The Sweetwater Model: How to Actually Win On Expertise and Friendliness

An Interesting marketing insight backed by a real investment in customer service

No one, incredibly, seems to have written the Harvard Business Review (HBR) case study on Sweetwater and their business model. I’ll just have to do a poor man’s version here, because I think something’s going on at Sweetwater, one of the internet’s largest online music retailers. Something that seems to be working very well.

The Challenge

Every online retailer tries to focus on customer service. They have to. In an online shopping world, especially one dominated by Amazon, you need to differentiate your service from the myriad others that carry the same products. You may try to differentiate on price, but retailers like Amazon and walmart.com have such massive economies of scale that you will be racing to the bottom with an expert free diver.

So you differentiate on “heart” or on personality or especially-good customer service. And these are already tough enough to win in the click economy, where shoppers are simply putting the objects of their desire into the giant search bar and combing results for the best prices, the fastest most frictionless transactions (a giant search bar where Google can privilege its own offerings and those of its affiliates!). But they get even tougher when they’re the only differentiations left to the thousands of retailers who aren’t giant, who aren’t striking deals with the postal service or launching space programs: Everyone is doing customer service! Everyone is doing long, risk-free trials and free fast returns! There are tons of now-familiar service-first plays in online. So how do you differentiate in customer service if everyone is doing it?

The Insight

This is where Sweetwater is winning. For one thing, you need to actually have excellent customer service, and Sweetwater does. In my limited actual direct experience, the Sweetwater sales technicians really know what they’re doing, are musicians, have real advice. And their sales process also makes it easy and natural to chat with or in some other way get advice from these technicians. This is already quite a lot.

Still, in the new normal of giant e-tailers and buy-now buttons, you simply can’t show enough prospective customers that you mean it unless you market this successfully And this is where Sweetwater seems to have thought of something unique that gets their service noticed:

Product reviews that come from the Sweetwater almost invariably praise not only the product but also the Sweetwater technician, usually by name, who made the process so easy and the product so perfect. Product reviews! The following is completely typical:

review of a pedal

This is genius. Someone, maybe the founder Chuck Serack, must have decided that the virtuous circle in all this is:

  • Customers like me are searching as often as not for product reviews before we actually go to buy.
  • Search engines are syndicating more product content into the search results, including reviews, where other characteristics of the buying experience are fungible–similar price, similar one-clicks, simple galleries, similar shipping.
  • Customers come to identify Sweetwater as a site where technicians are particularly helpful, actual, praised. This is the differentiation.

I’m not sure how they actually encouraged this behavior among product reviewers. Maybe it was primed; maybe it’s self-reinforcing; maybe they paid or discounted. But the content and tone of reviews at Sweetwater–about the products–are markedly different, like the sales technician is your new best friend of a guy you’ll jam with next week. Take a look.

The Walk

You couldn’t fake the friendliness and expertise for long and have this work, of course; reviewers are ruthless. But as part of a larger, authentic dedication to customer service (“The Sweetwater Difference“) this is a great move into a novel pre-sales area, online customers reviews, that has given them a marketing edge over other music retailers online.

Summon: A Short Essay on Making Music

Making music is, in one sense at least, really hard. I mean that it’s elusive. You can play an instrument by yourself for thousands of hours, as I have, often in a not very productive way, and you can play with others for hundreds of hours, and get hardly any music out of it. Even if you know the chords and you know the lyrics and you know the song form and the audience is clapping and you have the technique, usually something hasn’t quite happened. What isn’t happening all that time? What is music that is so elusive? 

There’s a trend now in discussions of “practice”, both in the strictly musical sense, like how to make your half-hour piano practice more efficient, what techniques to practice. But also in the more general and maybe more Eastern sense of “your practice”, the set of activities you do routinely and with intention to improve your skills and your self. In both these senses I myself am deficient, and am most often noodling mindlessly on my guitar or not being intentional enough about my actions in any sphere, let alone the musical one. 

On those rare moments when music happens, however, you really feel it. You can be playing something solo or, even better, suddenly find that you and the rest of the band are making something, holy shit!, making music! It’s there!

The way I think of it is like a seance. Playing summons music, though not often. The deepest feeling I have about music is that it’s its own thing, a rare presence in the room, a creation that sits apart from its participants. And isn’t this what art is, after all, what creation is: You made it and now it’s there.

As at a seance (I imagine), you can be “doing” the seance and not quite feeling it. Maybe the table shakes a little bit, maybe someone thinks the air has gotten colder in the corner. But then: the seance works and there is a real manifestation. And everybody knows it. A being has been summoned into this room with us. This is music. We are a string quartet—two violins, a viola, and a cello—but there are five…entities in this room.

Time is one for the main mediums (ha) of this summoning, too: The music has its tempo, and when it’s there you don’t feel like you’re having to keep time for the music. You just feel the music’s time, just as you feel the harmonies. They are there. Present. When the bridge of the jazz standard comes you all drop into it, relaxed in spacious time divisions and fooling with them because the music is with you, non-contingent, not fragile, it’s keeping things going, at the tempo, in that key.

And to summon music, you must of course listen. Even as you are playing. To listen and perform at the same time, even just by yourself, is rare! As rare as music is.