Supplier, customer and community service

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Readers here know that I spend quite a bit of time as a volunteer on Google’s help forums for the multi-billion dollar company’s ad serving program, AdSense.  This activity may seem strange, since (a) I earn about $100 a month from this source of revenue and (b) I am effectively providing “supplier service” to a group of publishers who have run afoul of Google’s rules and had their accounts disabled.

Google’s disabling practices for accounts which either violate policy or click traffic/fraud rules are brutally impersonal.  Publishers receive a brief email referring them to a FAQ page and then to the help forum when I volunteer, and from then (outside of a formalized appeal option) can expect a permanent wall of silence and lifetime account disabling.  So the now-lost publishers arrive at the forum to cry and seek someone, anyone to listen.

I am one of the listening ears, since somehow I managed to survive two of these dreaded “lifetime ban” emails and ended up with a valid account, enhanced access to Google staff, and even a free trip to Mountain View last year.

What is going on?  Well, the details of my individual story are irrelevant here, but the lesson I learned is that a lot of people don’t understand the difference between customer, supplier and community service, and this failing results in some really bad practice.  If you are reading this blog, you probably truly understand these distinctions, however.

Customers pay, suppliers are paid, and the community, well, it is the larger world.  The various forms of service can merge and interconnect (and sometimes create dichotomies).  The more categories you can serve with a single action or capacity, the better off you are — and if you can pull them all together in one space, you will hit a marketing home run.

For example, with the Google help forum volunteerism, I am engaged in a bit of customer and community service at the same time. Providing this level of “customer service” to Google in itself would be folly — after all, how many hours am I spending on this voluntary work for meagre return?  On the other hand, the community service aspect is more meaningful.  By providing my voluntary services to hundreds of people who would otherwise never have a listening ear, I’m doing something that really can be helpful.  Does it pay off?  Well, I’m now an authority on the program, and indirectly, have built connections and relationships in the whole world of Internet marketing, search engine optimisation, and social media.

Another example of where the various levels of service coincide is Robert Merkley‘s and Claude Des Rosier‘s initiatives. Merkley’s MSL Supply business primarily sells masonry related products in the Ottawa area.  His clients are masonry contractors and allied businesses, but he also connects (through his show and voluntary activities) with architects, engineers, general contractors and community leaders.  He actively supports the Ottawa Hospital’s Ride The Rideau, with a bit of friendly but equally community-spirited rivalry from Des Rosier’s Boone Plumbing and Heating Supply.  The community involvement takes countless hours.  Suppliers are well-served as well.  They might pay to exhibit in their annual shows, but receive direct contact with the end-channel purchasers of their products, services and technologies.

“Community service” is probably the most interesting and challenging activity any business can observe.  It is more than philanthropy and less than a quid-quo-pro expectation of marketing return on investment.  It is part of, for want of a better phrase, serving a higher objective but one rooted in the real day-to-day business life.  I’m reading a book which advocates this level of service but am still trying to get my head around it.  In the meantime, you might want to look up Strategic Business Transformation:  The 7 Deadly Sins to Overcome by Mohan Nair (Wiley, available through Amazon.com and other retailers.)

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