Whidbey Telecom is a 110-year old independent telecommunications company based in Langley, WA on Whidbey Island, which lies 30 miles north of Seattle between the Olympic Peninsula and the I-5 corridor of western Washington and forms the northern boundary of the Puget Sound. With 100 employees, the companies provides internet, security, video entertainment and phone services to over 10,000 businesses and residential customers, most who live in rural locations. The company’s success provides insights for niche market segmentation for other industries, brands and leaders looking to build deep and lasting relationships with their customers.
Chris McKnight has served as the chief marketing officer for Whidbey Telecom for several years, coming from a background in sales and marketing leadership for technology, advertising, finance and experience marketing agencies in Seattle, Los Angeles and New York. He knows about innovation and the telecom industry relies upon it. But in the niche segments, innovation must be relevant. “The company’s history and culture is a rich tradition of innovation and entrepreneurship,” McKnight recounts. “In 1908, we pioneered Whidbey Island’s first telephone service. In the 1960’s we were the first to put our lines underground to improve service quality – we get many wind storms – and in 2004, we were the first independent telecommunications company west of the Rocky Mountains to provide Internet service.”
However, innovation for its own sake doesn’t ensure customer satisfaction. Here McKnight relies on research. “Market segmentation and personas are incredibly important to our customer-centric approach,” he said. “We start at a high level with published lifestyle segmentation data that match our households and then it becomes more proprietary as we supplement the data set with information from focus groups, surveys, and user data.”
This affects how he thinks about his role at the company. “My mission as CMO is to know the market better than anyone else in the company and to be the voice of our customers. I'm only able to do that by having frequent and ongoing interactions with our customers in the field and taking on sales opportunities,” he said referencing his background in business development roles. “Account relationships can provide enormous insight and data into what customers need and want in support of the overall marketing strategy.”
Based on their unique knowledge of their customer, their approach to service is a departure from the mainstream. "Since 80% of the residents are over the age of 60 and fall into the late-adopter category, we play an extraordinary role in educating and helping our customers adopt and adapt to today’s rapidly changing technology environment,” he continued.
“We maintain a 24x7 tech support team, and we extend our support to topics that other companies do not like how to use your email, how to download an app on your iPhone, or how to connect your computer to WiFi,” he explained. “We also staff a team of 10 customer service representatives in our Customer Experience center, so customers can come in and talk to us about their services, pay their bills, and get advice on new technology for their homes.” There are niches within niches as well, within the elderly population. Those that are 70+ often have a child or caretaker that works with them on their Whidbey Telecom account. “We are often conferencing in a child that lives somewhere else in the world, with one of our customers, to make sure they are getting what they need.”
The service stories at Whidbey Telecom take on mythic proportion. “Once the installation team pulled over to help a car that looked like it had broken down on the side of the road, only to find out the person was having a heart attack and managed to save their life by driving them directly to the ER,” McKnight said. “Once the CEO, George Henny, was swimming at the gym when he overheard someone say the internet was down. Jumping out of the pool, he called tech support wrapped in a towel to get the issue resolved right away.” In the island community, these stories travel fast and help build the brand. “We are proud to provide free WiFi and high-speed fiber optic internet to the community center in Pt. Roberts, were 22 different community groups use the building and community with the rest of the world,” McKnight said.
To their customers, service is personal. To Whidbey Telecom, it’s good business. “Not everyone wants to be scaled and automated into a non-human customer experience. This is where premium products and services live, and they are a very profitable place to be and a really enjoyable place to build a career.”
McKnight says his customers have enriched his life in many ways. “On the surface, many are laid back retirees, but when you get to know them, you find out they've run major global corporations, fought legendary battles, and invented the things we now take for granted today,” he said. “I don't think we're doing a good enough job as a society of sharing their stories and passing on the knowledge they've spent their whole lives acquiring and I think it could make our lives a lot easier if we did.”
To date, three customers have baked McKnight cookies in his tenure at the company proving sweetly that small is big enough
This article was originally published on Forbes.com.