client brief should include an appendix of ideas for taking the campaign to the internal market – its a no-brainer, but most of the presentations I see miss that vital element.  It makes me wonder sometimes what the agencies are thinking about when they try to pass themselves off as “marketing experts”.

One of the most successful pitches I managed for an agency was in response to an advertising brief, but opened with a list of twenty key initiatives that the client could introduce to develop their business.  We prioritised six, one of which answered the original advertising brief.  Three were internal marketing.  All of these initiatives leveraged the fundamental communications skills of any advertising agency.  We covered all six in detail and won the lot!  It doubled the size of the agency and led to two more new large-scale clients and a new business unit.

What we did here was fundamental, marketing #101 – identify your resources and find new ways to apply them.  Any agency deserving a place in the broader marketing community will do this kind of thing instinctively.  Sadly few do and the demise of many speaks for itself but with the lessons of Toyota ringing in the ear of every marketer right now, there’s no excuse for any agency that fails to grab this opportunity.

Michael Weaver
February 15, 2010

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